Give the Clown his Due

Joaquin Phoenix's performance as the Clown Prince of Crime deserves an Academy Award

Caleb Pruss-Hansen

As the year begins to wrap up production, awards season begins to draw near. And while most will remember the summer blockbusters, the performances by the actors to bring those films to life will be recognized and remembered as well. When the 92nd Academy Awards takes place February next year, a Best Actor in a Leading Role award will be given. That award is given to recognize the standout acting performances of the year. And Joaquin Phoenix, and his portrayal of the Joker in the aptly named backstory film “Joker”, gave the world a performance to remember. His performance, like Heath Ledger’s before him, brings the Joker to life in new and relevant ways. Joaquin Phoenix remains true to the character, as “Joker” is an origin story film after all. He is not yet the Clown Prince of Crime at the start of the movie, but his downward spiral to that point leaves a lot of room to make this Joker unique. And with all kinds of character depth, Joaquin Phoenix does just that. 

The iconic laugh of the Joker is given new life as Phoenix moves it from an evil mastermind’s laugh to a mentally unstable cackle of a man sinking further into madness that is usually only seen in comics. His motivations aren’t the typical sow chaos concepts as seen in “The Dark Knight” or various animated series, but a loner who feels wronged and rejected by society around him that eventually gives into his worst impulses. Granted most of this is the work of the writers and director but even the best writing and directing falls flat and fails when an actor fails to bring it all to life. 

And Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is bursting at the seams with it. My opinion is not unique. There are many who feel that Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is nothing less than standout. Joe Morgenstern, movie critic for the Wall Street Journal, said “Mr. Phoenix might have been put here to play Arthur. His portrayal is brilliant and all-encompassing…”. Another critic, Peter Travers (a film critic with Rolling Stone), had similar praise for Phoenix’s performance. In Joker, Joaquin Phoenix digs into the title role, kicks out the jams, and stamps the character with a danger all his own. “Phenomenal” is a puny word to describe his gut-punch performance.” While critics are divided on the quality of the film itself, many agree on the quality of performance Joaquin had. And the praise for his performance doesn’t stop there, as much more recognition comes from the audiences who have seen the film. 

If both audiences and critics can agree Phoenix’s performance was anywhere from good to phenomenal, why shouldn’t he win the Best Actor in a Leading Role award? Afterall, when was the last time critics and audiences actually agreed on a films’ quality? “Joker” has broken records, garnered praise for the acting from critics and audiences alike, and has the attention of the awards world. In case you were wondering, “Joker” does qualify for the Best Actor in a Leading Role award. The only thing stopping it really is the Academy’s fear of praising superhero movies. The closest a superhero film has gotten to the coveted Best Picture Award in recent memory was “Black Panther,” and even then it didn’t see an actor nominated for any acting award. So barring another phenomenal performance in another film by another actor, the bias of the Academy may negate any chance Joaquin Phoenix has of winning the award.

But should the Academy bite the bullet and give into Joker-mania, Joaquin Phoenix is more than deserving. It isn’t easy to bring a well known character to life in new and interesting ways. And to do it phenomenally? Well, that’s award worthy if I’ve ever seen it.