Joaquin Phoenix offers us a reality check on celebrity. His act on David Letterman’s show exposes our silly fascination with stardom
So it was a spoof all along. After Joaquin Phoenix‘s unkempt, monosyllabic, seemingly drug-addled performance on David Letterman’s show, the actor has returned to apologise, revealing that it was all just that – a performance – and reminding us that he is, well, an actor.
The chat-show confession has come too late to save the blushes of some film reviewers, who’ve leapt upon I’m Still Here, the supposed "documentary" about Phoenix’s feigned retirement from acting and deluded foray into the world of rap, as a tragicomic depiction of the cost of celebrity.
But the episode illustrates something else altogether. As the film’s director, Phoenix’s brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, said in a recent interview: "We obsess about celebrities. We create them, build myths around them, and then hunt them and destroy them." A little melodramatic, but he has a point. Here’s Metro‘s film critic, writing when everyone still believed the film was a documentary: "It’s just like watching a horrific accident but guiltily gripping."
Greater than our obsession with celebrity is our appetite for what passes for reality. While we conflate stars with the roles they play, we’re more enthralled by what Hollywood gets up to off-screen than on. (Part of the affront of Phoenix’s prank is that behind his vagrant’s disguise, he dares to live a private life.)
We want them to provide lurid, real-life fables that make the rest of us feel better. Talent, looks, success: haven’t you heard, they just make you miserable? We no longer have the time or the patience for mystery. As for talent – we evidently don’t have much faith in that. How could Phoenix have been faking it? It was so… convincing!
We read what we wanted to read in the story that he fed us. Though some of us had our doubts from the start, the sensational, celebrity-hungry world of 24-hour news rarely tarries for scepticism. A hoax? Surely not. Look, he even grew a beard, the ultimate mark of a crazy person.
This version also had the added poignancy of a tragic family history: clearly, he was going the way of his big brother, who died on a Hollywood pavement. So the interview went viral, the movie trailer was taken at face value. Bloggers and vloggers were all over it and the old media were hot on their heels.
Those commentators now accusing Phoenix of playing an insidery, elitist joke on his fans seem to be merely shifting the focus, trying to make themselves look less like credulous dolts. (David Letterman, curiously, has emerged from it all with his amused dignity more or less intact.)
Meanwhile, Phoenix’s confession is an arresting reminder of just how manipulated so much of what bills itself as "reality" is. I’m Still Here is now dubbed a "mockumentary", but is it any less real than a love affair between two Big Brother nonentities hatched by PR advisers? Reality TV, gossip mags, the unremitting exhibitionism of Twitter feeds – they all fuel our addiction and subvert our understanding of the word reality in an increasingly virtual world.
In his most recent Letterman interview, Phoenix explained that authenticity was what they were after in I’m Still Here. It’s revealing of our culture that to do that, they had to take refuge in fiction.
LINK: The Guardian.co.uk