The twice Oscar-nominated actor (Gladiator and Walk The Line) is directed by his brother-in-law, the Oscar-nominated Casey Affleck (The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford) in a documentary about a year in his life [released on September 16]. It covers the period from when he blurted out he was leaving acting for hip hop, includes the infamous interview with David Letterman and serves as a reminder of the flipside of fame.
Did we need reminding?
Well, yeah – the current human addiction to fame is out of control. Ask a lot of people what they want in life and they'll say 'to be famous' – not to do anything amazing which results in a modicum of fame – it's fame in itself and for itself.
And such empty fame is a very destructive force. The Wright Brothers found fame by getting people to fly. That's good. Linsday Lohan found fame by crash landing her life. That's bad. She ignored the gift of her acting talent by getting distracted with the shiny wrapping paper of attention. (It's a very different thing to recognition.)
The beer-gutted, bearded, babbling boy that is Joaquin Phoenix is a revelation in the doco. The audience I was with laughed out loud all the way through it. And sure, it's funny – in a tragic way – like when a cat falls into a bathtub.
The thing is – I really understood a lot of what Phoenix was saying. What bugs him bugs most people – to be misunderstood. He feels trapped by being defined as an actor the same way a dentist would if he or she yearned to be free to become a professional golfer but was told not to. I understood how maddening it was for Phoenix to be twice-nominated for oscars which resulted in him gathering heaps of people around him that want him to pursue acting because 'he'd be crazy not to'. Agents, managers and friends felt he was at the pinnacle of success when really, he was at the precipice of a kind of prison.
I don't reckon he seriously wanted to be a hip hop artist – but he did want the freedom to do whatever he wanted to do professionally – whatever that may be. Unfortunately, stream of consciousness got the better of him and he shot his mouth off before he thought about what he was going to say.
He's become a peculiar kind of reality show Macbeth. A Howard Hughes of Hollywood – minus the mega cash.
The doco highlights the myth about acting and stardom. An actor is not 'brilliant' or a 'genius'. Pretending to be someone else convincingly is simply being a terrific phoney, an adept fraud and a well-crafted con artist – in a legal environment. It doesn't cure cancer or change the lives of people needing help from, say, Amnesty International. Acting is just a process of not being yourself.
What Joaquin Phoenix proves is this: there is freedom in being crazy and you don't have to be crazy to know that.
He looks less Boho and more hobo. The hair on the back of his head is coming alive like Medusa, holding its own performance and provides a metaphor for what's going on inside his head.
So how good is he at hip hop? He's 2 maybe 3 out of 5. Rhyming 'Wuckeen' with 'spleen' won't win awards or become a tattooed slogan on a fan's arm.
And there's something so very broken about the badly taped up arm of his Buddy Holly-styled permanent sunglasses.
It's a shame when people who are good at one thing yearn to be good at another when they don't have the skills and tools to pull it off. It also makes me a bit mad that they are so ungrateful for the one gift they do have. Then again – is a gift really seen as a gift if you don't want it?
Poor assistant Anton is abused in such a way, it's easy to see that Phoenix uses him to bash himself up. And Anton is a willing subservient whipping boy. He uses him like a tea towel to wipe his dirty feelings.
It's almost as if Joaquin has heard people say that awful thing – that the wrong brother died outside the Viper Room all those years ago. Maybe it makes him mad and hurt, hence the title. 'River isn't, but I'M STILL HERE.
So – is I'M STILL HERE a hoax? Phoenix's stab at immortality through immorality on a public stage? Starlets use weight gain and loss, so the guys stick a question mark over their sanity?
Is this the greatest role Joaquin has ever played?
Could be. After all – there are a few parallels between this doco and DIG! – the doco about The Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. And both star a 'character' called Anton.
If it's not a hoax, Joaquin is a guy on the edge. Is he a suicide candidate? Possibly. Does he need help? Definitely.
But if it is a hoax, then we're the ones who need help. And we should have the guts to admit it.
We've been conned.
But we've been conned over and over again by the high level spin doctoring that typifies 21st century marketing and promotion. And while we're all sniggering at his decrepit body and vagrant appearance, he's really holding up a mirror to everyone sitting in the cinema.
We're the ones who are ugly and crazy. And while we're at it, we can add cruel and unkind to that description too.
I feel sorry for him and sad for us.