(a review of Joaquin Phoenix’s “fearless” performances in DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT  and JOKER )
As an actor myself, I can honestly say that what makes an actor extraordinary is simply one word: FEARLESS. God bless the actor who will say, “I won’t go there!” Fearless actors “go there” every chance they get and, God willing, they come back to themselves. I had a very hard time coming back to myself when I played Iago in a theatre production of Shakespeare’s OTHELLO, and Heath Ledger playing the Joker, ironically enough, in the film, THE DARK NIGHT, never came back to himself. The part killed him, and this is very unfortunate. Actors have to be fearless BUT not go too deep into the fear.
Joaquin Phoenix is my favorite male actor. To say that he is also an animal welfare advocate, as he is, certainly doesn’t sway me, an animal welfare advocate, from this honest and forthcoming vote. But, first and foremost, Phoenix is my favorite male actor because he fits the one-word description of an extraordinary actor mentioned above, i.e., FEARLESS. This can be found in spades with Joaquin Phoenix’s performances in two of his films, DON’T WORRY, HE WONT GET FAR ON FOOT (2018) and JOKER (2019). In both films, Phoenix “goes there” and thank God he comes back to us afterwards. Losing him as we lost Ledger would be an absolute devastation to me and many others.
In DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT, Joaquin Phoenix plays John Callahan, a true-to-life (and true-to-tragedy) man who in his early 20s was involved in a drunk-driving accident that left him a quadriplegic. It was only after much sobering up and much healing that John became a uniquely unparalleled and unapologetic cartoonist who both entertained and angered many people with his cartoons about his troubled childhood and physical disability. The film directed by Gus Van Sant (who also directed GOOD WILL HUNTING) takes us down a road (in a wheelchair, of course) with John Callahan who triumphed in the face of so much tragedy, a story many of us can relate to, quadriplegic or not. Joaquin Phoenix plays John Callahan with acerbic wit and scathing sadness and gives us a fully-realized characterization of a man who could have stayed seated, no pun intended, or who could “get up” and face his demons. Callahan did the latter. For one like myself who has seen Phoenix in many brilliant roles, I was hard-pressed to think Phoenix was NOT actually a quadriplegic. That is how incredible a performance Phoenix gives here. Phoenix always immerses himself into his roles (as you will see later in the JOKER review), and he leaves us spellbound and breathless and always questioning, “What is Phoenix gonna do next in this part he is playing?” We never know the answer until what he does hits us right between the eyes. Phoenix is a “heart actor,” i.e., he finds the truth of the characters he plays and serves us up that truth while he feasts on his characters’ hearts using his own heart.
And if we are talking about fearless actors and their fearless performances, one need look no further than Joaquin Phoenix in and as JOKER. We are talking about a “wild and ‘is he crazy or has the world gone crazy?'” performance! Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a man who just wants his life to be a comedy rather than a tragedy. Fleck has already had enough tragedy to last him a lifetime (one of my favorite lines from the film is, “I sure hope my death makes more ‘cents’ than my life”). Fleck wants a kind world, a sensitive world, a world that wouldn’t see him lying on the street and either walk right past him or walk right over him. Fleck doesn’t get this from this world (if I’m being honest, I’m not sure it is possible to get this from this world), so he resorts to aggressive displays of violence to match the world’s violence. Of course, it is best to “fight” the world’s violence with the opposite, peace, but I can understand where Fleck is coming from. Joaquin Phoenix was a skeleton in his performance, all bones and all guts. Physically, bones were sticking out everywhere when Phoenix was shirtless and only in an underwear. Having done my own research for Phoenix’s performance, it was stated that he ate only an apple a day before and during the entire shoot! How Phoenix did not go the “Ledger route” in this eerily and insanely similar performance is beyond me. Is Phoenix a “better” actor than Ledger was? I care not to “go there.” Where I will go is that Joaquin Phoenix deserved every acting award nomination and win for JOKER. He, in fact, won the Best Actor Oscar that year for JOKER, and I pray most of you heard his acceptance speech but if you didn’t, here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiiWdTz_MNc. When Phoenix got up there that night and talked about how we treat animals so heartlessly, it was a hoot (and a great tragedy) to watch all the ego-driven Hollywood types in the audience squirm and remain without words when Phoenix spoke the truth about how carelessly and inhumanely the world treats animals and each other. This, they did NOT want to hear and/or believe. They wanted, I guess, the movie magic of “make-believe.”
Joaquin Phoenix is not only an incredible actor but also an incredible voice for the voiceless animals and all voiceless beings. Phoenix has a voice that comes through in his acting and in his humanity. He is what I would call the “complete and real deal,” because he gives everything that he is to everything he does, onstage and offstage. He is as honest as the characters he plays and, yes, indeed, most definitely and without a shadow of a doubt, Joaquin Phoenix is FEARLESS!!!!