ANDREA PLATE WRITES — I met Joaquin Phoenix when he was eight years old. This was in 1984.
“Sometimes you think they like you,” he told me, “and then you don’t get the part so you feel kind of lousy. Once a casting director told me, ‘The money’s on you. They love you.’ Everybody loved me—and then this other kid got the part.”
His name, then, was Leaf. The kid actor, and his nature-named actor siblings— River, Rainbow, Liberty and Summer— were to be the subject of a magazine story for “Family Weekly,” then a Sunday supplement magazine within 325 newspapers.
“You have to meet the Phoenixes,” said the mother of another successful child actress. They would be perfect, she said. The story, in my mind, would be about parents pulling in big bucks on the backs of their young kids. I could use lots of well-worn, real-world clichés about child stars: Too much too soon. Parents living vicariously through their young. Kids learning how to stab backs before driving cars.
It was not to be. The Phoenixes were no “typical” family. They were a happy huddle of hippies, five kids plus Mom Arlyn (who later re-named herself “Heart”) and Dad John (who later left the family). Proudly, the parents pronounced that they would not compromise their ideals and allow their kids to:
- eat meat or junk food
- wear leather (When cast in the TV series “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” River wore a specially crafted, non-leather belt); or
- accept roles that violated their values (in Hollywood!), meaning, no exploitative violence or sex.
What’s more, the family dog was named “Justice.” How could I satirize that?
Who knew, or could possibly imagine back then, the sad back story that lay ahead? The allegedly alcoholic father (John, a landscaper -turned -child star chaperone and manager, was perhaps the least career-minded of the Phoenix clan, while Arlyn was an executive secretary at NBC); their divorce in 1997; the drug-infused death of their oldest child, River, outside Sunset Boulevard’s Viper Room. And while the family freely told me tales of their humble beginnings with the Children of God— some holy-moly cult of missionaries they followed through Latin America, and from which they ultimately fled (to Arlyn’s parents in Florida)— it would be years before more sordid stories surfaced…that, for example, the cult engaged in “flirty fishing,” a particular way the cult’s females would lure men into their religion.
And so, as the child is father to the man, Leaf, even at age eight, was well on his way to becoming today’s Joaquin: Taciturn. Hard-edged. Cynical to the core. Clearly the plain-faced, plain-spoken all-American boy, gripped by the indelicate hands of casting directors, publicists and studio execs, would be quickly formed into a Hollywood oddball; an off-beat truth-teller, both on- and off- stage; a reluctant “star;” and a genius actor who turned a cartoon character into an unforgettably realistic, twisted celluloid anti-Christ named “The Joker.”
Sure, eight-year-old Leaf was jaded. So are most child actors trafficked by Hollywood. They wilt under the pressure to impress and stress their way to the top. They tire of those bummer, bumper-to-bumper rides over the LA freeways, after school, to auditions, to cattle calls, to nowhere, all too often—no job, no paycheck, no sweet-sounding “You’re hired.” That’s what Leaf was trying to tell me, at age eight.
But Leaf was no ordinary child actor. He was special. He was deep. And so, as Joaquin tells the story, big brother River had a prophetic vision: that little boy Leaf would someday be swept from the family tree to miraculous, starry heights and would rise higher, and be a better actor, than he— despite Joaquin’s bland, brown-haired looks versus River’s golden locks and gorgeous face. Despite Leaf’s sinister-looking upper lip scar. (Or would that prove to be a big bonus?).
Although River died, his dream did not. Like a proverbial phoenix—hence, the family’s adoptive surname “Phoenix” (their dad’s true surname was “Bottom”)— Leaf, nee Joaquin, rose from his brother’s ashes to become a legendary movie star.
He’s had many terrific star turns—“Gladiator,” “Her,” “The Master,” “Walk the Line”—but none quite like “Joker,” with the brazenly bravura portrayal of Arthur Fleck, a mad misanthrope, a deranged dancer with the grace of Gene Kelly, the menace of Boris Karloff and a smile to match. In “Joker” he unmasks his clown to show the face of our world, where real people work as paid clowns, clowns transform into real, rabid revolutionaries bent on revenge and the Joker gets the last laugh… Just like Joaquin… Remember how he tricked us with that wicked documentary “I’m Still Here,” pretending to quit acting for a career in hip hop? Remember David Letterman’s stark stare into the dark sunglasses on his guest’s inscrutable, far-out face, when he quipped, “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.”
Well, he’s most certainly here now, center stage. Already this year Joaquin Phoenix has won the Golden Globe; the Directors Guild Award; the Critics Choice Award; and the BAFTA Award (for Best Actor in a movie rated 69% on Rotten Tomatoes). Now he’s the frontrunner for Best Actor at the Academy Awards next Sunday. If he loses? No big deal. Joaquin Phoenix has been taking hard knocks virtually his entire life. He is both a born winner and an experienced loser. Naturally, he plays both parts exceedingly well.
But, personally, I hope he wins… Phoenix-like. And now – a week after I originally wrote this.first draft.. he did.
Andrea (Darvi) Plate, senior advisor at Asia Media International, is a former professional child actress who has authored three books, including ‘Pretty Babies,’ about Hollywood’s famous child-actor culture, and ‘Madness,’ about American war veterans and their embattled Veterans Administration.