Casey Affleck’s admission that “I’m Still Here” was all a hoax makes it a much better movie. Sure, some people may be upset that Joaquin Phoenix’s assistant didn’t really shit on his face in his sleep, or that Phoenix and David Letterman were in on the gag the whole time or that Sean Combs’ superlative performance was just that. But those people are stupid, and here’s why:
In the beginning of the film, Phoenix more or less directly states his modus operandi: He’s tired of playing the character of Joaquin Phoenix and he’s unsure whether or not the personality that he’s developed as a famous person is a product of what the media says about him, what he thinks of himself or projections of his movies onto reality. He says all of this with his back to the camera, obscured by a blue hoodie. This is an important moment that is mirrored later in the film, when Phoenix stares at his reflection in a mirror, obscuring himself from view. Phoenix is deliberately opaque throughout the movie; although he spends the entire film asserting its reality, his construction of himself throughout the film is as far from real as can be.
He is a major celebrity embarking on a ridiculous, joke rap career as “JP,” and yet there are several scenes throughout the movie when he rants and raves about how, for example, Leo is taking a limo while he’s stuck in the back of a minivan. Or berating his assistants about how they hold him and Casey Affleck (brother-in-law and director of “I’m Still Here”) back from getting into clubs and parties easily. Or having a meltdown because his assistants don’t “give him a chance to be a good person” because they let him sleep through Obama’s inauguration. In these moments, Phoenix captures perfectly what it means to be a celebrity: In order to have credibility as a certain type of famous person, you have to not appear to care about your fame. Of course, your fame is the defining thing about you, and without it you would be lost.
Unlike rappers, who are almost required to care disproportionately much about exactly how famous they are — money, hoes, clothes and cars all serving as audible representations of the type of visual fame important to mainstream rap — actors are in certain ways expected to minimize their own fame (or ease of recognition) to retain credit for being good at their job. When we talk about a great actor, we talk about him disappearing into the part he plays. When we talk about a great rapper, we talk about him imposing his will on the track, no matter how many “Soulja Boy[s]” there are to dilute his message.
So when Combs asks Phoenix “why rap?” the answer seems obvious: Phoenix’s goal is to make himself much more famous by pretending not to care at all while simultaneously committing himself to a profession where fame and instant recognition are the two most key elements of success. If there’s a contradiction there, there should be, because Joaquin Phoenix is now a much more famous person for ostensibly retiring from his profession than he ever would have been if he had continued acting in a more traditional way.
A key part of the film comes at the Oscars, when a host of people wearing Phoenix’s iconic beard mumble their way through whatever they’re presenting. It’s a cheap and obvious joke, sure, but it’s also recognition of how famous the character of Joaquin Phoenix has become. Sure, Phoenix had a nice career up to this point — he was the villain in “Gladiator” and he played Johnny Cash — but the thing you remember about those movies is Russell Crowe and the fact that the movie is about Johnny Cash, not Joaquin Phoenix.
Now, Phoenix has created an iconography around himself that will be, for better or for worse, probably the defining one of his career. And he did it on his terms. And it’s great.