So there it is. It was all a hoax, and an elaborate one at that. Arguably, it trumps whatever Andy Kaufman pulled, and anything Sasha Baron Cohen could ever accomplish.
For those who don’t know, Joaquin Phoenix appeared on David Letterman February 11, 2009. His visage was puzzling, to say the least. With a full, unkempt beard, dirty hair, and recent weight gain covered by a careworn, black suit, he gave the impression of one who was not in touch with reality. This was after he announced that he gave up acting and was pursuing a hip-hop career. Subsequent performances of his “music” were ignominious, to say the least.
The audience and fans alike were left scratching their heads as they witnessed this brilliant actor go completely off the rails. His soul shuffled off its mortal coil to leave the shell of the man he once was. It was tragic. In our effort to cope, we held onto the slim hope that maybe, just maybe, there was more to the story.
His brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, released a film a year-and-a-half later documenting Joaquin’s downward spiral, and within a week, the world was let in on the joke—one with many players, it turns out. The collective’s conscience breathed a sigh of relief as the ego was left perturbed. We were duped.
While there is comfort in the reality that there was not another talent needlessly destroyed in his prime, it does leave many unanswered questions. The first and foremost is: Why? What was the motivation?
Was it a social experiment? If so, I am at a loss to explain what it was. How important is it to risk one’s career to make a socio-political statement? Perhaps he was turning the mirror on society and its fixation on celebrity. That is a bit of a stretch, but one must admit, we certainly invested a lot of energy and bandwidth into focusing on this spectacle.
Did he get a sadistic pleasure out of raking his fans across the coals? His brother was snuffed out so early in life, and we got to see in Joaquin the actor that River could have become. He was taking that away from us. What a meanie.
He could have been resentful for not winning the Oscar for his stellar work in Walk the Line. That makes a strong assumption that he cares about the accolades. If anything, he reiterated what a tremendous actor he is. His performance on Letterman was realistic, but left enough speculation to keep us guessing. Was he on drugs? Was he succumbing to mental illness? I was going with the latter, as he showed the hallmarks of a schizoaffective disorder. I noticed his delayed response to jokes, his nervous tics and fidgeting, as well as the subtly paranoid look he’d shoot the audience as if to say “what are you laughing at?” And how did he keep in character while faced with Letterman’s rapier humor? Bravo.
That said, Sir Occam’s Razor is feeling pretty sharp with this one. Maybe he just wanted to see if he could do it. And, he did.