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It is well-known by now to those that care that Joaquin Phoenix’ new movie Two Lovers will be his last. Instead, the Oscar-nominated actor has announced he’s planning to pursue a career as a musician- not a country artist as you might expect- but as a hip hop star.

So on February 11, when Phoenix walked onto the set of the David Letterman Show, presumably to do publicity for his new film, his appearance took everyone by surprise! His black-and-white ensemble came complete with a bushy beard, long hair, and a pair of menacing sunglasses. It was immediately clear that the actor-turned-musician had already morphed into his new personae completely. The old Joaquin that we all knew and loved was gone.

Sadly, Letterman didn’t understand this, and began to treat Phoenix as a joke. No wonder he was unresponsive to Letterman’s remarks, and spoke only if prodded. At particularly unfortunate low points in the show, band leader Paul Shaffer laughed at him and Phoenix responded saying, “Are you f*cking kidding? Are you serious, Mr. Maniacal Laughter?” and later, in response to Letterman’s criticism of his chewing gum on the show, he took it out of his mouth and stuck it under Letterman’s desk. It seemed obvious that his Two Lovers promotional appearance was required by the studio, but the hip-hop artist had no interest in being there.

Usually guests on the Letterman show are more than willing to talk about themselves, rattling on with the usual nonsense, but Phoenix didn’t put up with the normal charade. When Letterman asked about his experiences with the cast of Two Lovers, “Any fun stories you have to tell us?” Phoenix shook his head and stared blankly at Letterman. You could see the thought scroll across his face, “What stories? What do you want me to say?”

Letterman managed to throw in a few jabs that got the audience laughing, but Phoenix was actually the audience’s darling that night. The clips that CBS has allowed to remain on the internet contain about half of the original broadcast. Phoenix was much more gracious than the slimmed down clips would have you believe, and he had the audience on his side for the majority of the interview. He made a generous offer to come back on the show to perform, (which, by the way, was met with cheers from the audience), and Letterman cut him down, “You know, that seems unlikely.”

Phoenix’ unusual performance is remindful of Harvey Pekar’s 1988 appearance and Farrah Fawcett’s 1997 debacle, and like those events, has garnered a huge amount of publicity.

As of this writing, public opinion on the internet seems one-sided, with the majority siding with Letterman. In fact, even here at Dish, the predominant opinion in the office was that “he behaved like a real jerk, so Letterman got fed up and started making fun of him.” Others opine that he seemed delusional, confused and remote.

Remember, actors are supposed to conform to a certain code when on Letterman’s show, and if they aren’t deferential to the almighty host, or they show any personality out of step with the late night protocol, the comedian does what he does best—he makes fun of them.

Curiously, at the end of the interview, as the cameras faded to black and the show went to commercial, Phoenix turned away from the audience, took off his sunglasses and pulled a Lost in Translation, whispering something in Letterman’s ear. It would be wonderful to know what he said, but for now, we can only guess.

Regardless of what anyone thinks about Phoenix, or Letterman for that matter, controversy makes for good television. And good ratings. / Issue 92 - September 4370
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