Is it a hoax, or has Joaquin Phoenix truly lost his mind? That question has been ricocheting around the blogosphere ever since a spaced-out Phoenix appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman last week, masked by dark glasses and a bushy beard, and acting virtually catatonic. While Letterman tried to pry conversation out of him, Phoenix sat stone-faced or mumbled. He forgot the name of Gwyneth Paltrow, his co-star in the movie he was ostensibly promoting—Two Lovers, a small romance with no Canadian release. And he swore at bandleader Paul Shaffer for guffawing at the notion of him introducing a clip. Meanwhile, Phoenix stuck to his story that he’s quit acting to be a rap singer, and said he hoped to perform on the show. “That seems unlikely,” said Letterman. “We’ll keep you in our Rolodex.”
The 34-year-old actor—a two-time Oscar nominee for Gladiator and Walk the Line—first announced his bizarre career shift in October. Then, last month, he unveiled his “talent” as a rapper in Las Vegas, falling off the stage after three numbers. His shambolic performance was so preposterously bad, people assumed he was stoned, mentally ill—or perpetrating an elaborate hoax.
The riddle surrounding this kind of wacko behaviour is as old as Hamlet, in which the prince of Denmark had everyone guessing whether his madness was feigned or real, or a bit of both. In a culture that craves celebrity train wrecks—from the inebriated exploits of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan to the hobo escapades of Margot Kidder and Robert Downey Jr.—the ultimate tabloid treat is to see a star suffer a genuine nervous breakdown with the whole world watching.
But everything points to this one being fake. The dead giveaway is that, since Phoenix “quit” acting in October, he has been constantly trailed by a camera crew, led by his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck (Ben’s sibling). Affleck claims to be making a documentary about Phoenix’s career change, but it sounds suspiciously like a Borat-style mockumentary. Affleck had a crew at Letterman, and shot the media junket for Two Lovers, which Phoenix vowed was his last film. Affleck even met with junket journalists, trying to convince them Joaquin’s rap ambition is sincere, yet he hinted it may also be an act. According to online reporter Katey Rich, between real and fake, he said, “there’s a million shades of grey.” That’s a lot of grey.
Unlike Sacha Baron Cohen, who was relatively unknown when he bluffed his way across America as Borat, Phoenix is famous, even with the beard and shades. If he’s engaged in performance art, there are precedents—prankster comedian Andy Kaufman devoted a career to it. But there’s no precedent for a movie star faking mental collapse with an off-screen marathon of method acting, which is why we’re tempted to take it at face value. Also, the fact that both his brother, River Phoenix, and his close friend, Heath Ledger, died of drug overdoses suggests Joaquin may be wrestling with demons of his own.
The one time I talked to him, over lunch in Cannes after the premiere of We Own the Night, he certainly seemed volatile, and subversive. As rain poured down outside the Carlton hotel, Phoenix gazed at it for the longest time, with the wonder of a small child. Talking to him felt faintly dangerous, as if he could turn on you at any moment. Asked about the art of acting, he said, “I don’t know what the f–k I’m doing. I feel I have nothing to offer. The technical side can be really frustrating, having people constantly adjust an eyebrow. For me to go through all that, I want to have a role that will potentially blister my insides. I want to feel I’m attempting to activate every cell in my body.”
On Letterman, it was as if Phoenix had switched off the power. His dumb show made him a superb straight man for Dave. But the host seemed suspiciously poised with his one- liners about beards and the Unabomber. When he chided his guest for chewing gum, and Phoenix stuck it under Dave’s desk, it looked as if they were both acting. But the most revealing moment came at the end, after the host bid him farewell by saying, “I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.” Just before the cut to commercial, as Phoenix turned to the host and took off his shades, you could hear Dave say, “Nice job,” like a comedy vet complimenting a partner in crime. If, on the other hand, Phoenix really has flamed out, and hopes to rise rapping from the ashes, in this boy-cries-wolf world of showbiz fakery, we might never know until it’s too late.