Despite the fact that he's likely to receive an Oscar nomination for his work in The Master, Joaquin Phoenix should never have been expected to take the whole charade of awards season seriously. This is a guy who's been Oscar-nominated twice and looked completely miserable at both ceremonies, then deliberately blew up his career with the faux-documentary I'm Still Here, in which he derailed the promotional efforts for a very good movie (James Gray's Two Lovers) by gaining a lot of weight, growing a beard, and tanking every interview he came across. David Letterman still probably hasn't forgiven him.
A lot of us were happy to see Phoenix back in top form in The Master, but even diehard Oscar fans like me know he doesn't need the award to prove he was great-- and thanks to a recent conversation with Elvis Mitchell in Interview Magazine, he may not be getting it. At least if you buy into the traditional methods of getting an award, that is. Here's the exchange that we're all assuming made every Academy member gasp:
MITCHELL: So what are you going to do when they put you on the awards circuit for The Master?
Phoenix is not saying anything that all of us who love movies have not though at one point or another-- nor anything that we couldn't have assumed he felt, based on the epic glowering he did at the ceremony when he was last nominated. But the common assumption about the Academy is that they want to be sucked up to and revered, which is why actors who might get nominations spend months and months attending screenings and parties, doing Q&As and interviews, and generally acting like an Oscar nomination would be a gift from heaven. Few of them really believe this, but they have to sell it-- it's why they're actors, after all. And when actors seem to not be fully engaging in the awards season dog-and-pony show-- like Eddie Murphy when he was nominated for Dreamgirls-- they sometimes don't win.
Then again, when Mo'nique was nominated for Precious in 2009, she had no problem skipping Oscar-boosting events in favor of working on her own TV show-- "I couldn't eat that Oscar. Everybody needs money, baby?"-- and more than a few people assumed her awards chances were over. They weren't. Mo'nique won the Best Supporting Actress statue that she genuinely deserved, an instance of how, when work is good enough, it will overcome all the Academy politics. It doesn't happen often enough, but it does happen-- which is why I hope the Weinstein Company, and whoever else is behind Joaquin Phoenix's potential awards run, isn't panicking in the situation room today.
Joaquin Phoenix's wiliness, his willingness to go into dark places and his restless insecurities all contributed marvelously to his performance as Freddie Quell in The Master. And while that movie may not appeal to everyone, those who love it surely recognize that-- and those who like the movie enough to vote for Phoenix on their Oscar ballots have to know they couldn't expect an inch of kowtowing from Phoenix in the first place. If Phoenix doesn't wind up getting a hugely deserved Best Actor nomination, it won't necessarily surprise me-- but for now I'm holding out hope that good work, once in a while, really can trump the elaborate politics of the movie business.