Triple Threat: Joaquin Phoenix Stirs The Oscar Echoes
Ivor Davis
c. Ivor Davis

A new Phoenix is rising in Hollywood - Joaquin Phoenix, to be precise.

      The brother of the late River Phoenix turns in not one, not two, but three superb performances in recent or upcoming films, the kind of trifecta that could have him competing against himself, come Oscar time.

      For several years Phoenix has been on the fringes of stardom, logging strong performances in less-than-compelling films such as ``Clay Pigeons'' (l998) and ``Return to Paradise'' (1998). His performances were intense, his personality magnetic - all he needed was a film with a high enough profile to make people sit up and notice.

      All he needed, in short, was ``Gladiator.'' In that film, which opened in May, Phoenix more than held his own with powerhouse Russell Crowe. As the sadistic, demented Emperor Commodus, he once again proved that a good villain can be an actor's route to greatness.

      Next up is a dark mob story, ``The Yards,'' opening on Oct. 20. Cast as a slick mob ``fixer,'' Phoenix steals the movie outright from an impressive cast that includes Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, James Caan, Faye Dunaway and Ellen Burstyn.

      Phoenix plays Willie, a smooth half-Latino who is a master of bribery and corruption, using a mixture of dollars and violence to ensure that Caan's company gets the lucrative contracts to build and maintain New York's subway system - the ``yards'' of the title are the subway's train yards.

      It's all about betrayal, and Phoenix's is the kind of role that Robert De Niro might have taken a decade or two ago, a tour-de-force, all-stops-out performance that evokes memories of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson.

      ``I liked the ambiguity of the characters,'' Phoenix says, ``that there's not one good guy and one bad guy, which you see in a lot of films. All of them have a little bit of both.''

      Another offbeat role comes his way in ``Quills,'' opening on Nov. 22, with Phoenix more than holding his own in the company of heavyweights such as Geoffrey Rush, Michael Caine and Kate Winslet in a film directed by Philip Kaufman.

      Set in a mental hospital, ``Quills'' chronicles the last days of the notorious 18th-century French aristocrat, the Marquis De Sade (Rush). Phoenix plays an indulgent priest in the hospital, with Winslet as a woman slowly drawn into Sade's depraved world.

      In person, during a recent interview at a Los Angeles hotel, Phoenix looks scruffy, his hair awry, his jeans tattered and his fingernails bitten raggedly. Yet the camera loves him, and onscreen it's difficult to tear your eyes away from him.

      Richard Harris, who was murdered by Phoenix in ``Gladiator,'' was impressed by the young actor.

      ``He's a marvelous eccentric,'' the veteran thespian says. ``A brilliant actor, completely unpredictable, but with all the right instincts.''

      Harris knows one when he sees one: Phoenix comes from the kind of background that almost guarantees eccentricity. His parents were John, a Los Angeles furniture refinisher, and Heart, a secretary who quit her job in New York and a previous husband to join John on the West Coast as traveling missionaries for the Children of God movement. In that capacity they journeyed around the world, in the process raising five children - River, Joaquin and three daughters, Rain, Liberty and Summer - all of whom became actors.

      Joaquin Phoenix was born during a family stopover in Puerto Rico. He grew up largely in Florida, where his parents settled after quitting mission work.

      The boy was only 8 when he and River were cast in the l982 television series ``Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.'' At the time he was known as Leaf, a name he'd adopted to fit in more with his family. It would be almost a decade before he switched back to his birth name, Joaquin.

      At 10 he made his movie debut, playing a precocious kid in ``Space Camp'' (l986), and later won roles in ``Russkies'' (1987) and ``Parenthood'' (1989), in which he was typecast as a rebellious teen-ager.

      In real life, however, he was living out a more adventurous scenario.

      ``When I was 15 I decided to travel, so I went on my own to Central America to explore and grow,'' he recalls. ``I worked in construction and with horses, but I don't really want to go into the details.

      ``I suppose because I was born in Puerto Rico and spoke Spanish, I always loved South America,'' he adds after a moment. ``And I needed to take a break from this business.''

      Arguably the most significant single event in his life was River Phoenix's death in l993. It was Joaquin who made the 911 call to police on Halloween night, to report that River was dying of a drug overdose on the sidewalk outside the Viper Room, a Sunset Strip nightclub.

      ``As each year passes I get nearer to accepting River's death,'' Phoenix says, his voice still troubled after seven years. ``I don't think I will ever understand it. It's beyond my comprehension.''

      In shock, Phoenix stepped away from the movie business for more than a year. When he returned, it was as a different caliber of actor, grabbing the audience's attention in the black comedy ``To Die For'' (1995) as a wild-eyed teen-ager willing to become a hit man for the love of Nicole Kidman.

      At the same time he was gaining a reputation for being moody and abrasive, but he insists that this image was always deceptive.

      ``I was really shell-shocked,'' he says. ``People interpreted that as being cold and evasive, and that image pretty well stuck.''

      It didn't help that his character in ``To Die For'' was ... well, moody and abrasive. Phoenix was stung by some critics who discounted his performance, saying that he had simply played himself.

      ``Ever since then I've been determined to show that I am acting,'' he says, ``and that's why I try to bring such diversity to each new character. That's why I take risks.''

      It was that urge which led him to accept his role in ``Gladiator,'' one which cast him very much against type. As the treacherous, incestuous Commodus he delivered a performance which might easily have gone over the top, but instead impressed even Crowe.

      ``I love him,'' says Crowe, who himself was launched to stardom by the movie. ``Sooner or later, I hope he learns how good an actor he is. He's damned fine.''

      Hearing Crowe's comments relayed, Phoenix rolls his eyes.

      ``What can I say to that?'' he says. ``It's very nice. But I find it difficult to watch myself on screen. I'd be more concerned if I was an actor who tickled myself pink. What's important to me is how passionately devoted I am during production.''

      In his offscreen life, Phoenix says, he is something of a gypsy. He once dated actress Liv Tyler, but nowadays his movie timetable keeps him hopping from continent to continent, leaving little time for long-range relationships.

      ``I have my family and sisters and two beautiful nephews,'' he says. ``I've been shooting films in England, although New York is home at present. But I don't know where I'll be next week or end up living.''

      If you're trying to find him, the insiders say, the best place to look might be at the Academy Awards next March.

      (Ivor Davis is a Hollywood-based reporter and columnist.)