Why Joaquin Phoenix, Who Wows in ‘Her,’ Is the Greatest Actor Alive

Sean Penn? Daniel Day-Lewis? Nope. It’s Joaquin Phoenix, who delivers the year’s finest performance as a sad-sack divorcé who falls in love with an operating system in ‘Her.’

Untitled Rick Howard Company; Magnolia Pictures; The Weinstein Company

During the early 1970s, a young, fearless actor equipped with a devilish grin, mysterious past, and unorthodox methods burst onto the scene like a bat out of hell. Five Easy Pieces. Carnal Knowledge. The Last Detail. Chinatown. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It was a captivating crescendo of performances, each one more nuanced—and gripping—than the last, signaling the arrival of a new screen legend: Jack Nicholson.

Nicholson was a cinematic disruptor; a new breed of actor—brash, enigmatic—who defied the rigid conventions of ‘60s stardom. He was the next Brando. But your time at the summit of Hollywood is fleeting and, by 1980, he’d been overtaken by another young, fearless method actor with some demons in his closet by the name of Robert De Niro.

Labeling someone the “greatest actor alive” is a tough gambit. For one, it’s entirely subjective, because the quality of a given performance is in the eye of the beholder. And, as far as male actors go, there isn’t a virtuoso like Meryl Streep that towers above the rest. There are, it seems, a plethora of options.

The old guard—the Nicholsons and De Niros of the world—are still alive and kicking, but would be the first to admit they’re past their respective primes (though the latter’s turn as an OCD father struggling to connect with his troubled son in Silver Linings Playbook suggests that, given the right direction, he’s still “got it”). There’s Daniel Day-Lewis, who gave a master class in mimicry in Lincoln, earning him his third Best Actor Oscar—the most ever. But the guy only acts once every three or four years, and his last turn prior to that was in Rob Marshall’s movie-musical calamity Nine, which was arguably the worst film of Day-Lewis’s career. Since winning his second Oscar, for Milk, Sean Penn’s been preoccupied with helping rebuild Haiti, and his portrayal of Mickey Cohen in this year’s all-style/no-substance The Gangster Squad was a laughable caricature. As far as Johnny Depp goes, well, three words: The Lone Ranger. So, who is our greatest living actor? Is it the ferocious Christian Bale? Leonardo DiCaprio, with his omnipresent furrowed brow? Or perhaps Matt Damon, one of the most consistently reliable screen presences over the last 15 years?

Nope. It’s none of them. The greatest actor alive right now is Joaquin Phoenix.

Please, hear me out on this.

The 39-year-old is, right now, not only in the midst of one of the best acting runs in film history, but also turns in the finest screen performance of the year in Her.

Written and directed by Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), the sci-fi love story centers on Theodore Twombly (Phoenix), a soulful romantic who’s transformed into a melancholy divorcé following his split from his ex-wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), about one year earlier. He spends his days dictating flowery epistles for loved ones as Letter Writer No. 612 at a site called, and his nights alternating between phone sex with bizarre strangers and playing videogames in his Spartan high rise in futuristic Beverly Hills.

“I can’t even prioritize between videogames and Internet porn!” he exclaims.

His life is a mess until one day he purchases the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system. It’s a Siri-like OS that’s sentient, and possesses the ability to evolve. The female OS names herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and before long, Theodore finds himself falling for her.

Like the gifted Bale, Phoenix has a bit of a likability problem as a star. He’s ornery in interviews—mirroring the intense, frenzied characters he plays onscreen. The media and public felt trolled by his mockumentary I’m Still Here, which chronicled Phoenix’s abrupt retirement from acting in 2009, and faux-metamorphosis into a hirsute, cocaine-hungry rapper dubbed “JP.” And there’s a part of him that, in many of his onscreen characters, feels closed off; that for Phoenix, cracking a smile is viewed as a crass display of vulnerability that’s beneath him as an actor. The tortured soul is nobler than the man who laughs.

As Theodore, however, Phoenix is a revelation. He’s a gentle spirit—a poet—who’s fallen victim to the iniquities of society. He’s a lonely, shining dot swallowed up by nondescript high-rise apartments, a uniform palette of bold and neutral colors, and seas of people drifting aimlessly past him like tech-reliant automatons. The hole in his heart is filled by the gregarious, accommodating Samantha. Suddenly, God’s lonely man is full of light, spinning around in a carnival with glee, and taking day trips to the beach. When the couple get in a fight, with Samantha whispering, “I can feel the fear you carry around…,” Theodore gently weeps. Later, to entertain her, he plays a song on the ukulele in front of his compact camera—a tip of the cap to Phoenix’s days as a street performer in Puerto Rico—and shows off some impressive, hilarious dance moves. Phoenix, it seems, is no longer afraid to be vulnerable, or happy, or overjoyed. As Theodore, he is all those things and more. It’s an even more impressive performance when you consider that Phoenix was mostly acting alone, with the actress Samantha Morton (later replaced by Johansson), speaking into his earpiece while located in a separate room.

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It’s also amazing when compared to his previous performance as Freddie Quell, a hunched, unhinged sex addict suffering from PTSD in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Quell is a feral creature; a personification of the Freudian id. He wrestles with his titular mentor, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman; smashes prison toilets to bits—a stunning scene improvised by Phoenix; and screams like a banshee when his demons are exposed during “Processing.” He makes sand sculptures of naked women on the beach before humping them like a man possessed. It’s a scene that stands in stark contrast to his beach “date” with Samantha in Her, where Theodore calmly, blissfully lies in the sand, cracking jokes with his OS love, and listening to her musical compositions.

Freddie and Theodore. The best performances of 2012, and now, 2013.

Go back further, with his zany turn in I’m Still Here, his tender one as a lovesick man-child in the criminally overlooked Two Lovers, and you’ll see an actor that’s firing on all cylinders, each performance more captivating than the last. Go back even further than that, to the vengeful father in Reservation Road; the undercover operative in We Own the Night; his mesmerizing, Oscar-nominated turn as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, for which he provided all the vocals; and his scene-stealing one in Hotel Rwanda, and there’s not a poor performance in the bunch.

Phoenix is also, like Nicholson before him, a bit of a mystery. There’s the personal anguish he no doubt carries with him from the loss of his brother, River; the years in the cult Children of God; his near-death car crash, and rescue by filmmaker Werner Herzog. Phoenix keeps his mysterious private life private, and thus, is able to disappear into each and every one of his roles.

His next two performances will reunite him with his Two Lovers filmmaker James Gray in The Immigrant, opposite Marion Cotillard, as well as director Paul Thomas Anderson as the lead of Inherent Vice.

Who knows what he’ll have in store for us.