A humbled and fresh-faced Joaquin Phoenix returned to David Letterman’s couch last night in order to explain himself. A quick recap: Phoenix appeared on Letterman’s show last year looking disheveled and making very little sense. This appearance turned out to be part of a master plan cooked up by Phoenix and his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, as part of the "documentary " I’m Still Here , in which Joaquin Phoenix pretends to have a nervous breakdown, quits acting, and takes up an ill-advised career in rap. There was much chatter about whether or not Phoenix’s breakdown was sincere, or whether it was part of a hoax, but since the film’s release, both Affleck (who directed the movie) and Phoenix have made clear that Phoenix’s behavior was a put-on.
When Letterman asked Phoenix to explain why he felt the need to inhabit this character, to make people wonder if he’d become a slovenly drug addict, Phoenix said:
[We wanted to make] a film that explored celebrity, and explored the relationship between the media and the consumer and the celebrity itself. And we wanted something that felt really authentic.
Though the movie itself does not provide a satisfying exploration of those themes—it is too poorly paced and structured to provide coherent commentary—Phoenix’s explanation makes sense to me. Still, I’m angry about the fact that Affleck and Phoenix tried to fool their audience, because while much of celebrity culture (hyper-aggressive paparazzi, blogs that speculate on actors’ every twitch) is gross and worth rethinking, much of fandom comes from someplace positive and genuine. What Affleck and Phoenix have done is said "fuck you" to anyone who might have cared about Phoenix as a fellow human.
"I recognize you as a powerful talent, I've always liked you," Letterman tells Phoenix, which is how I felt about him, and why I was dismayed by his drug addled state—when I thought it was real. I was sad to see a talented actor take such a turn. But Affleck can only conceive of fans experiencing schadenfreude over a celebrity’s disintegration. In this interview with Roger Ebert about the movie, Affleck says: "We obsess about celebrities. We create them, build myths around them, and then hunt them and destroy them."
Unlike his co-conspirator, Phoenix appeared genuinely chagrined to learn that people were hurt by his performance. What’s more, their upset surprised him. "I apologize, I hope I didn't offend you in any way," he said to Letterman.
Both Affleck and Phoenix’s reactions show that they are deep in the celebrity bubble they purport to revile, far removed from the hoi polloi actually buying tickets to their films. Phoenix’s reaction is naïve and out of touch: Of course fans are upset when they feel you play a practical joke on them! Affleck’s reaction is far more entitled. In that interview with Ebert, Affleck says that it was OK that Ben Stiller and Natalie Portman made fun of Phoenix’s bizarre behavior at the Oscars in 2009 , because they were in on the joke— but not OK for vloggers and bloggers, who had no way of knowing what was going on, to do the same. Affleck doesn’t seem to want to explore celebrity privilege (which neither he nor Phoenix appears to want to give up), he only wants to punish us lowly fans for caring.