How Joaquin Phoenix Disrupted Awards Season

The recalcitrant star—who won his first Oscar last night for Joker—turned industry recognition into an opportunity.

Chris Pizzello / AP

Joaquin Phoenix has never been a fan of awards season. The things that lesser humans crave—praise, ritualized recognition by a roomful of your peers, the opportunity to wear an outfit for one night that costs more than a car—seem to leave the actor cold. “I’m just saying that I think it’s bullshit,” Phoenix told Interview’s Elvis Mitchell in 2012, as critical appreciation and Oscars speculation for his role as the wretched Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master were peaking. “I think it’s total, utter bullshit and I don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t believe in it. It’s a carrot, but it’s the worst-tasting carrot I’ve ever tasted in my whole life. I don’t want this carrot.” (Voters listened: Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for The Master but took home neither.)

Cut to 2020, though, and Phoenix—who claimed his first Oscar last night for his caustic performance as the damaged clown Arthur Fleck in Joker—seems to have made some peace with the repetitious hoopla of awards ceremonies by turning them into an opportunity, not an obligation. Since early January, when the actor took his first major award for Joker at the Golden Globes, Phoenix has been rehearsing variations of what he unleashed onstage at the Oscars: a passionate, shaky, emotional plea for justice and change.

While political speeches are nothing new, the spectacle of such a hotly tipped favorite getting platform after platform to speak his mind so publicly has been notable. At the Globes, Phoenix added to the chaotic energy of the evening with a rambling, profane, but heartfelt speech in which he thanked the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for introducing a plant-based menu in a nod to the realities of climate change, and spoke about the wildfires in Australia as an associated calamity. (“We don’t have to take private jets to Palm Springs,” he said, before being played off by the orchestra.) At the SAG Awards later that month, Phoenix acknowledged the absurdity of acting awards by using his whole speech to praise his fellow nominees and the late Heath Ledger.

By the BAFTAs in February, the actor had refined his platform even more, delivering a potent analysis of what “systemic racism” in the entertainment industry costs, at an awards show widely critiqued for the whiteness of its nominees that year. He also acknowledged that he himself had been part of the problem by not insisting that the projects he worked on be inclusive. “I think,” Phoenix said, “that it is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it.”

Phoenix’s first Oscars speech on Sunday contained all of these elements and more. The actor seemed uncomfortable at the applause he received. (“Hi. Stop. Hi,” he said, as the room cheered his win.) He briefly reiterated his ongoing objection to the idea that any one performance can be better than another. He expressed his gratitude and love for film, which, he said, “has given me the most extraordinary life.” But what acting had also given him, he added, was an obligation to give voice to the voiceless, and to speak to “some of the distressing issues that we are facing collectively.”

Rather than speaking singly about racism or sexism or his long-standing activism on behalf of animals, Phoenix tied them all together. “I think at times we feel or are made to feel that we champion different causes,” he said, when, “whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice.” It was hard not to read the speech as the moment all his other podium petitions had been building toward—an opportunity for an actor who’s deeply uncomfortable with the manufactured rigmarole of awards season to turn it into something he could stand, all without seeming too ungracious for the honors being festooned upon him.

On an evening when not a single female director was nominated for an Oscar, and when Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite made history as the first non-English-language film to win Best Picture, Phoenix’s speech seemed to articulate some of the complexities of progress. But he ended on a hopeful note about the possibility of change, with the most personal anecdote he’s offered this year. The actor briefly lost composure as he mentioned his brother, the actor River Phoenix, who died of an overdose in 1993. “When he was 17, my brother wrote this lyric,” Phoenix said in conclusion. “He said, ‘Run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.’ Thank you.”