UPDATED with video: Joaquin Phoenix capped a triumphant awards season on Sunday night when he claimed the Oscar for best actor for Joker, the subversive psychological thriller that defied the conventions of superhero cinema and, in the process, delivered the most unlikely billion-dollar hit in Hollywood history.
Joker premiered five months ago to instant acclaim at the 76th Venice Film Festival, the world’s oldest film festival, where the film claimed the Golden Lion for Best Film. Phoenix won the Venice festival’s acting award which propelled him into an awards season of wall-to-wall success. Phoenix claimed every major prize along the way: a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award, a BAFTA, and a Critics’ Choice Award among them.
Phoenix’s season of dominance was punctuated by an Oscar acceptance speech keyed to a message of art transcending the score-keeping nature of trophy competitions and cancel culture.
“I do not feel elevated above any of my fellow nominees because we share the same the love of film and this form of expression has given me the most extraordinary life,” Phoenix said. “I don’t know what I’d be without it…that’s when we’re at our best — when we support each other. Not when we cancel each other out for past mistakes, but when we help each other to grow, when we educate each other, when we guide each other toward redemption.”
Controversy preceded the film as concerns about its imagery of social upheaval and violence led to stepped-up security measures and hand-wringing by culture critics. The October opening of the film was a smooth affair, however, and the film was eventually held up as edgy exploration of mental health issues.
It’s the second time that a Gotham City movie from Warner Bros has yielded an Oscar-winning performance. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Academy Award for The Dark Knight (2008) and his fierce and scabby portrayal of very different iteration of the Joker, the so-called “clown prince of crime” from the considerable library of DC Comics characters.
It was 80 years ago next month that the Joker made his first appearance in the pages of Batman issue No. 1. The character has been portrayed by two other actors with Oscar resumes, Jack Nicholson in Batman in 1989 and Jared Leto in Suicide Squad in 2016, and the role was introduced to the big screen by Cesar Romero in Batman, a tie-in to the 1966 television series starring Adam West.
The tale told by Joker, however, veers considerably from DC’s traditional canon and fills in.a backstory for a character who ranks as the most iconic villain in the history of American comic books.
Phoenix’s screen metamorphosis — transforming from downtrodden Gotham City stand-up comic Arthur Fleck into the theatrically vicious anarchist known as the Joker — was a character study informed by the veteran actor’s research into effects of powerful mental illness medications.
Phoenix shed more than 50 pounds before and during the grueling four month shoot In New York and New Jersey and, on several occasions, the overwhelmed star stormed off the set while caught up in the physical and emotional churn of his labors. On Sunday, Phoenix acknowledged the patience and resolve of director Phillips, who also cowrote the Oscar-nominated Joker script with Scott Silver (The Fighter, 8 Mile).
“I’ve been a scoundrel in my life,” he said. “I’ve been cruel at times, hard to work with. Many of you in this room have given me a second chance. And that’s when we’re at our best, not when we cancel each other for past mistakes.”
Joker marked Phoenix’s fourth career Oscar nomination and his first victory. Phoenix’s first nod came int he supporting actor category for his portrayal of the cruel Commodus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000). The second and third nomination, both for best actor, came for portraying Johnny Cash in James Mangold’s Walk the Line (2005) and for playing Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012)
Phoenix was born as Joaquin Bottom in San Juan, Puerto Rico, made his feature film debut in 1986 in Space Camp and, a year later, delivered his first starring performance in Russkies. The actor was credited as Leaf Phoenix in his earliest screen work but for Gus Van Sant’s To Die For in 1995 he switched to the now-familiar screen name of Joaquin Phoenix.
The actor’s brother, the late River Phoenix, was also nominated for an Oscar (for the 1986 film The Mosquito Coast). The Phoenix siblings are the only brothers ever nominated for acting Oscars in the history of the trophy.
The Joker star concluded his Oscar night speech with a touching nod to his late brother (who died at age 23 of a drug overdose on Halloween 1993): “When he was 17, my brother wrote this lyric, ‘Run to the rescue love and peace will follow.’”
Joker was produced by Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Films, and Joint Effort, in association with Bron Creative and Village Roadshow Pictures, and distributed by Warner Bros. The psychological thriller captured the imagination of moviegoers in a way that few would have predicted. The movie’s relatively lean production budget: $55 million. Joker’s worldwide gross: $1.07 billion.