Joachin Phoenix Still Scares Me


Joachin Phoenix is back in the news. The last time I saw him he was stumbling through an interview on the set of the David Letterman show. He looked disoriented, to say the least, to the delight of his host, who sometimes looks for the comic in the tragic. At the end of the interview, with the crowd laughing audibly, Mr. Letterman quipped that they would have to issue an apology to Farrah Fawcett (for her equally confused appearance on his show in 1997).

Anyway, at that time he was trying to tell David Letterman that he was done with acting. He was now working on becoming a rapper. Well, two years later and still no rapping hit to his name, he is back on the big screen portraying “Freddie” in the movie “The Master,” directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

I have not seen the movie nor do I know if I will see it. But from the reviews I have read, it looks like people will soon forget Mr. Phoenix’s performance on the David Letterman show (and even his more bizarre appearance on the “documentary” “I am still here) and will start talking about potentially another Academy nomination for his performance, which is supposed to be brilliant in this movie, which opens this Friday.

There is a part of me that is happy for Mr. Phoenix. He is certainly a multi-talented actor, deep and little nuanced in his interpretations. He is all in and can be raw talent at times. Everyone seems to agree that he’s got what it takes, so it seems reasonable to assume that he will probably continue to to make great movies. And that is the part that makes me happy.

But there is also something about him that still scares me. In fact, the director of “The Master” may have said it best, when he was considering him for the part of “Freddie.” He said, “Joachin scares me, in a good way.” Well, I don’t know if the latter part of that statement reflects my sentiment. He just plain scares me… in a serious way.

I still remember Mr. Phoenix as largely living on the edge. Maybe he walks a fine line between sanity and insanity. But some people would say that is true of all of us, to a certain extent. Or maybe he is still so grief-stricken by the tragic death of his older brother River, also an accomplished actor and musician, who died of an overdose of cocaine and heroine in the early morning hours of October 21, 1993.

Joachin, his sister Rain, and some other family and friends were present when River collapsed on the sidewalk of a hotel in California. They attempted to revive him, to no avail. How can you possibly forget the pain of such a sudden departure? Mr. Phoenix seems to be a classic representative of a group of young artists whose life early on has been marked by tragedy, addiction, and neglect so deep that it threatens to swallow them up at any moment. They live in a parallel universe, so it seems, between total brilliance and total dejection. At one moment creating prolifically; at another destroying furiously, their art being the only thing that gives them a sense of worth.

So it is no wonder that Joachin wanted to leave the milieu that so prematurely harvested his brother’s life. It is no surprise he may have wanted a clean break. But now he is back at it and deeply in it.  Can he survive the rush of attention again and find enduring solace for his soul? The are, I believe, some holes in the heart that cannot be completely filled, even with the adulation of the media and fans the world over. There are pains that require so much soul-searching and divine intervention that it would be doubtful (though not impossible) that anyone embracing and breathing the fast pace Hollywood lane can attain.

I like Mr. Phoenix. I wish him the best. And I don’t mean only on the silver screen. I wish he will find peace and look for help in the right places. I wish his friends will be truthful with him and not simply “leave him be.”

I hope that in the end Mr. Phoenix will find the kind of peace that surpasses all understanding and that he will be able to come to discover that in his brokenness, he can find healing; in his brilliance, he can find a quiet place for humbly acknowledging that when it comes to matters of the soul, when everything also fails, he must do what the old philosophy professor told his freshman class: “Go to church!”

Ivanildo C. Trindade