Possibly the most compelling thing about Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in the just-released Joker movie is the dancing.
Yes, I realize it’s not the first thing you associate with the character — one for which I’ve always had a fascination. If you are a comics nerd (I have been one on and off throughout my life), your notions of him are era-dependent: it could be Cesar Romero’s near-buffoon with makeup in his mustache; Jack Nicholson playing Jack Nicholson (he did, I grant, deliver the line about dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight); the cackling killer who kept getting locked up in DC comics’ enchantingly named Arkham Asylum because he was so obviously evil in the key of Nuts; Mark Hamill’s voice performance, or Heath Ledger’s Protean and disturbing figure who had many conflicting stories about his origins, all true of course. There was also a Frank Miller version who smooched Dr. Ruth on camera during a broadcast of David Letterman. I guess it had to happen.
All I can say is that if you wanted a Joker more disquieting than Heath Ledger, there was really no choice but Joaquin Phoenix. I was practically camping out in the queue the minute i heard about the casting. Have you ever seen what I think may have been Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film, The Master? If you haven’t, well just set aside an evening when you can afford to be creeped out. Not by Stephen King riffs or Twilight Zone cantrips, but an everyday character who telegraphs deeply wrong in the head with every nuance of his manner, movement, speech pattern and even the weirdly disjointed relationship of his body parts. This is the guy sitting next to you on the bus who asks a question that tells you he’s not in the same world you are; the person who turns a polite time-of-day encounter into a crocked exegesis of his Theory Of Everything; the girl firmly certain that she has fleas that no one else can see. We’ve all felt that ripple under our own skin when people like that crossed our path. In The Master, without any frankly delusional lines, that’s Joaquin Phoenix’s character, and the performance overshadowed Hoffmann’s, which is saying something.
The new film’s Joker character starts out as the same tune in a higher octave: a just-scratching-by guy who’s been to clown school, lives home in an enmeshed relationship with Mom, is on seven different psychiatric medications and chain-smokes. He’s not the popular vote winner for supervillainy. He can’t talk to women, he’s a magnet for people who treat him like shit, his relationships with anyone other than Mom (and an overburdened therapist) exist almost entirely in his head, and his ambition to be a standup comic is… well… ambitious. But every so often, each time circumstances nudge him a little closer to becoming the Joker — when he goes off his meds, when he acquires a gun — he hears a music that other people don’t hear, and dances. And it’s riveting. Phoenix’s body, especially emaciated by losing weight for this performance (to an extent I find actually a bit frightening), inhabits the Uncanny Valley primarily occupied by androids, CGI versions of human characters, and Momo. (Don’t click on that last link if you tend to have nightmares.) When he slides into dance steps — in his own living room, in a public lavatory, on a car hood — he looks weightless, confident, ecstatic. Your mileage may vary but I envied that fluent movement, wanted to be carried along with it, yes my man you are madder than six hatters, but move over and make room for me. I want that.
At this point a personal confession is in order. I used to have all too soft a spot for people who were that damaged. I don’t bang on about it, but I could write a few chapters about having parents who hovered too close and were not right in the head. I could write an encyclopedia about being the kid that everyone wanted to bag on (and who always got made into the Bad Guy for cleaning the little bastards’ clocks, something Nice Little Girls are not supposed to do; let’s say I lift, these days, because punching people is frowned upon). If I met someone who’d lived through the same crap, even if they were manifestly coming unwrapped while I’d managed to hang on, there was a magnetic pull. (My ex-husband probably should be included in this group.) In the unwrapped cases, it always ended with me having to change my phone number, or write a please-stay-away letter — feature Mama Sled trying to make sense of a late-night phone call from someone full of beer and Prozac and melting down unintelligibly over her three-year breakup anniversary. Eventually you learn not to get sucked in, but it takes a while.
Once upon a time, just out of college, I worked in a place where the locals tended to get their coffee, and struck up a friendship with a gangly-limbed, dilapidated, obviously bright young man about my same age, who eventually turned out to be on Methadone after developing an opioid habit. (This was long before the Purdue Pharma people had turned the things into a national scourge; you had to kind of work to get those kinds of drugs in the 1970s). By the time I knew about that, I also knew that his father, a career diplomat, had had a habit if amusing himself by kicking his teenage son down the stairs. Nobody else would talk to the guy because he reeked of his job, which was frycook at a chain restaurant; even in the coffee shop we called him the Crisco Kid.
So of course I talked to him, and offered him an old coat of my decamped father’s that wasn’t marinated in cooking fat, and predictably he crushed out on me, and predictably went bananas owing to the fact that I was already assembling the Interesting Past I now have with gentlemen I’d known long before I met him, and first he said something about how one day he was going to get a gun and finish off everyone who’d ever hurt him before taking himself out, and then took to calling and making my phone ring forty-two or fifty-seven times because he had nothing else to obsess about, and peering in the window when I was sewing, like Ophelia, not in my closet but the dining room, and leaving large ornately wrapped packages on the front step with verses from Omar Khayyam. Jesus Fuck. Every woman’s had one. And I assure you that in the 1970’s, the cops did not give a flying crap about a stalking report, even if you brought up gun threats and past residence on a mental ward. I believe they found it kind of cute.
(His best friend from high school — who described him as “the smartest guy in the whole school, possibly ever” — eventually met and married my best friend from high school, after running upstairs and banging her senseless within an hour of their meeting. They’re still married so far as I know and have a grown daughter. But I digress.)
The point being, I know all those signs that someone’s fucked in the head, and have had to outgrow, not to mention survive, an attraction to it, and it’s unbelievably unsettling when you see someone bring it to life in what’s generally minimized as a comic-book story. If you can live with some violence — not in the Quentin Tarantino class, but getting up there — you really should not miss it. The subtexts about inequality, how we as a society care for mentally injured people, and attitudes of privilege work better at some times than others, and of course Batman stuff is now in the Robin Hood territory where all the stories are true no matter how they conflict with each other. In some ways those are the best stories to work with.
The coffee shop guy. I should close that loop. About a month after I heard from him last, my best friend sent a note that her new boyfriend had told her Coffee Shop had shut himself in the closet of his rented room and taken a whole bottle of Thorazine, and they didn’t find him for three days, more or less when, in Hamlet’s words, they nosed him as they went up the stairs. As I remember, we had guests in the house.
I think they were appalled when I explained what the news was, and then began to twirl about in a grateful dance.