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Critic's Notebook

From famous to infamous

Big stars can rise after crashing, but can Phoenix?

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / September 19, 2010

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It’s the rubberneck effect: Something in us loves to witness a movie star crash and burn, and something in us also hates ourselves for loving it. So when a movie star pretends to implode, why do we just hate him so much?

Another way of putting this: Why does Mel Gibson repeatedly behave like a beast and still have defenders, while right around now everyone loathes Joaquin Phoenix?

It has been fascinating to watch the public response to Phoenix’s public meltdown, which crested early with the actor’s appearance on “Late Night With David Letterman’’ in February 2009. What was with the Unabomber beard, the shades, the incoherent mumbling? What, dear Lord, was with the rap career? Was it a hoax? Was he putting us on? If so, why?

With the release on Sept. 10 of “I’m Still Here,’’ Casey Affleck’s documentary about Phoenix, one answer was apparent: Yes, he was putting us on. (In case you still weren’t sure, Affleck fessed up in a recent interview with The New York Times.) The “Joaquin Phoenix’’ in the film is a horror show of celebrity infantilism and entitlement, a walking disaster who abuses his entourage, picks fights with fans, careens around in a drug-induced stupor, and whines like a big baby whenever the world refuses to kowtow to his whims. If it’s a comedy, the laughs stick in your throat, all the more so when you see the screenwriting credit Phoenix shares with Affleck. There’s a sense of betrayal: Why would one of our stars do this to us, the people who pay his bills?

My theory? Phoenix is playing Mel Gibson — or, rather, he’s playing in the space between stars who misbehave and the public media space that responds to them with appalled 24/7 obsessiveness. Give the people what they want and let them stew in the suspicion they’ve been played. Who knows the reasons? Maybe Phoenix is bored with the movie star gig (although he’s reportedly back in the market for roles), or maybe he’s getting a little revenge for the tabloid response to the death of his brother, River Phoenix, in 1993. Reasons are secondary; they might explain his motives but not our response.

Where I think Phoenix has miscalculated — gravely — is in not understanding how we felt about him before he appeared to go nutzoid. Every movie star presents a persona, and in that persona is an idea of how to move through the world. Some personas are distinct: George Clooney’s devilish savoir-faire (“The American’’ excepted), Reese Witherspoon’s pluck, Tom Hanks’s bonhomie, Leonardo DiCaprio’s intensity. Others are blurrier. Phoenix has had a solidly successful Hollywood career — two Oscar nominations, four films that have grossed over $100 million — without ever truly coming into focus as a personality. He’s a good actor but is he a star? Are we particularly interested in him off the screen the way we are Julia Roberts, Johnny Depp, Gibson even before he went off the reservation?

Because of that, reactions to Phoenix’s persona performance piece — for that is what it is — have ranged from anger to indifference, with angry indifference seeming to be the keynote. “I’m Still Here’’? We Don’t Care. If he had been a different sort of performer, those reactions might have been different, as well.

Remember when Robert Downey Jr. put his career in the toilet? It was only 10 years ago — arrests, rehab, firings, jail time — but you may have forgotten in the triumphant glow of the actor’s clean-and-sober return with “The Singing Detective’’ (2003) and ascension to superstardom with “Iron Man’’ (2007). Downey’s established persona of quick-witted bon vivant allowed room for a tragic reading (the quick-witted doomed bon vivant) and then for a revision: Downey 2.0, the bon vivant who has been through the fire and come out with grace and wit intact, knowing things you’re lucky you don’t. It mattered very much that he was likable to start with.

Even Lindsay Lohan’s much-publicized troubles of the past three years fit a script the culture carries around in its back pocket: the Wild Child, the Teachable Moment, the ungrateful young celebrity who hasn’t yet learned to appreciate her good fortune. The script could end in many different ways. The Sean Young finale could see Lohan fade from sight much as that mercurial ’80s starlet did. The Drew Barrymore twist might see her stage a return to the good graces of audiences, studio executives, and completion bond insurers. Don’t ask about the Frances Farmer Variation.

It’s different for men, obviously. A young male star who mouthed off and made scenes like Young’s — flipping the bird in the pages of “Entertainment Weekly,’’ allegedly Krazy-Gluing an extra-special part of actor James Wood to his leg — might be equally censured by the chattering classes, but he’d also have people cheering on his rebelliousness. That Mel Gibson continues to have fans says a lot about his Hollywood he-man charisma (and also a lot about both Christian sympathy and defensiveness over portrayals of him in the godless media).

When a star’s persona isn’t well-defined, the crash-and-burn can occur out of the spotlight. Val Kilmer was virtually unemployable in the late 1990s after gaining an on-set reputation as a “difficult’’ actor (after working with him on “The Island of Dr. Moreau,’’ director John Frankenheimer simply said, “Will Rogers never met Val Kilmer’’), but the cloud stayed within the industry and the actor was able to come back the following decade in character parts that tweaked his eccentric élan with a newfound sense of humor.

That Joaquin Phoenix has orchestrated his own faux-meltdown simply crosses our wires: We don’t understand why someone would do it and we don’t know how to react. There’s precedent but only in the world of comedy. Andy Kaufman masterfully played with audiences’ heads in the 1970s and ’80s with his abusive alter ego Tony Clifton and wrestling altercations on “Letterman,’’ but he had been honing his persona as an edgy conceptual comedian since his stand-up days. Sacha Baron Cohen has made a career of confrontational meta-comedy in which the only person not in on the joke is the poor schmo sharing the scene with him.

Phoenix doesn’t have that background, so we can’t frame him in a satiric context. We can’t frame him in any context other than as a skilled actor, an awkward star, and now either a raving fool or a blackhearted prankster. (“Artist’’ is out of the question, though if the actor had offered his alt-Joaquin Phoenix on a stage in an industrial warehouse in Brooklyn, he’d probably be getting rave reviews.)

What’s most fascinating is that he isn’t the only young actor itching to burst his chains. James Franco may be best known to the masses as Harry Osborn in the “Spider-Man’’ movies but in addition to being a rising Hollywood star (“Eat Pray Love’’) and risk-taking indie fixture (he’s Allen Ginsberg in the upcoming “Howl’’), he has mounted gallery shows of his conceptual videos, has appeared on “General Hospital’’ as a sketchy performance artist named Franco, has written a book of short stories, and is a graduate student at two Manhattan universities. “Is James Franco for Real?’’ asked the headline of a New York magazine profile, but the question should really be: Which James Franco?

Similarly, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the “Inception’’ star with the growing cult fan club, has been seen singing Lady Gaga covers in downtown Manhattan clubs and recently announced that he’s taking his anybody-can-join online filmmaking collective, hitRECord.org, to New York’s Town Hall for a “Fall Formal’’ fund-raising ball. The actor told The New York Times, “Rather than working in and amongst the insular Hollywood entertainment industry, I wanted to collaborate on the projects that I’m doing with this enormous culture of people online who make great work, whether it’s on their laptop in their bedroom or in their home studio.’’

In other words, actors like Franco and Gordon-Levitt are playing with their public personas almost from the outset, maintaining that they’re not one thing but all these things, and we’re invited to join in. Next to them, “I’m Still Here’’ looks like a brilliant, spiteful dead end. Phoenix is scheduled to appear on “Late Night With David Letterman’’ on Wednesday, and it’s anyone’s guess how he’ll behave: obstreperous, professional, penitent? Because we were never sure who Joaquin Phoenix was before, it’s very doubtful we’ll be interested in who he wants to be next.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

Joaquin Phoenix
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