YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Holiday Sneaks

A Spin in the Driver's Seat

After a series of breakout roles, Joaquin Phoenix takes a star turn in the Marquis de Sade drama 'Quills.'

November 12, 2000|JAN STUART | Jan Stuart is a Newsday film critic

NEW YORK — The story begins, 15 years ago, with a go-cart.

The five little Phoenixes are cooing over their Christmas presents. Their father, a jack of many trades named John Bottom, has no money to speak of but always manages to make something special for his kids. This year, he has cobbled together a go-cart. His 11-year-old son spies it hungrily, a junior Evel Knievel gunning to kick up some dirt.

"Of course, me, the troublemaker," remembers Joaquin Phoenix with a sheepish smile. "I started up this go-cart. You stand behind it and pull the thing. The clutch was all the way down, and it took off. It went down the street and it literally killed every mailbox. Boom. People came out of their houses in their pajamas. I think I ruined the go-cart."

Some might say that this is the beginning of a recurring motif. A few years later, a father-son odyssey through Mexico is cut short when Joaquin crashes a motorcycle and injures an arm. This past spring, Phoenix and a pal buy snazzy Ducati cycles on a whim (they find the name in the Yellow Pages and like how it sounds), and he winds up with stitches in his forehead. Some might also say there is a metaphor here.

In the five years since Phoenix slithered to prominence as the hapless juvenile hit man in "To Die For," he has impersonated a variety of troubled or volatile young men who fall under the category of Accidents Waiting to Happen. (Often in movies that were dead on arrival, such as "U-Turn," "8MM" and "Clay Pigeons.") And he has brought to all of these characters a bruised vulnerability that evokes such accident-prone icons of his parents' youth, such as Montgomery Clift and James Dean.

At 26, Phoenix is poised to be released forever from the media purgatory that has trapped him since he made the 911 phone call that signaled his big brother River's death in 1993. This past year, the Joaquin Phoenix formula has been revitalized in two smashing supporting performances, fueling speculation that he may have fulfilled his brother's potential to become the best actor of his generation. In Ridley Scott's "Gladiator," he drew eyes away from Russell Crowe as the Machiavellian kid emperor Commodus. In James Gray's operatic crime drama "The Yards," he impressed as Willie Gutierrez, a subway administration functionary on the make. Phoenix exudes a heretofore unseen refinement in his first bona-fide star role, as an idealistic priest who attempts to reform Geoffrey Rush's Marquis de Sade in Philip Kaufman's juiced-up literary drama "Quills," opening later this month.


Joaquin Phoenix is sitting on the front terrace of his Tribeca neighborhood watering hole, Sosa Borella, ignoring the autumn chill with the help of a mint tea and pack of Marlboro Lights. Frequently, he mops the ashes off the table with the back of his hand, a nervous, theatrical gesture. He resolves to quit every now and then, but you know how it is. Firing up a cigarette, Phoenix rails against the tyranny of journalists and producers who have typed him as an eternal slacker-in-training. "Every film I do, I meet resistance going into it, and by the time it comes out, everyone says, 'Well, you were the obvious choice.' "

"When I did 'The Yards,' James Gray offered me the part of Leo [Mark Wahlberg's beleaguered lead character, a one-time car thief who is trying to toe the line after being released from prison]. I thought, 'Nah, I wanted to play strong and seductive and proactive, not the guy who's just out of prison.' I had done that before. Miramax was opposed to me playing Willie. I don't think they thought I could do it. He wouldn't be charismatic or sexy enough, or whatever it is they thought they wanted. [When] I went for 'Gladiator,' you wouldn't believe the resistance I met. It was a bit of a process getting that job."

Phoenix smiles slyly, adding, "I gotta say, if somebody just comes to me and says, 'You're fantastic! I want you!' I think I'd probably be scared and say, no, there must be something wrong with this picture. So I don't mind a little opposition. It pushes you to work as hard as you can."

Tension and resistance are so endemic to Phoenix's modus operandi, according to "Quills" director Kaufman, that he tends to internalize them on the set. "There is a certain struggle he goes through before he can do a scene. He didn't want to do the read-through that we have with all the other actors. He kept saying, 'Phil, don't make me do this, man, oh man!' I said, 'Joaquin, there are going to be 25 British actors at the table and you are going to sit there and do it.' He was dragged kicking and screaming, and of course he ended up having a great time.

"It's almost like the fear of flying that people have. When they get to the other side of the continent, they feel great. But that anxiety overtakes him. That's part of his process and part of his way of getting there. Eventually, he may find ways of doing this that are a little more gentle on himself."

Los Angeles Times Articles