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Phoenix made his feature film debut in the adventure film SpaceCamp (1986) as a young boy who goes to Kennedy Space Center to learn about the NASA space program and undergoes amateur astronaut training. He guest starred in the anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "A Very Happy Ending" in the same year, playing a child who blackmails a hitman into killing his father. Phoenix's first starring role was in the film Russkies (1987), about a group of friends who unknowingly befriend a Russian soldier during the Cold War.
In 1989, Phoenix co-starred as Garry, the withdrawn teenage nephew of Steve Martin's character in Ron Howard's comedy-drama Parenthood. The film was a box office success, grossing $126 million worldwide against its $20 million budget. Critics praised the film, with IndieWire reviewers highlighting the film's cast and their performances for possessing "genuinely likable, and occasionally insightful, heart" calling Phoenix a "terrifically believable angsty adolescent", in a performance which garnered him a nomination for the Young Artist Award for Best Leading Young Actor in a Feature Film. The role of Garry was reprised in the series based on the film by Leonardo DiCaprio, who studied Phoenix's performance in order to get it right. After establishing himself as a child actor, Phoenix felt that he wasn't getting any appealing offers and decided to take a break from acting and traveled to Mexico with his father, learning Spanish. When he returned to the States, his brother River Phoenix suggested that Phoenix changed his name back to Joaquin and encouraged him to start acting again.
On October 31, 1993, River died of an overdose outside The Viper Room in West Hollywood. Phoenix, who had accompanied his brother and older sister Rain to the club, called 911 to seek help for his dying brother. After the death, the phone call was repeatedly broadcast on TV and radio shows. The family retreated to Costa Rica to escape the media glare as the event came to be depicted as a cautionary tale of young Hollywood surrounded by mythology and conspiracy.
In 1995, Phoenix returned to acting in Gus Van Sant's black comedy To Die For, based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Maynard, which in turn was inspired by the Pamela Smart murder case. Phoenix starred as Jimmy Emmett, a disturbed young man who is seduced by a woman (Nicole Kidman) to commit murder. The film premiered at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival and became a financial and critical success, with New York Times critic Janet Maslin praising Phoenix's performance, writing "So pity poor Jimmy. Rivetingly played by Mr Phoenix with a raw, anguished expressiveness that makes him an actor to watch for, Jimmy is both tempted and terrified by Suzanne's slick amorality. In that, he speaks for us all."
In 1997, Phoenix played a small-town troublemaker in Oliver Stone's U Turn, and a poor man in love with a rich woman in Inventing the Abbotts. The films were received with mostly mixed and negative reviews, respectively, and neither performed well at the box office. The following year, Phoenix starred in Clay Pigeons as a young man in a small town who befriends a serial killer. The film was released to a dismal box office performance and was not well received by critics. In his next film, 8mm (1999), Phoenix co-starred as an adult video store employee who helps Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) investigate the underworld of illegal pornography. The film turned out to be a box office success, grossing $96 million worldwide, but found few admirers among critics.
In 2000, Phoenix co-starred in three films. In the first of these, he portrayed a fictionalized version of Roman Emperor Commodus in Ridley Scott's historical epic film Gladiator. The film received positive reviews and grossed $457 million worldwide, making it the second highest-grossing film of 2000. Chris Nashawaty of Entertainment Weekly called Phoenix's work "a more nuanced star-making performance" when comparing him to the lead Russell Crowe, writing "Phoenix turns what could have easily been a cartoonish villain into a richly layered study of pathology." Phoenix earned his first nominations for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award and a BAFTA Award in the Best Supporting Actor category. He and his late brother River became the first brothers to be nominated for acting Academy Awards. To this date, they are the only brothers to hold this distinction.
His next film marked his first collaboration with director James Gray in The Yards. The crime film follows the corruption in the rail yards of Queens. Although failing to perform well at the box office, The Yards received positive reviews from critics with many considering Phoenix's performance as the villain a stand out. The third release of 2000 was Philip Kaufman's Quills, a satirical thriller inspired by the life and work of the Marquis de Sade. Phoenix portrayed the conflicted priest Abbé de Coulmier opposite Kate Winslet. The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and was a modest art house success grossing a total of $17 million at the box office. It was received with critical praise with Peter Travers of Rolling Stone praising Phoenix and his chemistry with Winslet, stating "Phoenix, on a roll this year with Gladiator and The Yards, excels at making the priest a seductive figure — a neat trick considering the real Abbe was a four-foot hunchback. Winslet and Phoenix generate real fire, notably when Abbe dreams of ravishing Madeleine on the altar." For his combined roles of that year, Phoenix was awarded the Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actor and the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor.
The following year, Phoenix starred in the satirical film Buffalo Soldiers as a U.S. Army soldier. The world premiere was held at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival in early September. However, because the film was a satire of the US military, its wider theatrical run was delayed by approximately two years because of the September 11 attacks; it was finally released on July 25, 2003. BBC's Nev Pierce wrote that "Phoenix is excellent as a Gen X Sergeant Bilko, ensuring his cheerfully amoral character never loses heart - showcasing tenderness, love, grief and fear as his games get out of control" and Phoenix received a nomination for the British Independent Film Award for Best Actor.
The science fiction thriller Signs (2002) marked Phoenix's first collaboration with director M. Night Shyamalan. In the film, he played Merrill Hess, a former Minor League baseball player who, along with his older brother Graham (Mel Gibson), discovers that Earth has been invaded by extraterrestrials. The film received mixed reviews from critics, but Phoenix's performance was praised, with critic Peter Travers writing that Phoenix "registers impressively, finding the humor and the pain in this lost boy [...] never making a false move as a helpless Merrill watches his rock of a brother crumble into a despairing crisis of faith." The film was a commercial success, grossing $408.2 million worldwide.
In 2003, Phoenix played the irresolute husband of a superstar-skater (Claire Danes) in Thomas Vinterberg's romance-drama It's All About Love, and voiced Kenai in the Disney animated film Brother Bear. Phoenix expressed immense joy being cast as the lead voice role in a Disney animated feature, stating "The real pinnacle [in my career] is that I'm playing an animated character in a Disney film. Isn't that the greatest?" The film grossed $250.4 million worldwide, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. He was replaced by Patrick Dempsey in the sequel Brother Bear 2. Phoenix reunited with Shyamalan in the period thriller The Village (2004). The film is about a village whose population lives in fear of creatures inhabiting the woods beyond it, referred to as "Those We Don't Speak Of". He played farmer Lucius Hunt, a role which Christopher Orr of The Atlantic found "underdeveloped". Though initially receiving mixed reviews, the film attracted retrospective reviews years after its release. Several critics deemed it one of Shyamalan's best films, praising Phoenix's "terrific" performance. The film was a financial success, grossing $256.7 million worldwide on its $60 million budget.
In his next film of the year, he starred opposite John Travolta in the drama film Ladder 49 as a Baltimore firefighter. In preparation for the role, Phoenix trained for two months with the Baltimore Fire Department, putting out actual fires. He admitted that he was afraid of heights before he started making this film, recalling "I got to the pole and I looked down and I couldn't do it. But you go through the training and it exposes your fears and helps you to overcome them. We ended up rappelling off a six-story tower and that really helped." The film earned $102.3 million at the box office despite receiving generally mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 out of 4 stars, praising the performances in the film. Phoenix's final film of 2004 was Terry George's Hotel Rwanda, playing cameraman Jack Daglish. Based on the Rwandan genocide, the film documents Paul Rusesabagina's (Don Cheadle) efforts to save the lives of his family and more than 1,000 other refugees by providing them with shelter in the besieged Hôtel des Mille Collines. The film was a moderate financial success but was a critical success, receiving almost exclusively positive reviews from critics. For his performance in the film, Phoenix was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award along with the cast.
In 2005, Phoenix co-starred alongside Reese Witherspoon in the James Mangold directed film Walk the Line, a Johnny Cash biopic, after Cash himself approved of Phoenix. All of Cash's vocal tracks in the film and on the accompanying soundtrack are played and sung by Phoenix. The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, eventually grossing $186 million worldwide. Phoenix's performance received rave reviews from critics and it inspired film critic Roger Ebert to write, "Knowing Johnny Cash's albums more or less by heart, I closed my eyes to focus on the soundtrack and decided that, yes, that was the voice of Johnny Cash I was listening to. The closing credits make it clear it's Joaquin Phoenix doing the singing, and I was gob-smacked". For his portrayal of Johnny Cash, he won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy and the Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media for the film's soundtrack. Phoenix also received a second Academy Award nomination, his first in the Best Actor category as well as a second BAFTA nomination. Earlier that year, he narrated Earthlings (2005), a documentary about the investigation of animal abuse in factory farms, and pet mills, and for scientific research. He was awarded the Humanitarian Award at the San Diego Film Festival in 2005, for his work and contribution to Earthlings. Animal rights philosopher Tom Regan remarked that "for those who watch Earthlings, the world will never be the same".
Phoenix's first producing task was the action thriller We Own the Night (2007), in which he played nightclub manager Bobby Green/Grusinsky who tries to save his brother (Mark Wahlberg) and father (Robert Duvall) from Russian mafia hitmen. The James Gray-directed film premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival to mixed reviews; Roger Ebert praised Gray's direction and the acting, but criticized its screenplay for lack of originality. David Edelstein of New York Magazine commended Phoenix for elevating the film's conflict, writing that it "might be heavy-handed without Phoenix's face—his irresolution somehow more powerful than other actors' resolve. There is no artifice. He's not an actor disappearing into a role but a man disappearing into himself[...]Phoenix homes in on the truth of this person. It's the paradox of the greatest acting".
Later that year, he played a father obsessed with finding out who killed his son in a hit-and-run accident in his second feature with Terry George, the crime drama film Reservation Road. The film received mixed reviews from critics; Peter Travers praised Phoenix's acting stating "Even the best actors – and I'd rank Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo among their generation's finest – can't save a movie that aims for tragedy but stalls at soap opera." Phoenix also executive produced the television show 4Real, a half-hour program which began airing in 2007. The series showcased celebrity guests on global adventures "in order to connect with young leaders who are creating social and economic change".
In 2008, Phoenix starred as a suicidal bachelor torn between the family friend his parents wish he would marry and his beautiful but volatile new neighbor in Gray's Two Lovers. The romantic drama premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Reviews for the film and Phoenix's performance were positive; New York Magazine's chief critic called it his best performance to date and Ray Bennett of The Hollywood Reporter felt that Phoenix led the film with "great intelligence and enormous charm, making his character's conflict utterly believable". During the promotion of Two Lovers, Phoenix had started to film his next performance for the mockumentary film I'm Still Here (2010), which the media felt overshadowed the former's theatrical release. I'm Still Here purports to follow the life of Phoenix, from the announcement of his retirement from acting, through his transition into a career as a hip hop artist managed by rap icon Sean "Diddy" Combs. Directed by Phoenix's then brother-in-law Casey Affleck and co-written by Affleck and Phoenix, the little-seen film premiered at the 67th Venice International Film Festival to mixed reviews; critics were divided on whether to interpret the film as documentary or performance art. After its release, Phoenix explained that the idea for the feature arose from his amazement that people believed reality television shows' claims of being unscripted. By claiming to retire from acting, he and Affleck planned to make a film that "explored celebrity, and explored the relationship between the media and the consumers and the celebrities themselves" through their film.
In 2011, it was announced that Phoenix would star in Paul Thomas Anderson's drama film The Master, which traces the relationship between Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a World War II navy veteran struggling to adjust to a post-war society and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffmann), a leader of a religious movement known as "The Cause". To create the character, Phoenix lost a significant amount of weight and went to a dentist to help force his jaw shut on one side; a trait his own father had. The film premiered at the 2012 Venice Film Festival where he won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor. The art house film only grossed $28 million but was received with critical acclaim, with Phoenix's performance receiving high praise. Peter Travers called it the performance of his career writing "Acting doesn't get better or go deeper[...]Phoenix wears the role like a second skin. You can't take your eyes off him." His performance as Freddie was described as "career-defining" by Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter, who was impressed that Anderson and Phoenix collaboratively were able to build such complex work around such a derelict figure. Fellow actor Daniel Day-Lewis publicly lauded the "remarkable" Phoenix while accepting the Screen Actors Guild Award, apologizing for the fact that Phoenix hadn't been nominated for the same award. Despite this, Phoenix received his third Academy, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for his leading role.
Phoenix and Gray's fourth collaboration came with The Immigrant (2013), a drama film in which he played the supporting role of a pimp who prostitutes Polish immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and ends up falling for her. The Immigrant and his performance premiered to highly positive reviews at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. In his review, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of The A.V. Club thought the film featured one of his best performances and commended Phoenix's and Gray's developing work, writing of that "the two are so perfectly in sync, that it's hard to tell where Phoenix's performance ends and Gray's visual style[...]—begins", further lauding their development of Bruno into "a fully fledged tragic character, even though he is neither the protagonist of The Immigrant nor the main driving force behind its plot".
His next feature film of that year was the Spike Jonze-directed romantic science-fiction drama Her. He played Theodore Twombly, a man who develops a relationship with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), an intelligent computer operating system personified through a female voice. Released to critical acclaim, critic A.A. Dowd of The A.V. Club labeled Phoenix as "one of the most emotionally honest actors in Hollywood", impressed at how he effortlessly unleashes waves of vulnerability in the film's many tight, invasive close-up images, calling it a "tremendous performance, one that rescues this character—a mess of insecurities, regrets, and desires—from the walking pity party he could have been". Her earned more than double of its production budget, and Phoenix received his fourth nomination at the Golden Globes. Several journalists expressed disappointment over his failure to receive an Oscar nomination for it, with Peter Knegt of IndieWire naming it of one of ten worst Oscar acting snubs of the last decade in 2015.
In 2014, Phoenix took on the role of Doc Sportello, a private investigator and hippie/dope head trying to help his ex-girlfriend solve a crime in the crime comedy-drama Inherent Vice, based on Thomas Pynchon's detective novel of the same name. Reviews toward the film were positive; critics praised Phoenix's performance and Paul Thomas Anderson's direction, while some were frustrated by its complicated plot. Robbie Collin of The Daily Telegraph termed Phoenix as Anderson's "perfect leading man" and his work as "the kind of quietly dazzling performance that rarely wins awards but will be adoringly dissected and quoted for decades". Phoenix earned his fifth Golden Globe nomination for the film.
After narrating the sequel to Earthlings, the 2015 animal rights' documentary Unity, Phoenix teamed with director Woody Allen and Emma Stone in the crime mystery film Irrational Man. He played Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor experiencing an existential crisis. The film was released to mixed reviews at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival; The Hollywood Reporter felt that the film was too similar to Allen's previous films, but praised Phoenix's chemistry with Stone and Phoenix for playing the character "with a wonderful baggy, lived-in quality that makes us want to climb inside the character's whiskey-sozzled head".
The thriller You Were Never Really Here, written and directed by Lynne Ramsay and based on the novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames, ranks among the most acclaimed films of Phoenix's career. The film is about Joe (played by Phoenix), a traumatized former FBI agent and Gulf War veteran who tracks down missing girls for a living. To prepare for the film, Phoenix was advised by a former bodyguard who goes on international missions to rescue children suffering sexual exploitation and abuse by human traffickers; he gained a significant amount of weight and muscle for the part. Phoenix was Ramsay's first and only choice to play the veteran, with Ramsay calling him "my soulmate in making movies". The film premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where it received universal acclaim and earned Phoenix the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actor. Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times described Phoenix's performance as "the most rivetingly contained" work of his career and Dominick Suzanne-Mayer of Consequence noted that his evocative manners in the film, led to him giving career-high work and "the kind of haunting turn that only comes around a few times every decade or so".
In 2018, Phoenix portrayed Jesus in the biblical drama Mary Magdalene, written by Helen Edmundson and directed by Garth Davis. The film, and his performance, received mixed reviews; a reviewer for Entertainment Weekly thought that Phoenix lacked the quiet compassion and grace that was required for the role, while Nick Allen of Roger Ebert's website described his performance as "a human being who is visibly tormented by the power and wisdom that works through him", deeming it one of the best portrayals of Jesus ever. His next two features—the biopic Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot and the crime drama The Sisters Brothers —were much better received. In the former, Phoenix reunited with his To Die For director Gus Van Sant to portray quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan. Barry Hertz of The Globe and Mail wrote that there's no better leading actor producing better work than Phoenix, stating "The actor – never a simple chameleon, but someone who disappears into a role entirely with a frightening conviction – continues to display new and tremendous range here" and David Hughes of Empire thought that in a more conventional film, Phoenix would be the favorite to win an Academy Award.
The third film of 2018 was The Sisters Brothers, Jacques Audiard's adaptation of the novel of the same name by Patrick deWitt. The film starred John C. Reilly and Phoenix as the notorious assassin brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters respectively and chronicles their chase after two men who have banded together to search for gold. Writing for Roger Ebert's website, Tomris Laffly commented on Phoenix's and Reilly's "tremendous chemistry" and Lindsey Behr of the Associated Press opined that the duo "excellently manage all the various tones in the film". Also in 2018, he collaborated with Rooney Mara and Sia to narrate Chris Delforce's documentary Dominion. Animal rights activists have called it one of the most powerful documentaries ever made. For his contribution to the documentary, Phoenix was granted the 2018 Award of Excellence for Narration by Hollywood International Independent Documentary Awards.
In 2019, Phoenix starred as the DC Comics character Joker in Todd Phillips's psychological thriller Joker; an alternative origin story for the character. Set in 1981, the film follows Arthur Fleck, a failed clown and stand-up comedian whose descent into insanity and nihilism inspires a violent counter-cultural revolution against the wealthy in a decaying Gotham City. Phoenix lost 52 pounds (24 kg) in preparation, and based his laugh on "videos of people suffering from pathological laughter." Released to critical acclaim at the 76th Venice International Film Festival, the film experienced a polarized critical reception after its theatrical release. While Phoenix's performance received rave reviews, the dark tone, portrayal of mental illness, and handling of violence divided opinions and generated concerns of inspiring real-life violence; the movie theater where the 2012 Aurora, Colorado mass shooting occurred during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises refused to show it. Despite this, Joker became a box office success grossing over $1 billion (against its $55 million production budget), the first and only R-rated film to do so, becoming Phoenix's highest-grossing film. Pete Hammond of Deadline wrote of Phoenix's "extraordinary" performance, describing it as "dazzling risky and original" and The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney called his performance the "must-see factor" of the film, writing "he inhabits [the character] with an insanity by turns pitiful and fearsome in an out-there performance that's no laughing matter[...]Phoenix is the prime force that makes Joker such a distinctively edgy entry in the Hollywood comics industrial complex." The film earned him numerous awards, including an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, a SAG and a Critic's Choice Award for Best Actor.
In 2020, Phoenix served as an executive producer on Gunda, directed by Viktor Kossakovsky. The acclaimed documentary follows the daily life of a pig, two cows, and a one-legged chicken. That same year, Phoenix was named on the list of the 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century by The New York Times. The list was compiled by famed critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott and Phoenix's paragraph was written by his frequent collaborator, director James Gray.
In 2021, he starred in Mike Mills' drama C'mon C'mon, as Johnny, a radio journalist who embarks on a cross-country trip with his young nephew. The A24 film premiered at the 48th Telluride Film Festival to universal acclaim and scored the best per-venue average for a limited release since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Angelica Jade Bastién of Vulture praised Phoenix writing "a tremendous showing from Joaquin Phoenix, operating at a register he's rarely found before. It's a career best for him — lovely, empathetic, humane[...]He possesses a warmth that glows from beginning to end. As Johnny, Phoenix listens to people and the world around him with full-bodied curiosity. This is where the bravura lies in the performance: his ability to seemingly just be."
Phoenix has five upcoming films. He will star in Ari Aster's Disappointment Blvd., and in January 2021, Deadline Hollywood reported that Phoenix is set to portray Napoleon Bonaparte in Napoleon, his second collaboration with director Ridley Scott. He is also set to reunite with director Lynne Ramsay for an upcoming feature called Polaris, co-starring Rooney Mara. As reported by Variety in June 2022, Phoenix will star in a sequel to Joker written by Scott Silver and Todd Phillips, with the working title Joker: folie à deux, alluding to the psychiatric syndrome Folie à deux. He will also co-star with Mara in Pawel Pawlikowski's dramatic thriller The Island.
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Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara aren’t just dating, but they’re now living together! The actor spilled the big news about their relationship during an interview with T Magazine published on Wednesday, where it was revealed they’re residing in the Hollywood Hills. Related: Jamie Foxx’s Friends Don’t Know About His Relationship With Katie Holmes He didn’t bring up his girlfriend much otherwise, only mentioning her briefly when revealing why he chose to play Jesus alongside her in Mary Magdalene:
“I was looking for something meaningful. I was looking for an experience. I was friends with Rooney. Jesus, in the film, is ‘just a man’ and playing him was ‘just instinct, just a gut feeling.'”