Joaquin Phoenix’s Unorthodox (And Riveting) Oscar Campaign Is Holding The Film Industry’s Feet To The Fire

Joker might not be everyone’s favorite Oscar contender, and it’s not even this year’s most sophisticated critique of marginalization and classism (that would be Parasite), but the Todd Phillips-directed picture made an undeniable impact in more than one context that measures success. Financially, the movie reaped over $1 billion at the global box office. Prestigiously, it received 11 Oscar nominations, but perhaps most importantly, it made a lot of comic book fans happy. That’ll keep the dollars coming back to future outside-the-DCEU efforts from Warner Bros., and after Joaquin Phoenix’s performance reaped an enormous awards season platform, he’s waging an unorthodox campaign.

Phoenix, who portrayed a guy named Arthur Fleck (who later became the greatest supervillain in Gotham), has now landed his fourth Oscar nomination. He’s swept every notable award along the way, and he’s got a virtual lock on the Best Actor category. Even those who speak out against Joker cannot deny that Phoenix’s portrayal was terrifyingly majestic and almost unparalleled among not only the superhero genre but all cinema. Well, the Walk The Line and The Master actor has also taken an unusual approach to awards season: he’s tauntingly perched upon multiple soapboxes for months. Those causes are the crux of his campaign, unlike how most nominees play it safe until they receive that Oscar gold. Then they drop a breezy speech, which might highlight one issue before the “shut up” music plays them off the stage.

Whereas Phoenix has been playing the (relatively) long game, and he won’t be silenced on his gut-wrenching issues, no matter how much Hollywood would like to ignore them. I honestly wouldn’t even be surprised if he had his Oscar campaign tactics in mind when he signed onto Joker. After all, he and Phillips are both clever at games. They crafted a mid-budget, gritty film that evokes 1970s Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet and profited handsomely. They crafted a non-canon movie that sits outside the DCEU and carries a whiff of prestige and was blatantly fashioned to compete. Despite that intent and Joker‘s faux-controversies, it’s still an important piece of art. It also hauntingly depicts authentic struggles, including how marginalized people are left twisting in the wind, not only by society but by the system.

Fleck was a captivating subject, and Phoenix is no less a stellar specimen to witness. With almost every honor swept so far, he’s skewered those who elevated him to said pedestals. Yes, he’s a frontrunner, but he’s waging an insurgent campaign to propel causes important to him, but uncomfortable for the Hollywood elite. Usually nominees do far less high-stakes things during campaigns. You know, like posing for glossy magazine spreads or talking about their private lives. Granted, Joaquin did talk to Anderson Cooper about the legacy of his late brother, River, something that he really hasn’t done before. Yet for the most part, Phoenix has advocated on issues: (1) Mass adoption of a vegan diet to help ease climate change; (2) Reduction of carbon footprints; (3) Recognition of forgotten mental-illness sufferers; (4) Acknowledgement of systemic racism that’s perpetuated by the predominantly white-male Hollywood elite.

He’s done so loudly and outrageously, and he’s pointing fingers at the film industry. Phoenix is lecturing his equals while he accepts awards, and I’d be willing to bet that Academy leadership is nervous about what he’ll say this upcoming weekend. It’s almost awe-inspiring. Phoenix led a picture that is emblematic of the white-male domination that proliferates the Academy, and he’s using his accolades to lecture the hell out of the people who are elevating him. It’s a much tamer version of how the marginalized Fleck called out the upper crust in devastating ways. I can imagine the Joker laughing behind the scenes, and perhaps the real joke is on those members who voted for Phoenix?

Before Oscar night arrives, let’s recap Phoenix’s brazen 2020 speeches thus far:

– Golden Globes: At the season’s first major awards, Phoenix devoted his speech to two climate change subtopics: (1) Thanking the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for the “bold move” and “powerful message” of going plant-based for their dinner and “acknowledging the link between animal agriculture and climate change”; (2) Sliding in a mini-condemnation of nominees taking private jets to travel from LA to Palm Springs (to avoid a few hours worth of traffic) for other awards season events.

– After the Globes: Phoenix popped into the press room for a shambolic appearance, in which he good-naturedly ribbed reporters asked standard (and repetitive) questions on how he prepped for Joker. This led to Phoenix elaborating on his joy over the night’s vegan menu (including king oyster mushrooms, wild-mushroom risotto, and assorted veggies) while urging other awards events to take the same route. Then came science:

“Animal agriculture is the third leading cause of climate change, it uses 70% of the water, it pollutes the most water, the statistics are staggering. I think we’re coming to a point now where the evidence is irrefutable and undeniable, I think its somewhat where we were when we realized how poisonous tobacco was and second-hand smoking. I think now consuming animal products is no longer just a personal choice it is having a drastic and vast consequence on the rest of the world and all of us.”

– Capitol Hill Arrest: Less than a week after the Globes, Phoenix hightailed it to Washington, D.C. to join a climate change protest led by Jane Fonda. Mind you, no one could possibly argue that Phoenix wasn’t aware that a steady stream of actors had been arrested while marching next to Fonda. He knew that he’d be detained, and Fonda even made a point of telling a reporter that she didn’t personally invite but “came of his own volition!” Here’s part of what Phoenix said on the protest podium:

“I struggle so much with what I can do [to fight climate change] at times. There are things that I can’t avoid — I flew a plane out here today, or last night rather. But one thing that I can do is change my eating habits.”

– Screen Actors Guild Awards: Phoenix took a bit of a breather from advocacy at this ceremony and devoted his onstage time to praising his fellow Best Actor nominees, including an amusing anecdote about Leonardo DiCaprio, who he also effusively thanked for career inspiration, and Christian Bale, who he asked to “just suck once.” The Joker lead also paid tribute to the greatest Clown Prince Of Crime who preceded him. “I’m standing here on the shoulders of my favorite actor, Heath Ledger,” he declared. “Thank you.” The entire speech disarmed the room, as if Phoenix wanted the Oscar Academy to let down their guard, before he started dropping hot fire again.

– After The SAGS, However: Phoenix returned to activist mode by peacing out of an afterparty to attend a slaughterhouse vigil where he joined a group that comforted pigs on their way into the facility. During a Facebook Live video with activist Jane Velez-Mitchell (as part of her Jane Unchained platform), Phoenix spoke to the camera to discuss why he needed to attend. In the process, he declared, “[T]he evidence is overwhelming that there’s a connection between the meat-and-dairy industry and climate change.” (He appears shortly after the 16:00 minute mark in the below video.)

– Critics Choice Awards Well, it appeared that Phoenix’s request for more awards shows to adopt vegan menus did not fall on deaf ears. While accepting the Movie Award For Best Actor, Phoenix was absolutely thrilled about the ceremony’s attempt “to offset our carbon footprint.” Then he singled out the Joker director and his fellow screenwriter with praise for how the movie addressed society’s treatment of mental health and its resulting marginalization. Phoenix the trickster mentions tricks here:

“Scott Silver and Todd Phillips, you tricked us. You took a comic book character and used to talk about childhood trauma, gun violence, isolation, and mental health. And instead of inciting violence you invited the audience in to see what it feels like when you’re one of the forgotten. And I deeply appreciate that.”

And once Joaquin really had everyone’s attention, he pulled a real alley oop…

– The BAFTAs: Oh boy. Phoenix really did a number here with a gutsy speech. While accepting the Best Actor award, Phoenix skewered the British academy for its lack of diversity this awards season. Yep, he sure did use the term “systemic racism” to describe the film industry as a whole for its strong favoritism (while claiming meritocracy) for white male nominees. In the process, Phoenix admitted that although he fought for more diversity on his film sets, he did not have unclean hands, and he went from there:

“I don’t think anybody wants a handout or preferential treatment. [A]lthough that’s what we give ourselves every year … This is not a self-righteous condemnation because I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem … I think that we have to really do the hard work to truly understand systemic racism. I think that it is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it. So that’s on us.”

Honestly, it’s not hard to believe that the film industry would be on edge while wondering what Phoenix will say (or do) next. I want to say that I never expected this turn of events when he paired up with Casey Affleck to make a faux documentary called I’m Still Here about a decade ago, but it all kind of makes sense now. That move nearly ruined both their careers, but Phoenix has obviously fully rebounded. He’s now trouncing those who ostracized him, and he’s doing it for good causes. We’ll be watching when he makes his inevitable Best Actor Oscar speech on February 9.