Another Star Rises

By DANA KENNEDY Thursday, March 1, 2001

It is one hour after Joaquin Phoenix is scheduled to arrive at The Algonquin hotel in Manhattan and there is no sign of him. The doormen are asked to be on the lookout while his handlers frantically try to track him down. This could mean trouble. After all, Phoenix has gotten almost as much buzz for his two bizarre appearances on late-night talk shows last year, in which he rambled incoherently at times, as he has for his Oscar nomination for playing a corrupt emperor's son in The Gladiator. One magazine went as far as to wonder, ``Is Joaquin Phoenix the new Farrah Fawcett or what?''

The answer would seem to be no. Phoenix is finally located, 25 blocks uptown at Armani, getting fitted for the tuxedo he will wear to the Academy Awards ceremony on March 25. He could not be more apologetic as he calls, sounding quite lucid, on his cell phone, and races downtown for the interview. For this child of hippies, the third of five siblings who moved with his family 40 times in 20 years, the duties and obligations that come with an Oscar nomination are apparently a bit overwhelming. As a result, he lost track of time.

He settles breathlessly into a chair at the hotel bar wearing an old plaid shirt, jeans and sneakers, orders a bottle of mineral water and lights the first of many cigarettes. ``I don't know anything about tuxedos,'' says Phoenix, 26. ``This is kind of a first for me.''

So, too, is the kind of attention he has been getting: a best supporting Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the villain Commodus in Gladiator and critical praise for his performances in two other movies released last year. In Quills, Phoenix plays a progressive priest sympathetic to the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush); in The Yards, a story of bribery and corruption in the New York subway yards, he steals scene after scene as a thug who betrays his best friend, played by Mark Wahlberg.

``I was very tough on him, but he wants his buttons to be pushed,'' says James Gray, director of The Yards. ``There were the scenes at the end where he had to be at the end of his rope and I actually had to be kind of abusive to him. But he likes to be talked to right as he's going to do a scene. He likes to be reminded of what the character is going through. He has an odd and incredible talent.''

Philip Kaufman, who directed the actor in Quills, says Phoenix appeared shy and withdrawn when they first met, in London, where Phoenix read for him. ``He was looking down the whole time until he finally looked up and - whammo! - the emotion was there,'' Kaufman says. ``He's like a blend of Montgomery Clift and John Garfield.''

For the part of Commodus, Phoenix did some research into the period but refused to watch tapes of classic toga epics like Ben-Hur and Spartacus. ``I didn't want to be influenced by anything,'' he says.

Phoenix's breakthrough performance was his turn as the dim-witted teen-ager who commits murder for the love of an aspiring television anchor, played by Nicole Kidman, in Gus Van Sant's dark comedy To Die For (1995). But after that he languished on the fringes of stardom in a series of forgettable films like Inventing the Abbotts (1997), Clay Pigeons (1998) and Return to Paradise and 8mm, which were both released in 1999.

Until now, perhaps Phoenix's greatest fame stemmed from the death of his older brother, the actor River Phoenix, who collapsed from a fatal overdose of cocaine and heroin outside the Viper Club in Hollywood in 1993. Phoenix made an anguished call to 911, later broadcast by the news media, as his 23-year-old brother lay dying on the sidewalk.

Before River's death, Joaquin had labored in relative obscurity as a child actor since the age of 8. With the exception of Joaquin's notable turn as a rebellious teen-ager in Parenthood in 1989, it was River who was the family star. River first gained real acclaim for Stand by Me (1986) and received a best supporting actor nomination for Running on Empty in 1988. River was both the family breadwinner and its perceived saviour. At his memorial service, his mother, Arlyn, who changed her name to Heart in 1988, said, ``We believed we could use the mass media to help change the world and River would be our missionary.''

But in a bittersweet twist, it is Joaquin who is having the celebrated career his brother might have had. In a sense, he is living up to the new surname his parents chose when they returned from Latin America in the late '70s. Disillusioned after years as missionaries for the Children of God, a religious cult, the Bottom family chose the name Phoenix to signify their rebirth.

When Phoenix is asked if he has ever felt survivor's guilt, he looks confused. Then he answers with something more like a question, arising out of his work. He has just returned from Germany, where he finished filming on his first true starring role as a wily sergeant in a dark comedy, ``Buffalo Soldiers,'' about the American military when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. ``The military adviser said, `When in combat, when your friend gets killed right next to you, the very first thing you think about is, Thank God it wasn't me,''' Phoenix says. `` `And then you spend the rest of your life feeling guilty about that.' Isn't that awful? Is that survivor's guilt?''

In any case, Phoenix was with his family, with whom he remains close, just after word of his Oscar nomination came. He was at a sister's house to visit his nephew, and his mother and another sister were also there. ``We just started talking, and it's pretty wild,'' he says. ``Because I remember being 10 years old and driving with my parents and a couple of us kids going to various auditions. It'd be like an hour of traffic in a car that was always threatening to die on us on the 405 freeway. And going to these auditions with just tons of kids and they were just awful. But we had each other and it was something that ultimately was enjoyable for us.''

Much has been written about the Phoenix family and their eccentric lifestyle. The actress Martha Plimpton, who has known Joaquin Phoenix since he was 11 and who accompanied River, then her boyfriend, to the Oscars, calls them hippies. ``They describe themselves as spokes in a wheel,'' she says. ``They are very interdependent.'' But what is not often pointed out is that they were hippies who became very savvy about show business.

Joaquin's mother, born Arlyn Dunetz in New York City, left her husband and secretarial job in 1968 and hitchhiked from New York to Los Angeles, where she was picked up by John Bottom, a high school dropout and sometime carpenter.

They lived in communes on the West Coast before joining the Children of God and beginning a nomadic life as missionaries for the church in Latin America. Joaquin was born in Puerto Rico and named for a family friend. (He changed his name to Leaf for a time during his childhood before returning to his given name.)

The Children of God encouraged members' children to hand out pamphlets for the church and to perform on street corners for money. According to Phoenix, River and his sister Rain proved especially talented. But the family disliked some of the cult's more controversial practices, like encouraging members to use sex to bring in recruits, so they moved to Florida, nearly destitute, in 1977 to live with Arlyn's parents. It was then that Arlyn Phoenix seemed to morph from hippie earth mother to stage mother.

Phoenix said she had sent copies of a newspaper article about some of her children performing in local talent shows to her former college roommate, the actress-turned-director Penny Marshall, and Marshall encouraged them to go to Hollywood. The entire clan drove out in a beat-up station wagon with a missing back window. They had to give away their dog, Branch, en route because, Phoenix recalls, ``We couldn't afford an extra mouth to feed.''

But once the family arrived in Los Angeles, Phoenix landed a job as a secretary at NBC's casting office and also managed to get all five of her children an agent, Iris Burton, who remains Joaquin's agent today. (Only last year year did he agree to be co-represented by the Creative Artists Agency.) At the age of 8, Phoenix got his first job, along with his brother River and elder sister Liberty, on the television series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Phoenix, who went on to numerous guest shots as a child actor on Hill Street Blues and other shows and pilots, says he is grateful he was able to learn techniques like ``how to hit your mark and all that.''

He also says he understood the acting process at a very young age. He credits the actor Peter Horton, who appeared on Seven Brides, for ``making it seem so real.'' He can recall in startling detail a scene from the show in which he and his sister had to react to a fight between Horton's character and another man. ``We were supposed to freak out and, man, we just screamed and cried, and I remember being shocked,'' Phoenix says. ``It was a defining moment for me, trying to capture that authenticity and really feeling it.''

Phoenix took a three-year break from acting when he was 15, traveling to Costa Rica with his father, where John Phoenix still lives on a ranch that was purchased for him by River. (His parents have been divorced for several years.)

Phoenix returned to work in To Die For and realized then ``how much he missed acting,'' he said. It's not hard to believe him. His face lights up when describing every movie he has made, particularly the most recent three. He approaches a part by talking it over with a director and then letting everything ``ferment.'' He said he had an ``epiphany'' about how to play Commodus after two weeks of trying to figure out the character, but will not reveal what it was. ``There's something mystical about how it all comes together,'' he says.

Indeed, the only recent misfires in his career have apparently been with the late-night talk show hosts David Letterman last November and Jay Leno last May.

Phoenix acted so incoherent and distracted that Leno asked that he ``be here in person next time.'' Phoenix says he dislikes the canned pre-interview process that talk show producers require, and it was his idea in both cases to ``go in there acting dazed and confused.''

``I thought it would be funny,'' Phoenix says. ``But it backfired. I guess I should just stick with movies.''