Sunday, August 16, 2009

For Your Consideration 2009 Campaign - Best Actor

a closer look at the layered performance of Joaquin Phoenix
In October 2008 Joaquin Phoenix surprised and confused everyone by announcing he was leaving acting for good to pursue a career as a hip-hop musician. A few months later he went in front of a nationally televised audience on the Late Show with David Letterman where he was unresponsive towards Letterman's questions about the film and his acting career. The backlash of this (which many insist to be some form of a performance-art hoax, while others believe it is the call of a man on the verge of a breakdown) ultimately reflected negatively on Phoenix’s potentially final film, Two Lovers. The film was a major box office disappointment and was critically mixed, leaving cynics an easy chance to make cheap jokes and catch phrases at Phoenix’s expense.

Most unfortunate is what is being overlooked for cheap tabloid news. Two Lovers is not only a great film (from talented young filmmaker James Gray) but it is also a career-best performance for Phoenix, an actor that has already had a successful and diverse career (with notable performances in To Die For, Quills, Reservation Road, as well as two Academy Award nominations for Walk the Line and Gladiator, and also Gray’s previous two films We Own the Night and The Yards).

Two Lovers is a film that is personal, detailed and uniquely original in its own way. It is complex in dealing with issues of love, obsession and loneliness. Phoenix perfectly taps into the layers of his characters sense of longing, obsession and loneliness. We are immersed into the emotion from the gloomy opening sequence, in which Phoenix’s character (Leonard) considers a suicide.

What transcends the performance is the authentic execution, avoiding the easy route of self-absorbed young man longing for love. This film is more complex, and the complexities emerge from the layered performance of Phoenix. With his character (like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause or Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain for examples), there is an inner-struggle that is exteriorly masked and only evident in subtle moments of the performance.

Take for instance a scene when Leonard is to meet Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her lover/married-man Ronald (Elias Koteas). Leonard is sitting alone waiting for them in an expensive New York restaurant. This is a world completely foreign to him. He is lonely and lost yet externally he tries to appear as though he fits in (by checking his cell phone as if he has calls and ordering a high-class drink Michelle told him about earlier). It is the performance of Phoenix and the subtle gestures which takes you emotionally into the moment and the character. Phoenix is again brilliant in the final scenes (which I will not reveal for those yet to see the film). His complex emotions give Two Lovers an ambiguity that can be seen as sad, bittersweet or hopeful all at once.


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