Someone needs to teach Reese Witherspoon to share. She’s getting the bulk of the accolades for “Walk The Line,” and she’s great — but what about Joaquin Phoenix?
In his review of “Walk The Line,” which stars Phoenix and Witherspoon as soulmates Johnny Cash and June Carter, the Kansas City Star’s Robert W. Butler remarks about the performances of the two leads, “He's very good. As June, Witherspoon is great, providing the film precisely what it requires.”
Butler's comment is fairly typical of the critical response to “Walk The Line” — praise for Phoenix's Johnny, but much higher praise for Witherspoon’s June. And as the endless awards season begins, this pattern is set to repeat itself, with Witherspoon receiving nearly a dozen critics awards and nominations for best actress, while Phoenix has received only two for best actor.
Witherspoon is wonderful as June, certainly, but all the praise for her may have overshadowed an equally impressive turn by Phoenix, who is underrated as an actor — not just as The Man In Black, but in his career to date.
It's not difficult to see how Phoenix’s work in “Walk The Line” might have gotten lost in the shuffle; for starters, he probably suffered more for comparisons to his real-life counterpart, who’s much more familiar to most Americans than June Carter Cash. The Star's Butler admits as much: “Witherspoon may have had the easier job because June wasn’t nearly the iconic figure Johnny was.” Many more moviegoers know Johnny Cash and remember his face and voice than recognize June, which leaves Witherspoon freer to act — and Phoenix hemmed in somewhat by portraying a legend.
Following in Foxx’s footstepsTo his credit, Phoenix rises (please forgive the pun) to the challenge not by imitating Johnny The Myth, but by showing us Johnny The Man, and nobody's going to mistake Phoenix for Cash on the street — the two don't look much alike — but it’s a thoughtful, credible depiction nonetheless. Unfortunately, Phoenix’s interpretation of Johnny Cash comes only a year after another film interpretation of an American music icon: Jamie Foxx's Oscar-winning rendering of Ray Charles. The fact that Foxx's performance relied more heavily on his ability to impersonate the real Charles doesn't take anything away from Foxx as an actor; it's still extraordinary work. But it’s showier, more obviously remarkable than Phoenix's, which is more interior and subtle.
Of course, “subtle” might not sound like it fits the same actor who camped it up as the poutingly sinister Commodus in “Gladiator,” but that performance, overwrought lip-acting frills and all, is a fine example of what makes Phoenix an interesting actor to watch. He’s chosen a number of projects with weak writing (“The Yards” and “Ladder 49” come to mind), but even when he’s working with a laughable script, he’s visibly making choices, not coasting on autopilot.
“Ladder 49” plays like the love child of “Backdraft” and the Cliché-o-Tron 4000, and Phoenix’s castmate John Travolta sinks to the level of the material with hammy, lazy over-acting. Phoenix, in the same scenes, comes up with fresh reactions and line readings that sharpen the moist dialogue. He gets the most out of little moments — shuffling his feet at the meeting of the elders in “The Village,” looking ashamed of his tinfoil beanie in “Signs.”
Phoenix's Commodus is creepy and baroque; he's supposed to be. Phoenix's Johnny Cash is still a legend in progress; he's supposed to be. Phoenix stays under the radar with solid performances in B movies, or opposite known scenery chewers like Travolta and Russell Crowe, but that doesn't mean he's not getting the work done. It just means that, often, nobody notices.
To get the notice he deserves, Phoenix needs to stay away from trite stuff like “Ladder 49,” but mostly, he needs to keep doing what he's doing and wait for the awards shows to catch up.
Sarah D. Bunting is one of the creators of .