With ‘Joker’ a box-office sensation, can Joaquin Phoenix win the Oscar?

  • Kyle Buchanan, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-10-22 17:24:44 BdST

Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from the film. The New York Times

“Joker” was the first big winner of this year’s award season, but will it have the last laugh?

Certainly, the Joaquin Phoenix comic-book drama has been confounding industry expectations since its late-August debut at the Venice Film Festival, where it nabbed the Golden Lion, a top prize typically given to prestige films like “Roma” and “The Shape of Water.” Critical reaction was more mixed when “Joker” debuted in theatres this month, but box-office returns have been triumphant: The movie set an October opening-weekend record and is projected to make more than $300 million domestically.

That’s a staggering amount for a character study that lacks the action scenes or the sense of humour associated with most current comic-book movies, but “Joker” will soon marshal all of that money and pop-cultural capital in pursuit of an even more ambitious goal: Warner Bros. hopes the film will join “Black Panther” and “The Dark Knight” as the rare comic-book hits to also score big with Oscar.

To your Carpetbagger’s eyes, the movie’s best shot is in the best-actor race. The 44-year-old Phoenix has been nominated three times before (for “Gladiator,” “Walk the Line” and “The Master”) and is so frequently cited as the best actor of his generation that you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s already won at least one Oscar. If voters recognise that this is their chance to make it up to him, Phoenix could be a formidable front-runner.

His performance as a sad sack who takes a violent turn also plays into one of Oscar voters’ favourite tropes: It’s physically transformative. Phoenix lost more than 50 pounds to play the Joker, and director Todd Phillips shoots the frequently shirtless actor in a way that doesn’t let you forget it. The best-actor Oscar often goes to a performance that’s perceived as physically arduous — think Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club” or Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Revenant” — and Phoenix puts all of that exhausted emaciation on the screen.

This could give Phoenix an advantage over the best-actor candidate who so far looks like his strongest competition, Adam Driver in “Marriage Story.” Driver has astounded reviewers playing a character that most Oscar voters will have no trouble relating to — a bicoastal director negotiating a tricky divorce — and critics’ groups will probably hand him the most laurels this season.

Still, it’s not the sort of physically transformative role that Oscar voters are suckers for, and while the 35-year-old Driver has put together such a sterling career that some regard him as the next Joaquin Phoenix, comparing the two may give voters an incentive to reward the actual Joaquin Phoenix first.

That’s not to say this Oscar season will be smooth sailing for Phoenix: Though he’s been willing to do more press and audience Q&As for “Joker” than is usually expected of him, he’ll never be the shake-hands-and-kiss-babies type. Voters may also be hesitant to reward Phoenix for playing the same role that won Heath Ledger an Oscar for the relatively recent “Dark Knight.”

It must also be noted that the best-actor category is unusually stacked with contenders this year, from big names like Robert De Niro in “The Irishman,” Leonardo DiCaprio in “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” and Eddie Murphy in “Dolemite Is My Name,” to a long list of potential spoilers like Antonio Banderas for “Pain and Glory” and Taron Egerton for “Rocketman.”

For Phoenix’s Oscar bid to have real heft, then, “Joker” itself will have to get nominated for best picture, which has so far been a prerequisite for every best-actor winner of the 2010s. To do that, “Joker” will have to rack up nods in below-the-line races like production design, cinematography and score — all of which are in reach, thanks to a top-tier crafts package. The harder part will be convincing voters to buck a critically mixed consensus and still give “Joker” its best-picture imprimatur.

There are precedents: Films like “The Blind Side” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” weren’t especially well-reviewed, but they were such populist powerhouses that voters couldn’t overlook them in the best-picture race, and the leads of both movies went on to win the Oscar. The difference between those films and “Joker,” though, is that “The Blind Side” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” were conventional crowd-pleasers, while “Joker” is a violent, feel-bad bummer.

Still, it’s a violent, feel-bad bummer that will probably make more than $300 million, which is more than most conventional crowd-pleasers can manage these days. “Joker” is hardly Oscar bait. But who’d expect a character like that to play by normal rules anyway?


© 2019 New York Times News Service