Another Phoenix Rises

By STEPHANIE BUNBURY  (Sunday, April 22, 2001)

That was a bad night in the Viper Room back in 1993: bad for the beautiful River Phoenix, who collapsed and died after a drug overdose; bad for his younger brother Joaquin, who was there with him and telephoned the ambulance; bad for art. While the Phoenix family, a close clan, lost a beloved son, American cinema lost one of its brightest hopes. If he had done nothing more than Gus van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, River Phoenix would have earned his place in the pantheon. Next to his brother, as it now turns out.

Over the past year, Joaquin Phoenix has suddenly emerged as something remarkable. From his seedy turn as incestuous emperor Commodus in Gladiator, to his tortured priest in Philip Kaufman's Quills, he seems equal to anything. Now, in James Gray's The Yards, he plays Willy Gutierrez, a hard-nosed Puerto Rican wide boy with great expectations.

As it happens, Joaquin was actually born in Puerto Rico (hence his Spanish name), but his parents were just passing through. Hippy-trippy preachers for the Children of God, they fetched up there on the road to salvation; the Phoenix children, as Joaquin remembers it, spent their shared childhood peacefully singing and painting. They didn't even wear leather, which was something of a sore point when Joaquin got a gig as a Prada model.

There were five Phoenix children. Joaquin's name is the odd one out the others are Rain, Liberty and Summer although he did experiment with Leaf for a while. They like to travel as a pack. Joaquin says how happy he was that his sister Summer, starring in Esther Khan, was in Cannes with him while he promoted The Yards. "We're all always in contact and try to overlap with each other when we go some place," he says.

As children they all copied one another. If one decided to love Chinese food one week, they all followed. And since River was the eldest, it was inevitable they would end up acting.

The Yards, a story of racketeering in the New York subway yards, has no real bad guys everyone in this shady world is flawed but Gutierrez has the flash to think he's a bit badder than the rest of them. As the back-room enforcer for a respectable sub-contractor on the New York subways, he does what he has to do; the best way out of dead-end street violence, he can see, is the kind of violence that will get you somewhere, the kind that pumps behind money.

He works for the man (James Caan), hangs around the man's mansion and plans to marry his ravishing daughter Erica (Charlize Theron). Willie, by his own lights, has it made.

A few years before the story starts he let his dim friend Leo, played with affecting hesitancy by Mark Wahlberg, take the rap for some car thieving. Leo is also Erica's cousin: he is family. When Leo gets out of prison, anxious to make good and support his ailing mother (Ellen Burstyn), the least Willie can do is cut him in on some of the action. Then the action turns nasty.

James Gray directed The Yards from a script he wrote with another New York indie director, Matt Reeves. His previous (and first) film, Little Odessa, cost two million dollars; The Yards cost Miramax $20 million a frightening amount of money for a dark, gloomy film without heroes.

Gray is a bookish young man with academic Marxist leanings. He is a very unlikely American director, even on the fringes. When I say that the film is telling me that business can never be anything but corrupt, that nobody can save this day or any other bad day, he turns to me and says, rather unnervingly, "I love you".

There is nothing of the political tract about the story, however; it is played out at the emotional pitch of grand opera, heightened by Howard Shore's groaning, grinding score. A theme derived from Gustav Holst's The Planets sweeps through several scenes like an emotional wind. "I'm attracted to what's dramatic. I hate middle-of-the-road cinema. I feel like I want to fail big," says Gray.

Big ideas need big styles. "I feel cinema most of the time is a squandered opportunity because it has the potential to be the most emotional medium, but I don't think it's utilised enough."

Phoenix must have been Gray's perfect compadre, raised to be chary of the American dream. "All around us there are these images of what you could now define as the good life, of acquiring all these material items," he says. "But we don't have the moral support or guidance to make decisions for a good life."

He may not sympathise with the kids in The Yards, but they are not really villains. "It was all circumstance. I don't really believe in anyone being born malevolent. It's our environment that dictates those changes."

He would change nothing, he says now, about his own upbringing. He barely remembers his time with the Children of God, the flower-power version of Christianity that, in the 1980s, was up-ended in a paedophile scandal. Arlyn Sharon Dunetz and John Bottom as the Phoenix parents once were joined in 1972. Joaquin says they were looking for a spiritual community. "They were searching for an alternative way of raising their children. They didn't want to raise us in the Bronx. My mom was raised in the Bronx, she was scared every day coming home from school. But my parents have never been blind followers."

Still, when they decided to leave, they found doing so was no easy matter. They were living in Venezuela at the time, so the whole family stowed away on a container ship bound for Florida, then made their way across America in a dodgy car. "I feel there was something really amazing about my parents and what they did," Joaquin says.

When they got to Los Angeles, their mother took a regular job with a casting director at NBC, where she stayed for six years. Her employer suggested she find an agent for the children. She looked around until she found one who would take all five of them; of course, they could not be separated.

Joaquin, now 26, has been acting since he was nine. When he was 15, he was in Ron Howard's Parenthood, playing a morose adolescent carrying around a bag full of porn flicks.

His first truly fine hour, however, was as Nicole Kidman's dupe in Gus van Sant's To Die For (1995). For a couple of hours we believed that Joaquin Phoenix, a matinee idol in real life, was really a cringing, spotty youth so grateful for Kidman's attentions that he was persuaded to kill her husband.

Gray saw To Die For and decided he wanted Phoenix for his film. "I thought 'interesting stuff going on there with that guy'," he says.

In fact, Gray wanted to cast Phoenix as Leo, a weak, malleable character. Joaquin persuaded him otherwise: he wanted to be manipulative, charismatic, powerful. "I chose Willie because he was the sort of guy I hadn't been before," he told The Observer. And when I became him, that was kind of shocking to my family that I could be so obnoxious and strut and swagger about being so goddamn suave, as this guy who just thought he was the man."

Interestingly, he seems to have found his way into his recent characters' strengths by identifying their weaknesses, their neediness. In The Yards even in Gladiator what struck him about the characters was that they had not had the advantages he feels he has had. Willie, he has said, "had no secure parenting". The soft-fleshed emperor was "a lost kid". "These characters don't seem to have the love that holds us together. That's how I was always raised. That was my parents' priority."

Phoenix's role in Philip Kaufman's Quills, an account of the Marquis de Sade's imprisonment in the asylum of Charenton, is more startling in its way: here, his deprivations are those of the senses. His Abbe de Coulmier is the benevolent pastor to the mad, sufficiently secure in his faith to swap intellectual badinage with the marquis while condemning his excesses and fighting his own, painful battle against his illicit desire for the laundry maid, played by Kate Winslet.

He protects the divine, degraded marquis even though his scribblings appal him; Quills is essentially a discourse on censorship, a topic on which Phoenix takes a predictably liberal view. "I think it's up to the individual," he says. "I think the problem is people not accepting responsibility, and society not accepting responsibility is bullshit too. This is what Quills is about, that all the blame for the state of the world is put on certain individuals without recognising it in ourselves. Often times people are so opposed to something you just wonder: 'Why does it threaten you so much? Do you fear you have those desires too?"'

His next film, currently being shot in Germany by Australian director Grigor Jordan of Two Hands fame, is Buffalo Soldiers, which "questions whether there is a fundamental desire for war".

He certainly works hard, this vegan mumbler with did I mention this? a bad cigarette habit and unironed Prada togs. Quills came hot on the heels of Gladiator, with The Yards before it. He wrestled Mark Wahlberg down a staircase for The Yards, flabbed up for Gladiator and lost it all for Quills.

After the three of them, there was only one place to go: home. "I went to bed for a week," says Joaquin Phoenix, sweetly, "and my mom fed me sandwiches."