Joaquin Phoenix, Proves There’s a Thin Line Between Genius and Insanity

It has often been said that there is a tiny thin line between genius and insanity. American screenwriter, Bruce Feirstein suggests “The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success.”  Given this, some have characterized Joaquin Phoenix as an acting genius, and based on the early awards success Phoenix has enjoyed the last couple of weeks he may fit the description. Now I say that so that I can introduce a particular story that is going around about the actor’s first reaction to his new film “The Master.”

As this story goes; Phoenix said that he was under the impression that the dramatic film “The Master” was a comedy.

According to, the 37-year-old Oscar Nominee told “Time Magazine: “I’ve seen a rough version, with no score. I thought it was a comedy. I did! I laughed the entire time I was watching it,” Phoenix said. “I was sitting with Paul and I said to him, ‘This is hilarious.’ I have this horrible sense of humor where I think discomfort is funny – partly because I experience discomfort a lot, and it’s a way of laughing at it and getting a release.”

That’s a pretty incredible statement given the profound seriousness Phoenix brought to his performance. At best, I’d have to say his reaction is borderline weird, and I would be much harsher if the actor had not turned in one of his best ever performances and arguably the best performance of any actor this year. Nevertheless, I believe his behavior only proves that there’s a thin line between genius and insanity.

After viewing the film, I actually had to think back to when I have seen a performance that riveting. In the 1960s and 70s Marlon Brando stood out as an actor possessing talent beyond any of his peers. In other words, as an actor he was unequivocally second to none; in fact, it wasn’t even close. Though Al Pacino and Robert De Niro emerged in later years, Brando was indisputably the standard compass by which actors have been measured for more than four decades.  But judging from what critics are saying about Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s film “The Master” the “I’m Still Here” actor might be the new irrefutable gauge by which future performances will be evaluated.

“The Master” had its New York premiere on Tuesday, Sept. 11, to a mostly silent audience. Whether the crowd at the Ziegfeld was reverent with admiration, or simply confounded, it was difficult to say. (Or perhaps it was simply the solemnity of the day itself. Significantly, there was no after-party.) But what almost everybody did say, is that Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman give performances of such power and intricacy that Academy voters will be swept away.

Specifically, some of the accolades describing Phoenix are quite reminiscent of what was said about Brando during the apex of his career. For instance: Michael Hogan of the Huffington Post writes, Joaquin Phoenix (a shoo-in for a Best Actor Oscar nomination and a very serious threat to win), Contact Music reports that “speculation is already rife that Joaquin Phoenix will win one of the more prestigious awards; Best Actor, for portrayal of Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s highly anticipated new film.

The IMDB website published a series of critiques on Phoenix claiming;  Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is the 37-year-old Phoenix’s first role since that debacle, and critics are almost universally touting his performance as a triumphant return to form; declared; “Phoenix is stunning as the violence-prone drifter,” Thompson on Hollywood said, “We’ll be talking about “The Master” deep into awards season; Phoenix should be considered the frontrunner for best actor.” Forrest Wickman writing for says, “Phoenix, whose actorly transformation appears to be as frighteningly complete as Daniel Day-Lewis’s in the Oscar-winning role of Daniel Plainview.

I could go on and on, but perhaps what adds to Phoenix’s performance is that “The Master” is a powerful essay on post-WWII America, faith and identity. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffmann are electrifying, like two expert magicians at the top of their game.

But “The Master,” like many of Anderson’s films, may be polarizing. Anderson, along with Phoenix and Hoffman, give us plenty to digest, especially about the effects of war and what compels people to follow a startup Scientology-like religion

Freddie Quell is an honored WWII Navy vet who finds himself lost and abandoned after the war. Completely unsure of his future or of his self-worth, Quell becomes a reactionary figure, a self-destructive alcoholic, a publicly violent and disruptive vagabond. When he crashes a party on a yacht headed to New York, he meets the erudite, philosophical author Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd, looking at Freddie as a wild beast in need of taming, uses the Vet as a guinea pig for his newly-formed religion simply titled The Cause.

Dodd soon grows into a social celebrity, ‘processing’ followers with his idea that our souls live in all times, and vehemently attacking his critics, even going as far as accepting Freddie as his attack dog.

When you look at Joaquin’s character you will conclude that Phoenix gives a brutally physical performance as Freddie Quell. It’s a marvel to watch an actor pack so much raw and twisted emotion deep into a character and watch the reaction burn from the inside out. As the critiques I have included here show, Phoenix leaves little doubt that he is indeed the master performer of this film … heck, of the year!  He portrays a humanity that has been battered and abused and taken advantage of one too many times. He’s a fuse that’s entirely exciting to see lit. It appears that no one that has seen the film disagrees that Phoenix has Oscar written all over him.

Anderson plays with idea of animals being tethered, trained and mastered. Dodd, a misanthrope up on his high mountain of condescension, looks upon Freddie and the world as a society of blind and ignorant beasts. During one monologue he refers to leashing a dragon and training it to roll over and play dead. Such is the discreet motivation behind Dodd’s religion. But Hoffman, like Phoenix, gives the character a tick or two. Beneath his asceticism is a needy and insecure man. He’s a soft-spoken bully that preys on the weak. He’s as lost a man as Freddie, but unlike his protégé, he’s unable to be honest about his dishonesty. He may call himself Master, but who, asks Anderson, is the real animal?

Amy Adams gives a career-turning role as Dodd’s zealous wife. Adams breaks the mold of playing innocent, flighty characters and delivers a solid, assertive performance. She nicely grounds the electricity sparked from Hoffman and Phoenix and channels it into her own. All the performances in this film are riveting, but Phoenix’s performance is unmatched since Brando.

Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood reunites with Anderson and provides an unsettling postmodern orchestral score. Greenwood’s music, like Phoenix’s performance, is every bit psychological and effective, like a metronome ticking to an uneven beat. Between Greenwood’s dissonant score, the period songs and 50s production design, “The Master” gives an uneasy sensation of an inverted Rockwell painting.

“The Master” is shot with the rarely used 65mm format, giving the film a gorgeous wide frame. Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. fill every scene, every frame with incredible period detail. The format, also used in such classics like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” provides an incredible depth of field. Many times throughout the film, we see our characters move deeper into the frame, giving off a spectacular sense of depth and space that still isn’t even rivaled by the best of the recent 3D films. This is the first major American theatrical feature film to entirely shoot on 65mm stock since Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” in 1996.

“The Master” has one of the highest scores of the year so far on and its Rotten Tomatoes rating is also impressive. Major influencers like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone and The Hollywood Reporter gave it flat out raves, with both NYT and EW specifically using the phrase “great movie.”

Presently, the a general consensus among film critics when discussing Joaquin, is that he is certainly making a triumphant return to a more traditional mode of screen acting. The industry should be proud to have him back.

3 Responses to "Joaquin Phoenix, Proves There’s a Thin Line Between Genius and Insanity"

  1. VVS   September 19, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    Insanity? There’s nothing wrong with his comment…I Saw the MAster, and I was laughing at a lot of Freddie’s behavior. That’s the mark of genius in acting…when Actors infuse dark performances with lots of humor.

  2. AndrewW   September 16, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    From all the hype about the entertainment industry, you would think there was nothing at the core. On the contrary, the power of film to impact society is undeniable. Those who lead this great art form are gifted in ways few people can really understand. It’s not genius or insanity it’s an ability to share intense emotions and draw people deep in to another reality. In the hands of political or religious leaders it’s a dreadful weapon but in the hands of actors at this level of achievement it is a gift we can all rejoice over. They give so much that is hard to measure. This is why they should be respected more than they are. There should be a right of privacy for these great people that does not air their private struggles unless they want them aired. They should be given the same rights to personal privacy most of us enjoy.

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