This page as PDF

Joaquin Phoenix

A Rebellious Streak

Joaquin Phoenix is an actor in the Brando and De Niro tradition if we mean by this no more than the complicated relationship he seems to have with subjects and objects. Many actors don’t possess this tension: their purpose is to move through cinematic space, the objects they confront and the subjects with which they engage contained by a sense of gracefulness that allows them to accommodate the world they are in. From Cary Grant to Gene Kelly, from George Clooney to Fred Astaire, we don’t expect that the problem with themselves is greater than the world they happen to be engaging with. Of course the word that would come to mind in relation to actors like Phoenix is ‘troubled’: the aspect brought into cinema in the late forties and early fifties by Brando, Clift, Dean and others.It wasn’t that actors weren’t troubled before this period, but performers like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson manifested their problems with the world chiefly in the world, playing gangsters who were unhappy with their place in society and looking to transform it by any means necessary. They would not say, as Brando does in The Wild One when asked what is he rebelling against, “what have you got?”. They were criminals who knew exactly what they were fighting for rather than rebelling against. They didn’t want to transform either themselves or society, but transform their place in society. They were in this sense fundamentally conservative as novelist Hermann Broch would couch it. In The Realist, Broch distinguishes between the criminal and the rebel. “The rebel must not be confused with the criminal, though society may often stigmatize the rebel as a criminal, and though the criminal may sometimes pose as a rebel to dignify his actions. The rebel stands alone: the most faithful son of that society which is the target of his hostility and rejection…” Broch notes that the rebel “…sees in the world that he combats a totality of living relationships whose threads have merely been tangled in confusion by some diabolical wickedness, and it is his chosen task to disentangle them and order them according to his own better ideas.” We can see that the difference between Robinson and Cagney, and later actors like Brando, Clift and Dean, is the difference between a criminal desire to make something of oneself in a society which offers you little in the way of material prospects, and the rebellious wish to understand one’s place in the world and to reconfigures it according to one’s own needs that go far beyond, and often don’t even include, the material.

It seems to us that this latter project is central to Phoenix’s work. It is as though there is a surplus to the world that he wants to access, rather than a material existence he wants a share of. This need is evident in films that are little more than biopics (like Walk the Line, playing Johnny Cash) but especially so in films that put the problem of intangible desire at the core of them: in Two LoversThe MasterInherent Vice and Her. In all five films we see in Phoenix‘s desire to get the girl turned into a problem that goes beyond the phenomenal wish and into the noumenal desire. The former can be met, and this is why we might say that Broch’s criminal is a creature of the phenomenal, someone who knows what he wants and knows, more or less, how to get it. This doesn’t mean there won’t be other desires evident (and getting the girl is often one of them), but these are no more than the emotional sub-plots of the character’s narrative.In an actor like Phoenix’s work it becomes the paramount desire because it contains an aspect of the impossible.

In Walk the Line, the film opens on a key concert that Cash gives to prisoners in the late sixties, and we see him paralyzed as if by stage fright but that we soon realize is something else: memory fright. In the prison he sees a circular blade similar to one that we will watch in flashback taking the life of his brother. He has always felt responsible for this death after leaving his brother alone in the family sawmill while he played elsewhere. But late in the film over a thanksgiving dinner with his father and others, the now well established Johnny asks his dad where he happened to be that day. For years Johnny’s absorbed the guilt and allowed to it to turn him into the drug addict his father mocks him for being during the meal. But at the time the father was an alcoholic: he wasn’t there for his son either, because he was out drinking. He might have given up the sauce years earlier, but one reason why Cash is the junkie now and the father the long recovered alcoholic is because the father’s managed to push the blame from himself onto Johnny.

What interests us here is not the confrontation (which has similarities with another Thanksgiving collision in the earlier Brokeback Mountain), but the contortions evident on Phoenix’s face as he manages to convey the numerous gradations of feeling in a moment where his entire past seems to be passing in front of his eyes. If it does so at the beginning of the film as it moves into flashback and this flashback becomes much of the movie, in this scene it is done in no more than a few seconds as Phoenix’s Cash goes to the bottom of himself to justify one line: where were you? After talking over dinner with his father, with others in attendance, and after his father has offered numerous digs about Cash’s incompetence despite his evident wealth and fame, Johnny asks him where he happened to be that day. After the line the film cuts back to the father who says Cash has nothing: a talent he hasn’t made the most of, a drug habit he can’t control, a big empty house and a tractor he can’t work. The film cuts back to Phoenix and we watch as his mouth curls up at one side as if in a cruel smile, then straightens up again as his head starts to loll from left to right as though he is removing a crick or about to faint. He gets up and leaves the table, and the film cuts to a long shot of Cash trying to get his tractor up the hill.

Director James Mangold skilfully combines close up modulation with long-shot fury as we see in the distance Cash manically trying to drive that tractor up a bray. Yet Mangold needs an actor who can work in close without melodrama for the latter to have an effect. If we had seen Phoenix getting up and crashing around before the long shot the latter scene would have been tautological: all the rage would have already been expressed. True, earlier in the film we see a drunken, wrecked Cash ripping apart his changing room right down to removing the sink from the wall, and we might wonder whether an actor as good as Phoenix needs to do so even if it may have been part of Cash’s biography. Any actor with a little strength or a bit of help from the production department making the fittings feeble could take apart a room, but what makes Phoenix interesting is the subtle nature of his rebelliousness. When he offers the line to his father there is an anger and serpentine tension that no number of sink removals could satisfy. If the earlier scene allows us a thespian variation of throwing everything into the role including the kitchen sink, the latter one indicates an actor more given to plumbing the depths. Emotions are perhaps often like food: they have their own masticatory and digestive demands and, in most good films that allow for quick feelings of anger, we accept that much of the fury resides in an already bad gut. Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet and Joe Pesci inGood Fellas are perhaps the two masterful examples: comments made by others can stick in their craw because something has long since curdled in their stomach.

There is nothing wrong with the scene in the changing room, but there isn’t much in it indicating an actor of Phoenix’s emotional nuance. This is the rebel offering a variation of Brando’s “what have you got”: he is in a horrible mood and finds what is to hand. But this pressurises the scene rather the decompresses it. When Robert De Niro discusses powerful emotions in film he talks about the actor having to pull back from the emotion rather than emphasising it. “You can give them an object ? not a cigarette, because that’s the oldest crutch in the world ? but something to take their minds off the fact that they want to overdo it.” (Playing to the Camera) If you allow the actor to take out the sink it’s very hard for the performer to then keep any of the feeling residual. If the actor fiddles with a paper cup much of the tension can remain in the body. Brando would quote Method coach Stella Adler quoting her father, a great Yiddish actor on a similar point: “if you come to the theater and you feel 100 per cent inspiration, show 70. If you come to the theatre another night and you feel maybe 50 per cent show thirty. If you come to the theater feeling 30 per cent, turn around and go home. Always show less than you have.” (Conversations with Marlon Brando)

We can argue that De Niro’s and Brando’s comments have only a certain validity: that from a very different actor we want them to go in with a hundred per cent and give a hundred and thirty; that perhaps there are certain expressionist actors we want to see go over the top, as if going over the top is going over a hundred per cent. But we have established that Phoenix is an actor indebted to Brando and De Niro, someone who is interested in an absorption always greater than the explosion. As Gilles Deleuze says in Cinema 1: The Movement Image, talking of Elia Kazan, who of course directed Brando on several occasions and De Niro in The Last Tycoon: “Kazan advised that people in conflict should be made to eat together: the common absorption would make the eruption of duels even stronger.” This would partly lie in food being a wonderful decompression device, and a cigarette being not only an obvious prop, but a predictable attempt at releasing tension. How many people go and have a fag when they need to wind down, let off steam, loosen up? The cigarette would seem to be one of the easiest things to take into one’s body in an agitated state; food rather harder. The meal scene in Walk the Line is in a long tradition of food interlinked with anger and frustration to release feelings but contain rage. The strength of the scene lies in Cash then going off and taking his temper out on the tractor.

Yet before going further let’s contradict ourselves a little. Earlier we proposed that Phoenix is more rebel than criminal, more Brando than James Cagney, yet in his work for James Gray, in films like The YardsWe Are the Night and The Immigrant, we see more of the criminal and a bit less of the rebel, perhaps even a James Cagney side. Cagney’s face would frequently offer a sneer; Phoenix’s hairlip means that it is part of his very physiognomy. In all three films Phoenix plays characters who don’t look like they ought to be trusted, whether by his friend (Mark Wahlberg) who comes out of prison in The Yards and who needs a job, the gangsters whom he is affiliated with in the club in We Own the Night on the one side, his cop brother and father on the other, the immigrant beauty (Marion Cotillard) in the film of that name who wants to make it in the States. In all three he plays people furthering their own aims to the detriment of others, but Phoenix keeps in balance the need to succeed with the desire for suggesting troubled thoughts and feelings. In all his films for Gray he plays people who are caught between worlds, and there is a moment of beseeching as he tries to justify his position. In The Immigrant he pleads with Ewa to love him despite the fact he has sold her into servitude; in The Yards, near the end of the film, he tries to explain himself to his fiancee Erica as she realises he is responsible for Wahlberg (who is Erica’s cousin, and perhaps the man she really loves) being on the run from the police. Phoenix possesses the apparent ruthlessness of a Cagney, but much more the sensitivity of a Brando, of a man keen to find a place for his emotions in the world. In his four films for Gray this is most pronounced in Two Lovers. Here he plays a young man recovering from a suicide attempt who falls for a neighbour with a drug problem while starting a burgeoning relationship with a woman who seems far more able to meet his needs. But as in other Gray films, Phoenix ties himself into emotional knots to get the girl.

Yet because the emphasis in Phoenix’s work is on the difficulty of the self over the wish for glory, an idea like getting the girl doesn’t become a clear trajectory but a troubled one. The films aren’t about overcoming obstacles so that he can get the girl, but registering through Phoenix the difficulties of getting her from a position of a compromised self. In The Yards it is clear that in the past feelings have been shared between cousins Wahlberg (Leo) and Charlize Theron’s character, Erica. But now she is with Willie (Phoenix), who is giving her the good life and willing to commit. He asks her to marry him and seems to be making good money even if we discover his work is illegal: he smashes up a rival railway company’s rolling stock as he helps the company run by Erica’s stepfather destroy the competition. Willie isn’t a bad guy; he’s just a young man trying to make his way in the world: to escape from the handouts his mum survived off, and to marry the girl of his dreams. But Phoenix is good at showing conflict within. In one scene Leo is expected to finish a job he started: he beat a cop while trying to escape after blindly getting involved in Willie’s activities. Now the cop is in hospital, and if he survives, Leo, Willie and others will be exposed. Leo must kill him. It is a scene inside the car and Willie tells him what he has to do and that Erica’s stepdad has no pull with the police. Here in the chiaroscuro lighting Gray emphasises the ambivalent feelings Willie possesses, and Phoenix matches them with graded expression. As he speaks to Leo in the car his head turns a little to the left, a little to the right, as though he can’t quite face Leo and can’t quite face himself. Where Leo then offers an unequivocal gesture that indicates he is going to have to kill the cop (even if later he changes his mind), Willie is the one carrying ambivalence in the sequence.

There is a Cagney dimension to the performance as Willie wants to make it in society and keep himself out of trouble, but there is also a Brandoesque sense of ambivalence, of a feeling moving in two different directions. We know he loves Erica and wants the good life with her, but also cares for his friend. A lesser actor, and a lesser director, would play up the idea that since Erica might still have feelings for her cousin, then this is a great opportunity to stitch Leo up and get him out of Erica and Willie’s life one way or another. If Leo kills the cop he is wanted for murder; if he lets the cop live he’ll still be behind bars. After all, the man Willie attacked is dead, and nobody suspects him, but if the cop wakes up he’ll likely remember the beating Leo administered. Leo might have clobbered him out of confusion and fear, but while the audience may be on his side, the law certainly won’t be. Willie however doesn’t treat his friend as though he has been given the chance to get him out of his life, but caught in a properly vacillating situation. Phoenix’s performance is equal to that ambivalence.

In his best work (his early supporting appearance in To Die For, main roles in the four Gray films; Walk the LineHerThe Master and Inherent Vice) we see a figure knotted by feeling. Numerous actors don’t possess this quality, and few of Phoenix’s generation. Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and George Clooney certainly don’t, and nor do Ryan Gosling, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jake Gyllenhaal, and we will digress briefly to try and understand Phoenix’s generational singularity. Johnny Depp is a fine actor of a blase attitude, someone who gives the impression of dropping out and tuning in, whether in ChocolatArizona DreamDead Man or Edward Scissorhands. Sometimes this attitude is based on innocence and naivety (Arizona DreamDead Man) sometimes on a certain hippy cool (Chocolat). Even in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory he looks like he has dropped out of society and tuned into his own frequency. This is a chocolate factory halfway towards Warhol’s Factory. Brad Pitt often practises a cool detachment, in Fight ClubThe Assassination of Robert Ford… and Inglourious Basterds. George Clooney’s entire career is based on the smoothness of feeling even when his characters are sometimes brought up short by the strength of their emotions, as in The American and Up in the Air. Yet this shift functions a little like a plot twist: how can a Clooney character possibly be caught by his feelings?

DiCaprio, Gosling and Gyllenhaal are subtler, more conflicted actors, but they still don’t come near Phoenix’s emotional range partly because they don’t have the range of feelings available on their face. Di Caprio does a lot of work with his hands and has the habit of leaning forward and screwing up his visage to indicate focus and intensity in anything from The Aviator to The Departed. Ryan Gosling works mainly with the eyes, and the bottom half of his face usually remains immobile as we are left in films like Half-NelsonDrive and The Place Beyond the Pines guessing what he might be feeling. Jake Gyllenhaal uses his large, often innocent looking eyes and pursed lips to get what he wants, as in Nightcrawler, or to fret over what he has got himself into, in Enemy.

We offer a few cursory remarks about actors of very loosely Phoenix’s generation not to say anything startling about DiCaprio and co, but to try and find what it is that makes Phoenix so much more ambitious and emotionally wide-ranging an actor. This has little to do with a broad repertoire: nothing to do with Phoenix being an actor who buries himself within his role and becoming unrecogniable as a consequence. Usually Phoenix remainsss as he is; the most extreme deviation ironically the one where he was playing himself in the documentary that should really be called a fiction work but that calls into question both modes: I’m Still Here. Phoenix decides to drop out of film acting to become a hip-hop artist, despite having no singing talent and a shambolic demeanour. The film plays like a documentary and was part of an extended act that included an appearance on David Letterman. Answering questions on the show in a shuffling monosyllabic manner, lost inside long-hair, a lengthy beard and sunglasses, he looked like he was in the middle of a nervous breakdown. A year later he showed up again on Letterman and explained what he was doing. The documentary’s director (actor Casey Affleck) and Phoenix wondered why so many people were buying into reality shows even if the people were acting and the programme unbelievable. It rested on the simple notion that if someone goes by their actual name then that gives the show an a priori plausibility missing from a fiction work. Generally the actor plays a part that gets called a character; in documentary the person is assumed to play themselves

One of the suspect achievements of reality TV is that it can expect us to forgo our suspension of disbelief all the better to play with our narrative preconceptions. If someone in a fiction film is a baddie that is one thing; the actor is playing a type, and that type goes under the name of a character. But if a programme uses real names then no matter how biased the programme happens to be, how happy it is to play up stereotypes and ignore the complexity of people’s lives, reality is still the term used to describe it. It was this type of false reality that Phoenix says he wanted to show up: to play a fiction character who happens to go by the name of Joaquin Phoenix to illustrate how easy it is for people to believe in fiction when given an aspect of fact. If actors like Daniel Day Lewis, Robert De Niro and Christian Bale have transformed themselves to get into a character that happens to be someone else, Phoenix does something equally interesting. He transforms himself all the better to play himself: to suggest a Phoenix on the verge of a nervous breakdown he offers a performance further away from his usual self than in any other role.

Perhaps Phoenix understands better than any contemporary actor that acting has less to do with changing oneself than discovering aspects of oneself. There has of course been a dimension of this Method acting in the cinema since the fifties, but it can go in the direction of the reconfiguration of self so that one becomes another (Day-Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot or De Niro as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull), or closer to a hypothetical self (as we see in Brando’s performance in Last Tango in Paris). When Pauline Kael said of Brando’s acting that “it’s perfectly apparent that the role was conceived for Brando, using elements of his past as integral parts of the character” (New Yorker), she knew this didn’t mean Brando played himself, but he did play someone who was basically without characterisation. This might sound paradoxical (how can one avoid playing oneself but not be playing a character?), but perhaps it is close to a thespian version of abstract expressionism: that just because the painter isn’t painting any thing, this doesn’t mean he hasn’t painted anything. Just as the painter gets rid of the intermediate subject (a person, a landscape, a house) so that the relationship is directly between the painter and the paint, so the actor can go directly from the performer to the performance.

Of course we don’t want to exaggerate this quality in Phoenix; it would be fairer to say that he is more Bacon than Pollock; closer to someone testing the limits of the figure rather than dissolving it. A filmmaker might be able to move towards the abstract (as Antonioni often did), but the actor is the figure. Yet as we’ve noted, the actor can move smoothly through narrative space, or they can be caught in tensions greater than usual storytelling demands. If Phoenix is never an actor we would immediately think of for a romantic comedy, it resides partly in this tension. In playing himself (or a perceived version of himself) in I’m Still Here it allowed Phoenix to play if not himself, then nobody else either. While we accept that it isn’t possible for an actor to become an ‘abstract expressionist’ as a director conceivably could;nevertheless, by playing oneself, the notion of ‘character’ has been removed and replaced by the subject.

This is partly what makes Her ‘work’. Phoenix’s ‘love interest’ is an operating system, basically a mobile phone capable of responding instantly to his needs and desires and who really does understand him. Utilising simply the voice of Scarlett Johansson, the film shows Phoenix isn’t acting opposite someone, but with himself. Do all relationships contain a dimension of each individual working out their own needs and desires, as Beryl Bainbridge once claimed when saying, “he is, after all, the reflection of the tenderness I bear for myself. It is always ourselves we love”? This becomes all the more pronounced in a film where there is no other subject to whom one is responding; merely a machine that is algorithmically capable of adjusting to our moods and wants.

The greater the modern actor, the closer we might believe he or she happens to be to the subject: to exploring a variation of their own self. While Academy Awards and Baftas are given to actors playing very far away from their own apparent personality (from A Theory of Everything to My Left Foot, from Monster to Rain Man), much of the great acting takes place close to the actors’ being. De Niro is astonishing as Jake La Motta not especially because he looks, moves and sounds like the original figure, but because it is part of an extended exploration of self evident in Taxi DriverThe Last TycoonThe Deer Hunter and The King of Comedy. It is the same with Jack Nicholson in Five Easy PiecesThe Last DetailThe Passenger and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Any character created is matched by a self explored. What Phoenix does with I’m Still Here is take a certain Stanislavskian logic to its optimal conclusion. In a passage from An Actor Prepares, Stanislavski says: “we must not overlook the fact that many important sides of our complex natures are neither known to us nor subject to our conscious direction.” Can the notion of character sometimes lead us to perform a role but lose sight of the self? As Stanislavski also says, there is the type of memory which is ‘emotion memory’: “that type of memory, which makes you relive the sensation you felt when seeing Moskvin act, or when your friend died, is what we call emotion memory.” To learn the lines is one thing; to find oneself within the role is often another. Perhaps by minimising the role and maximising one’s feelings, one’s complex nature can be explored and not simply the part offered. Obviously most great acting is the combination of both, but Phoenix, a little like Brando in Last Tango in Paris, is, in I’m Still Here, involved in a documentary about himself, or rather a self where character is secondary to feeling.

If we invoke Bacon we do so with Gilles Deleuze’s book on the artist in mind: “The task of painting is to render visible forces that are not themselves visible. Likewise, music attempts to render sonorous forces that are not themselves sonorous.” (Francis Bacon) Bacon’s achievement as an artist appears to us a little like Phoenix and other great actors with acting. When Deleuze believes, “it is within this visibility that the body actively struggles, affirming the possibility of triumphing, which was beyond its reach as long as these powers remained invisible, hidden in a spectacle that sapped our strength and diverted us”, we might think of how character, story and situation creates a similar sapping in film. How does a film remove story rather than emphasise it for the “emotional genius” to come through?

Emotional genius” is a term James Gray uses on the DVD commentary for Two Lovers. It is near the end of the film, and Phoenix’s character Leonard has been vacillating between two women. He is a damaged man to start with, never quite getting over a woman to whom he was engaged, but now there is one who is “crazy about him” (Vinessa Shaw) and another who happens to be crazy about someone else (Gwyneth Paltrow). He is of course in love with the latter, but by this stage of the film it looks like the man she loves has left his wife and daughter for her, and Leonard, all at sea, looks out at the ocean. Gray says there was hardly any script there at all apart from a clear reference to Anthony Quinn at the end of La Strada. But it was Phoenix’s emotional genius that made the scene work so well. In Deleuzian terms it is as though Gray wanted to sap from the script most of the representational givens and leave Phoenix to find the emotions within the character in his own ‘emotion memory’. Gray said we often talk about maths geniuses and science geniuses, but we say too little about emotional geniuses; however this is perhaps where acting reveals itself fundamentally much more than in versatility. When Elia Kazan, who of course directed both Brando and Quinn in Viva Zapata, says of a scene in the film, “I gave the actors no direction whatsoever. Not one word”, it is close to what Gray’s proposing in the scene on the beach in Two Lovers. “If you start giving directions to any actor like Brando in a scene like that”, Kazan says, “you’re very liable to hurt yourself.” (Kazan on Kazan) It is a scene where Quinn dies and Brando goes to his dead brother. It is a moment of grief, just as Phoenix’s scene is also about grieving, and in each instance the director allows the actor to find the emotion in their bodies and not in the script. As Kazan said, “Brando fussed with Quinn’s dead body, he did something with his face. Then he brought Quinn’s dead hands up to his own face. That was all Brando.” (Kazan on Kazan)

Here it seems the forces within the actor permeate the material; they don’t simply serve it. When Phoenix tears apart the hotel room in Walk the Line it wouldn’t have only been in the script, but a famous aspect of Johnny Cash’s life. Cash “pioneered the art of destroying hotel rooms” Zane Ewton says in ‘The Legend of Johnny Cash’. It brings out nothing of interest in Phoenix partly because it seems a predictable and overly external expression of emotion. Now obviously many films want not only that degree of externalisation, but to narrativise it as well, and this is where, for example, the revenge drama in its various manifestations often has little interest in an actor of emotional genius, but simply wants a figure who will externalise rage as narrative purpose. From Mad Max to Taken the grieving Max in the first film and the man whose daughter is kidnapped in the second, don’t internalise their emotions; they generate external action from their rage: this is grievance rather than grief, and is decidedly plot-driven. Such films (some brilliant; others awful) usually ask the actor to propel themselves into kinetic situations that create rather more plot than feeling. In Taken, once Liam Neeson’s daughter is kidnapped in a Paris apartment, her US based dad and former key operative for the United States Government, moves into action, as one plot point inevitably leads to another. It is a role perhaps suited to Gibson, Schwarzenegger or Stallone more than Neeson, but how would an actor like Phoenix fare in such a work? He might have had success with Gladiator, but it was Russell Crowe in the heroic role who moved from one obstacle to the next.

Phoenix would seem too self-involved an actor to take on action roles, someone for whom the knotty feeling is more important than the complicated logistical action. He is an actor who turns away from rather than towards the script. What do we mean by this? It is Gray and Kazan’s idea of accepting that certain moments cannot be scripted and planned; that you create a certain narrative void out of which a performance comes. Some actors one suspects wouldn’t know what to do with such spaces, and the tight script protects them like a harness from falling into themselves. Others, like Brando, De Niro, Isabelle Huppert, Nicholson, perhaps Julianne Moore, Bruno Ganz and Charlotte Rampling, seem to seek out these unharnessed areas, accepting that acting is also a revelation that has very little to do with the givens of a script. The purpose is to find the power in the performance in Deleuzian terms: how to discover the aspect that is not elaborated upon but discovered in the actor? In Viva Zapata Zapata’s brother dies; in Two Lovers Leonard is distraught. Another actor might throw the engagement ring Leonard bought for Paltrow’s character in the direction of the sea, and might at the end of the scene pick it up again, just as Phoenix does, but the emotional register between these two moments, with Leonard picking up a glove that gets washed ashore, as he starts to sob, allows for a singular power that leaves us watching not a script being illustrated but a being scripted.

Great actors script being, a point many actors miss when they insist that what counts is working with a good screenplay. “Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture,” Billy Wilder once said, “They think the actors make it up as they go along.” (FilmMakers.com) Wilder has a point, but one that works for his type of filmmaking, an often generic approach to film that resulted in numerous great movies (Double IndemnitySome Like it HotSunset Boulevard), but where there probably wouldn’t have been much of a place for a Brando or Phoenix. This of course doesn’t mean certain actors have worked without scripts, improvising all the way; more that they have worked on films where the tightness of the script is somehow secondary to the being available within them. Speaking about working on The Master with Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, director Paul Thomas Anderson said, to the Los Angeles Times,“they obviously took their cues from the script, and kind of created something bigger and better than I ever could have written out.” The opening sequence, with Phoenix’s Freddie Quell hacking apart coconuts and simulating sex with a sand castle shaped like a woman,was all invented on the spot. “We just wanted to go to a beach and start doing things,” Anderson said. Inherent Vice wasn’t improvised, but still seemed to the other actors, who hadn’t worked on an Anderson film before, all over the place. “People like Josh Brolin thought, ‘This is fucking chaos!’ But we were like, ‘Is it?’ We thought it was completely natural!” (Los Angeles Times)

The film is still to be found in the making, with the actors in the process of discovering the character they are playing, not merely illustrating the script. There are scenes in both films that gain their meaning not from the context of the sequence (within the overall arc of the film), but from the intensity of the moment that the script facilitates. In a late scene from The Master Philip Seymour Hoffman and Phoenix discuss leaving the cult. Hoffman talks; Phoenix generally listens. Hoffman’s performance is the more obviously scripted, if only in the sense that it is the most clearly verbalised. Much of Phoenix’s work takes place in the face, with the drawn look an aspect of the actor’s physiognomy and perfect for the springy animal tension he has contained and chaotically released within his body throughout the film. As he listens to Hoffman speak, the film cuts back to a face that is registering a broad range of emotions that the drawn look exemplifies. In contrast, Hoffman’s full-faced demeanour looks less searching, more inscrutable and in keeping with the film’s approach to these two characters. If Phoenix’s Freddy remains a mystery throughout it is not because his face is without expression, but that his expressions are so immediate and so elastic that it is hard to credit him with an internal thought process at all: everything gets externalised. The mystery here resembles a little Heidegger’s remark about the “animal poor in world” quoted by Jacques Derrida in an interview with Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Eating Well’. The animal isn’t like a stone that is absent of consciousness, but rather is seen to possess a limited consciousness. It might seem absurd to wonder what a stone thinks, but merely futile to wonder what an animal thinks. What it thinks we can see: it is behaviourally obvious. Yet this is partly why we can talk of animal and not stone ethics: what is its consciousness? Freddy is a little like a human poor in world, yet this has nothing to do with the potential futility of wondering what an animal thinks, but fascinating because we muse over what a human who often acts like an animal is thinking. Phoenix achieves something very complex here, by combining aspects of the animal and the human. He makes the human body astonishingly complex through various contortions of his physique.

Inherent Vice offers numerous scenes of great facial elasticity, but perhaps the finest is the scene where Phoenix’s Doc talks with Martin Donovan’s scheming lawyer. As Doc discusses how much money he should take from the man without completely losing the lawyer’s respect. We see on Phoenix’s face a flicker of many modified reactions. None of them overstated, but all of them stated nevertheless. He manages to suggest contempt, surprise, pity, self-pity, loathing and self-loathing, indignation and irritation, while his body stays still. This is the opposite of playing Johnny Cash and tearing up a hotel room; this is a fictional character taken from a Thomas Pynchon novel which allows for interior thought as external but modulated expression. Donovan, a fine actor best known for Hal Hartley films, is like a foil; someone whose complacent lips and cool eyes say that nothing need change: he is a man of power and intends to remain that way. Phoenix’s Doc Sportello doesn’t quite know who or what he is or who anybody else really happens to be as he wanders through the film bemused by the numerous characters who have life philosophies, big aims, weak wills and false teeth, all demanding a back story. For much of the film people are talking at Phoenix more than to him, and Phoenix has something of Jack Nicholson’s capacity to be one of life’s listeners. Like Nicholson’s brilliant performances in The Passenger and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where Nicholson gets to react emphatically in the latter and exhaustingly in the former, Phoenix knows that a lot of acting can go into the complexity of the reaction shot. This isn’t the type of supportive reaction shot that usually a peripheral character offers when someone deviates from normal values or a meteorite hurtles towards earth; it is the cerebrally illustrative reaction shot where much of the acting is receptive and facial more than verbal and emphatic. It is what often happens to the performance when much of it becomes internally entangled, searching and questioning.

Juaquin Phoenix is probably the most interesting actor in America, and surely of his generation, someone whose precursors we can see in the roles he plays (Brando, Nicholson and probably Sean Penn), but without any of the conspicuous indebtedness as obvious homage. He has found his power’, a way of making a performance his own in the fundamental sense of playing characters where the notion of character is always secondary to an exploration that is more intricately and interestingly evident. The aim has been “to get to the place that’s beyond the technical side of finding your light or saying the line in a particular way and being open to your unconscious because I think sometimes it knows better than you,” So Phoenix would say in a Guardian interview at the time of Inherent Vice. Such an approach suggests a comprehension of the material equal to that of the scriptwriter who has written the words, but from that place of emotional genius Gray talks about. As Phoenix says in the same interview: “I just like to discover things as they go along. I try more and more to be receptive to what’s happening in the moment as opposed to creating these ideas and trying to impose them on the shoot.” It is as though just as Broch can differentiate the rebel from the criminal, so we might distinguish between  the actor who is the opposite of the criminal: a well behaved thespian who knows his lines and moves as he is told; and the actor as rebel, someone who needs to find in the material a purpose for doing it beyond the practicalities. Phoenix is surely such an actor.

©Tony McKibbin