Joker is out now in Cineworld and takes us back to the origins of the Clown Prince of Crime. The idea of a Joker origin story wasn't exactly welcomed with open arms at first – but then you add star Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. If anybody could pull this off, it had to be the master of the unconventional and the disturbing, the man who many regard as the finest actor of his generation.
Troubled characters with an all-too-human vulnerability have become Phoenix's stock-in-trade, making him one of the most in-demand and compelling of today's performers. The actor formerly known as Leaf Phoenix emerged from the shadow of his late older brother River with a series of memorable supporting roles in the 1990s and 2000s – so what are the other memorable faces donned by Phoenix throughout his career?
1. Commodus – Gladiator (2000)
For some, Phoenix's performance as Russell Crowe's on-screen nemesis is the highlight of Ridley Scott's sword and sandals masterpiece. Phoenix earned an Academy Award nomination for his role as the calculating, cold-hearted Roman emperor, but underneath is a lurking insecurity and a desperate need for power, which is simultaneously disturbing and pitiful.
There's a strong sense of unease in all of his scenes and you can't blame everybody else for not wanting to be anywhere near him. Even when he's going ever so slightly over the top, Phoenix is great in the role – so great that musician Johnny Cash thought Phoenix the ideal choice to portray him in Walk The Line.
2. Johnny Cash – Walk The Line (2005)
Phoenix "burns, burns, burns" as legendary country singer Johnny Cash in James Mangold's biopic. It's a movie that traces Cash's life from his humble beginnings, including the death of older brother, Jack, to his status as a musical icon.
Despite being half a foot shorter than the real Cash, Phoenix's distillation of his physical mannerisms and voice was stunning, yet this was no simple impersonation. He captured the apparently contradictory sides of the man – his darker, self-destructive nature along with his humour, warmth and need to please – all wrapped up with an intense gaze and slow, drawn-out voice.
That Phoenix did his own singing is well known, and it also demonstrates his commitment to bringing Cash to life. It won him another well-deserved Oscar nomination.
3. Freddie Quell – The Master (2012)
The mockumentary I'm Still Here, and a self-imposed break from acting, had persuaded many that Phoenix's career was over. Not so, as his rebound role in The Master proved. It's a performance of such physicality that it's one of the highlights – if not the highlight – of his career so far.
Playing a World War II veteran suffering from PTSD, who comes under the influence of charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Phoenix pulls out all the stops to hold his own on the screen. Being Phoenix, he went further, going on an extreme diet to lose weight and create an angular physique reflecting Quell's character and mental agony.
The result coupled the actor's characteristic intensity with something more fundamental – a deeply ingrained turmoil erupting in bouts of frightening excess and an animalistic habit of sniffing the air. It's indelibly etched in the memory of anybody who saw it.
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4. Theodore Twombly – Her (2013)
Her is writer-director Spike Jonze's tale of desperation and unrequited love set in the not-too-distant future. A lonely writer (played by Phoenix) longs for love and finds it in an unexpected place: his computer's highly intelligent operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.
As Theodore, complete with his mournfully droopy moustache, Phoenix gave us a winning combination of the vulnerable – introverted, solitary and willing to face any challenge, even though he knows his situation is hopeless – and the adorable, digging into the pains and pleasures that go hand in hand with falling in love. Heartbreaking to watch, it showed us a more tender side to his acting skills.
5. Joe – You Were Never Really Here (2017)
Phoenix gives full vent to the psychological agonies of his disturbed Gulf War veteran in Lynne Ramsay's nightmarish You Were Never Really Here. He plays tormented ex-soldier turned hitman Joe, who cares tenderly for his mother but whose weapon of choice as a hired killer is a ruthlessly efficient hammer.
The end result was one of his most powerful performances – it won him Best Actor at Cannes – as Joe moves through a murky crime world, finding it increasingly difficult to deal with his demons. It was a showcase for Phoenix's unique talents and could turn out to be something of a precursor for his Joker portrayal.
Freda Cooper is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.