Joaquin Phoenix is not crazy. The day of his first David Letterman appearance since the notorious 11-minutes of uncomfortable near-silence seems like a good time to reminisce for those familiar with the story, and the right time for an introduction to a strange episode of celebrity oblige for those who aren’t. A friend showed me Phoenix’s bizarre February 11, 2009 appearance on the Late Show. I asked both of my fellow-viewers if they thought what they were seeing was an act; both of them shook their heads and said “I don’t think that’s an act” with gravity. They believed Joaquin Phoenix had been in that netherworld between genius and insanity, and that the scales had suddenly tipped, probably owing to whatever he was supposed to be high on.
Interestingly, Gwyneth Paltrow, who had been Phoenix’s co-star in Two Lovers, would be among the first to disagree with them, innocently and offhandedly suspecting in an interview that Phoenix was pulling off an elaborate piece of performance art.
Phoenix was fairly-well lampooned by Ben Stiller at the 2009 Academy Awards, an event which implied either a lot of actors who could recognize an act, a certain mean-spiritedness on the part of the Academy, or perhaps some bad real blood between Hollywood and Phoenix. But no less a Hollywood veteran than Roger Ebert was completely sold on the authenticity of brother-in-law Casey Affleck’s documentary (well, mockumentary) I’m Not Here. After Affleck revealed the hoax, Ebert gracefully did what public figures frequently and inexplicably are unable to do: He admitted an error and took stock of how it came about. He categorized critics he knew who had watched I’m Not Here by whether they got the joke (and in some cases what they thought of it).
While this post may be taking the aspect of a gossip column, the Liberal Ironist has a very-particular editorial appeal in mind with regard to this case of mistaken sincerity. Some have referred to Phoenix’s act as performance art (which is the way I think of it), others have likened it to a kind of fraud. That isn’t just harsh, it fundamentally misses the merits of the Borat-style mockumentary, and the lively and at times near-criminal (yet not really criminal) public appearances that often go with it.
Whether in the form of the Letterman appearance or a concert that turned out a complete mess, or the documentary that Roger Ebert thought to be a disturbing record of a fine actor frittering his life away, Phoenix’s Andy Kaufman-style, Marlon Brando-imitation rouse was another fine example of a work of fiction walking about under the light of day. There is a legitimate and important difference between a hoax that is done to demonstrate that it can be done, and mere mischief or fraud. Recall Alan Sokal’s 1994 submission to the sociological journal Social Text, in which he asserted that mathematics and physics were culturally-biased; almost immediately upon publication of the article Sokal admitted that the postmodern deconstruction of natural science that he had written was “liberally salted with nonsense,” thus opening the journal’s editors to the charge that it was they who were biased–and defending their authority over others. Hollywood personalities who would take exception at Phoenix’s drug-addled hip-hop persona owe him much more than that; while many in Hollywood preach both self-discovery and social awareness, he has used these values as fodder for his own story. It is interesting that some sneered; it is interesting that some, like Roger Ebert, were charitable and thoughtful both before and after they were brought in on the gag. It is interesting that some of us always thought Phoenix was putting on a show, and it is interesting that some thought it didn’t really make a difference whether the actor’s seeming mental collapse was performance art at all, because there had to be at least a kernel of truth to it. We should be grateful for the opportunity to see a work of art that is also a real-time event, out in the World (though there will be one or two more of those late next month). We should also admire such craft where we find it, and as good liberal ironists be able to laugh at ourselves (assuming, of course, that we didn’t get the joke in the first place).