As Joaquin Phoenix rose to accept his Oscar for the Academy’s Best Actor award on Sunday night in LA, the hall seemed to hold its breath in anticipation. Who would have to squirm in their seats? When he won a Golden Globe, he had rung an alarm on climate change. At the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (or Bafta awards) shortly after, he contrasted his own privilege with those of coloured actors to call out racism in showbiz. This was the big night, a career peak like none other. If his Oscar speech left a hush, at least by Hollywood decibel levels, it was perhaps because his earful appeared to be aimed at everyone. Maybe even at anarchists who lose their heads and entertain dark “negative thoughts", the sort Phoenix’s character is advised to stay away from in Todd Phillips’ Joker, the role that bagged him his prize by slicing open for viewers the descent into villainy of a shunned man.
At the podium, Phoenix expressed the customary gratitude, touched upon a common love of cinema, and cut elegantly to the chase. To its prime purpose as an art form, that is, or the medium’s “greatest gift" as he put it: the chance to “use our voice for the voiceless". Whether it was gender inequality, racism, queer rights or the rights of other blameless sufferers, he said, it was essentially a common fight against injustice. “We’re talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender, one species, has the right to dominate, use and control another with impunity," he said. While this got to the crux of global inequity, he held anthropocentric greed to blame for what our species had wreaked upon the natural world. In citing an example, the actor, a vegan by choice, flayed the dairy market for practices such as the artificial insemination of cows, the theft of calves against their “cries of anguish", and the wanton use of their milk for our coffee and tea. Rounding off, he called himself a selfish scoundrel glad to have got a second chance, urged a global group hug of sorts for the sake of humanity, and had his voice quaver and eyes well up in tears while reciting a line written by a brother he lost on how love could yet rescue peace.
As an artiste, it’s his job to hold audiences spellbound, as he did in his turn as Joker, a role essayed earlier by actors such as Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, a thespian favourite for its scope to evoke dramatic irony. The latest film was panned by some for allegedly glorifying violence. Other critics spied subtle nuances of social vulnerability in the character’s spiral into his delusional hell, as if to suggest a wider public complicity in his evil acts. Shakespeare’s Shylock is another role sought after by accomplished actors, especially those keen to enact his “If you tickle us" soliloquy. The Joker, in contrast, offers a comic book exaggeration of villainy, but is seen as an equally stiff challenge of portrayal. Phoenix’s Oscar, thus, is well-deserved. The better movie overall was adjudged to be Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, a South Korean take on hardscrabble lives that became the first non-English film to win the Academy’s Best Picture award. Yet, the most memorable part of the Oscar ceremony was an earnest plea for equality, justice and peace. It’s why Phoenix’s clasp of a golden statuette outshone his screen performance.