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On set, instead of hitting his marks, he'd wander wherever the moment demanded. On screen, he feels raw and looks ragged—his cheeks gaunt, his eyes pinched and suspicious. On a first viewing, you're not sure if you're watching an actor embrace insanity or succumb to it. It's a hell of a performance, and it won Phoenix his third Oscar nomination.
He took the awards circuit as seriously as ever, which is to say not at all. When the Los Angeles Film Critics Association presented him with the Best Actor plaque, he wisecracked, "I'm assuming that the Los Angeles film critics were banned from seeing Lincoln." When Meryl Streep called his name among the Academy Award nominees, Phoenix looked at his lap, shook his head and continued chewing his gum. It looked rude, but the Oscars had attacked first: In his show-opening number, Seth MacFarlane crooned, "There's Joaquin in his threads; hope he's on his meds."
Anderson didn't mind. "Listen, God, how mad can you be at an actor that's that good at his job and that bad at promoting your film?" he insisted to Time Out London. "I want my movie stars to be dangerous, annoyed and incapable of taking horseshit. I prefer them that way."
Statuettes aside, it's Phoenix's follow-up film—Spike Jonze's Her—that feels like his official comeback. His Theodore Twombly—lonely ex-husband, former LA Weekly writer and man who spends too much time talking to screens—is his most normal character, well, ever. Paradoxically, audiences weaned on Joaquin the Weirdo can finally trust that he's acting.
Her is set in a Los Angeles that feels about two eye blinks in the future. No one wears sci-fi leotards; they're in tasteful, high-waisted tweeds. Most people also wear an earpiece that connects to their next-generation smartphone, an all-in-one device with an upgraded Siri programmed with intuition, empathy, curiosity, and the ability to learn and evolve.
After speed-reading a book of names in 0.02 seconds, Theodore's operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, dubs herself Samantha. She just as quickly becomes his best friend and, eventually, his girlfriend. With the device snuggly safety-pinned into his breast pocket so her camera faces the world (a touch Phoenix brainstormed himself), the two go on dates to Walt Disney Concert Hall and the beach. At night, they lounge in his room and have, yes, phone sex.
Theodore and Samantha live a full and complex relationship arc that couldn't exist without Johansson's brisk and pitch-perfect voice performance. But technically, Her is still a one-person love story (or really, one-human) about a man who's also relearning to love himself. And the only face of their romance is Phoenix's.
"He represents both characters onscreen," Jonze explains by phone from Miami, where he's in the thick of his own press tour. "His reaction is what helps give her credibility." When Samantha talks, Phoenix reacts, his keen green eyes absorbing her words while his expressive eyebrows furrow down in frustration or lift up in wonderment. In some single-take stretches, all he does is react, quietly going from cranky to enchanted to cracking up as she convinces him to stop sulking and get out of bed.
Jonze started work on the script during the last months of postproduction on Where the Wild Things Are, the same stretch in which Phoenix was freaking out the media. They barely knew each other, so Jonze didn't know what to believe. "That Letterman performance, I saw it on YouTube when it came out, and it was so convincing I didn't think he could be faking it," Jonze admits. "I loved it either way. So fearless! To not care, to really not care what anyone thinks of him on that level, is just so punk rock."
Jonze had admired Phoenix's past movies—"He's so alive onscreen; he's so surprising"—but didn't know if Phoenix was actually retired, or if the man nominated for awards for playing madman, killer and drunk was right for cuddly Theodore, Jonze's most personal role.
The week Jonze finished his final draft of Her, he went to the actor's house and showed him the script. "That openness and that playfulness and realness and honestness, it's exactly who he is," Jonze says. "There's nothing pretentious about him. I realized, 'Oh, this is a guy who takes his work seriously but doesn't take himself seriously.' Within the first 10 minutes, I knew he was the guy that I wanted to be in this movie."
With no visible co-star besides minor parts played by Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara and Chris Pratt, Phoenix's face fills the screen. "The name of the camera was very close to my fucking eye," he groans. To help the actor feel comfortable under such close scrutiny, Jonze winnowed the production down to as few as six crew members, with original voice actress Samantha Morton around the corner saying her lines from inside a plywood box. (Johansson was dubbed in during the editing process, when Jonze realized he needed a voice with more confidence and immediacy than what he and Morton had originally conceived, though he hastens to add, "Samantha deserves credit for giving Joaquin and the movie and me so much.")
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