A Spin in the Driver's Seat

Newsday, November 12, 2000
Staff Writer
After a series of breakout roles, Joaquin Phoenix takes a star turn in the drama 'Quills'

THE STORY BEGINS, 15 years ago, with a go-cart.

The five little Phoenixes are cooing over their Christmas presents. Their father, a jack-of-many-trades named John Bottom, has no money to speak of but always manages to make something special for his kids. This year he has cobbled together a go-cart. His 11-year-old son spies it hungrily, a junior Evel Knievel gunning to kick up some dirt.

"Of course, me, the troublemaker," remembers Joaquin Phoenix with a sheepish smile. "I started up this go-cart. You stand behind it and pull the thing. The clutch was all the way down, and it took off. It went down the street, and it literally killed every mailbox. Boom. People came out of their houses in their pajamas. I think I ruined the go-cart."

Some might say this is the beginning of a recurring motif. A few years later, a father-son odyssey through Mexico is cut short when Joaquin crashes a motorcycle and injures an arm. This past spring, Joaquin and his pal Casey buy snazzy Ducati cycles on a whim (they find the name in the Yellow Pages and like how it sounds), and he winds up with stitches in his forehead.

In the five years since Phoenix slithered to prominence as the hapless juvenile hit man in "To Die For," he has impersonated a variety of troubled or volatile young men who fall under the category of Accidents Waiting to Happen (often in movies that were dead on arrival, such as in "U-Turn," "8MM" and "Clay Pigeons"). And he has brought to all of these characters a bruised vulnerability that evokes such accident-prone icons of his parents' youth as Montgomery Clift and James Dean.

At 26, Phoenix is poised to be released forever from the media purgatory that has trapped him since he made the 911 phone call that signaled his big brother River's death in late 1993. This past year the Joaquin formula has been revitalized in two smashing supporting performances, fueling speculation that he may have fulfilled his brother's potential to become the best actor of his generation. In Ridley Scott's "Gladiator," he drew eyes away from Russell Crowe as the Machiavellian kid emperor Commodus. In James Gray's current operatic crime drama "The Yards," he impresses as Willie Guttierez, the subway rookie on the make. Phoenix exudes a heretofore unseen refinement in his first bona fide star role, as an idealistic priest who attempts to reform Geoffrey Rush's Marquis de Sade in Philip Kaufman's juiced-up literary drama, "Quills," opening later this month.