And the Oscar Should Have Gone to … Joaquin Phoenix

Dear Academy: You had your shot in 2013? Don’t blow it again.

Image for post
Image for post
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (Photo: Warner Bros Pictures) and The Master (Photo: The Weinstein Company)

Picture it. The Academy Awards. 2013.

And the Oscar went to … Daniel Day-Lewis, for his portrayal of the 16th U.S. president in Lincoln. That’s how things went down in the Best Actor category, and for the third time in his career, Joaquin Phoenix, nominated for his performance in The Master, had to applaud politely while to another thespian went the spoils.

But that time, it was different. Phoenix not only should have been a contender. He should have been the victor, too.

Seven years later, 45-year-old Phoenix at last is set to get his due from the Academy for his gloriously divisive role in Joker. He deserves all the precursor love he’s already gotten (a Golden Globe, a Critics Choice Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and a BAFTA nomination), and when the Best Actor nominee finally claims his Oscar on February 9, he will have earned it.

He’d already earned it seven years ago when Day-Lewis snatched all the thunder that should have been roaring for Phoenix, who perfected what is now his screen specialty — beautiful losers and haunted outsiders — with his performance in The Master.

He was weather-beaten and looked about 10 years older than he was at the time (38), and I still had a hard time taking my eyes off Phoenix (and by extension, his character Freddie Quell) whenever he was onscreen in The Master. The way he walked, the way he stood, the way he sat, shoulders perpetually slumped forward, hands awkwardly positioned on the back of his hips, all gave Quell an arch air that was lovely in its own ungraceful way.

Phoenix’s specific physical choices illuminated the discomfort Quell felt in his own skin and in the world, too. The way he seamlessly guided Quell from relaxed and playful to increasingly ungainly to tense and agitated to enraged to wistful to regretful to tearful and desperate during the first processing session with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s titular Lancaster Dodd was more powerful than anything I saw any other Best Actor Oscar nominee do that year.

Denzel Washington didn’t match that scene in Flight. Bradley Cooper didn’t do it in Silver Linings Playbook. Hugh Jackman didn’t do it in Les Misérables. And nope, Daniel Day-Lewis definitely didn’t do it in Lincoln. There. I said it.

Quell was a mix of standout characteristics of at least three of the characters played by Phoenix’s competitors — a drunk like Washington’s Whip Whitaker, cuckoo like Cooper’s Pat Solitano (though hardly recovering), and criminal like Jackman’s Jean Valjean (again, hardly reformed). If The Master had been set 100 years earlier, circa 1850, I have no doubt that Freddie would have wanted to free the slaves, too.

Daniel Day-Lewis name-dropped Phoenix in his 2013 SAG acceptance speech, probably partly because The Master director Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous directorial effort, There Will Be Blood, had won Day-Lewis his second Oscar five years earlier, but probably mostly because Phoenix was that good. And how fitting would it have been for him to have won for a film in which he co-starred with Philip Seymour Hoffman, the man who had beat him the previous time he was up for Best Actor, in 2006, for resurrecting Johnny Cash without a hint of imitation in Walk the Line.

Phoenix’s detailed characterization and mastery of the antihero echoed the work that regularly scored Jack Nicholson nominations in the ’70s and ultimately Best Actor for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1976. Phoenix was like a master ’70s thespian dressed for the ’50s, a decade that Anderson beautifully recreated for The Master, as an actual decade, not as the set design it seemed to be that same year in On the Road.

In Phoenix’s hands, Freddie Quell was almost like an extension of the character Phoenix had played in his previous film (himself), 2010’s I’m Still Here, while remaining original and fresh enough to avoid coming across like a self-portrait or, much worse, self-parody.

The film introduced the character as an enigma — it was hard to tell if he was crazy, damaged, crippled, or just always drunk — and Phoenix maintained those shades of black and blue while making the man-child specific and distinctive. The performance was a perfectly calibrated blend of internal and physical.

He was combative and feral, at times scary, seemingly always on the brink of erupting into violence (and more so as the film went on). At other times, Freddie’s internal pain was so palpable I wanted to reach through the screen and hug him — and maybe buy him a healthy meal, too.

Freddie was far from the honorable man Daniel Day-Lewis’s version of Abraham Lincoln was, but Phoenix made him just as fascinating. If this year’s Oscars go his way, he thankfully only will have had to wait seven years — not four score and seven years — to finally reap his reward.

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store