The rise of an almost fallen star
Joaquin Rafael Phoenix has travelled a long and winding road that has finally led to a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for his performance as the corrupt son of a Roman emperor in "Gladiator".
Phoenix was born on the 28 October 1974 in Puerto Rico and, at the age of four, took it upon himself to change his name to Leaf, a more earthy name like that of his siblings - River, Rain, Liberty Butterfly and Summer.
Like most actors, Phoenix and his family fell into financial hardship when he was a child and that is when his parents turned to the acting talents of their children as a source of income. A friend mailed an article about the children to actress Penny Marshall, and the family subsequently received a letter from Paramount inviting them to drop in if they were ever in Los Angeles. Adopting the surname Phoenix to symbolise their new direction, the close-knit clan piled into an ancient station wagon (sansrear window) and drove to California.
Eight-year-old Phoenix, still going by the name Leaf, got his first professional job in the series "Seven Brides For Seven Brothers" which featured his brother River amongst the regular cast. Four years later, at age 12, he made his feature film debut in "SpaceCamp", alongside Kate Capshaw and Lea Thompson. The next year he starred in "Russkies" and in 1989's "Parenthood". It was then that Phoenix decided that there were no good scripts for actors his age and took an extended break from acting.
His parents began to drift apart and Phoenix decided to see Mexico with his father during the early ‘90s. It was during this trip that 'Leaf' changed his name back to his birthname. He later explained in an interview: "In Spanish there's ojo, ajo and hoja; words that meant eye, garlic and leaf in English. I'd be trying to translate, but I'd always mess it up, so people would think my name was garlic or eye."
A few months after returning to the States, the disaffected young actor hung out with his brother and sisters, and was present at LA's trendy Viper Room with River and Rainbow on 31 October 1993, the night River fatally overdosed on cocaine and heroin. It was here where he was reintroduced to the media, as television stations across the nation played his desperate 911 call. Many people in the media wanted Phoenix to rush back into acting to exploit the reverential memory of his adored brother, River.
Phoenix says that River's death was very hard on him and it took him over a year to get over it. Phoenix will rarely answer questions in interviews about his brother, since he apparently feels uncomfortable talking about it even to his close friends.
The script for his first film after his break, "To Die For" sat unread for many months until friends finally convinced him to look at it. Two years later, he played the role of the younger of two lovelorn brothers in the coming-of-age film, "Inventing the Abbotts". The film wasn't commercially successful, but it was during the filming that Phoenix fell in love with his co-star Liv Tyler. The pair dated for over three years, but broke it off in October 1998.
In 1998 Phoenix co-starred with Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche in "Return To Paradise", and later again teamed up with Vaughn in "Clay Pigeons".
Released in early 1999, the reprehensible Joel Schumacher thriller "8MM" cast him alongside Nicolas Cage. He also co-starred with Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron in the crime drama "The Yards", and played a progressive young priest in the critically acclaimed "Quills".