Giant prank A-lister played on the world

 

Joaquin Phoenix's interpretation of DC Comics' most complex supervillain The Joker has both terrified and impressed fans already.

From his bony physique to that chilling cackle, the actor's drastic transformation into the failed comedian-turned-sadistic clown is nightmare-inducing even from the trailer.

But before he took on the role of the twisted clown, Phoenix played the joker once before.

A little over a decade ago, Joaquin Phoenix fooled the world into believing he was abandoning acting in favour of a rap career in what many saw as a public meltdown.

As it transpired, it was all entirely put on for the mockumentary film I'm Still Here.

Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from Joker. Picture: AP.
Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from Joker. Picture: AP.

THE BEGINNING OF A BIZARRE HOAX

It began when the star made a bedraggled appearance at a Miami nightclub in late 2008, where he rapped ineptly before falling off the stage.

Soon after, he announced he was retiring from acting to release a rap album produced by P Diddy.

Actor Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from 2010 film I'm Still Here. Picture: Supplied.
Actor Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from 2010 film I'm Still Here. Picture: Supplied.


He had stacked on a few pounds, grown a scraggly beard and wore sunglasses wherever he went, muttering nonsensically in interviews that left audiences scratching their heads, notably from this strained appearance on David Letterman in December 2009:

It soon came out that Casey Affleck - who is married to Phoenix's sister Summer - was following Phoenix's transition from acting to music for a film. Not a mockumentary.

Casey Affleck and Summer Phoenix at the 80th Academy Awards in 2008. Picture: AP.
Casey Affleck and Summer Phoenix at the 80th Academy Awards in 2008. Picture: AP.

SUSPICION STRIKES HOLLYWOOD

Despite whispers of an elaborate ruse, Phoenix stuck to the bit.

In a statement released to MTV Newsin January 2009, Phoenix's rep Susan Patricola hit back at naysayers and assured the masses his rap-star dreams were real.

"The transition from one career to another is never seamless. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Joaquin came from a musical family, in addition to winning a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Johnny Cash," Patricola wrote in an e-mail. "He intends on exploring his musical interests despite speculative, negative or positive reactions."

Phoenix at the premiere of Che in 2008. Picture: AP.
Phoenix at the premiere of Che in 2008. Picture: AP.

Phoenix, prepared to not be taken seriously, also told People magazine: "Are there people out there who think I'm a joke? I'm sure there will be. Are there people who think it's going to suck? Probably, but I can't worry about that."

And when quizzed about his seemingly new interest in rap music, he told the publication: "When I was young I liked punk rock music but then I discovered rap. I love the storytelling aspect of hip-hop."

Phoenix in 2009. Photo: AP.
Phoenix in 2009. Photo: AP.

P Diddy - who "produced a track" on Phoenix's fake album - was in on the joke, too, even maintaining it was all real in a 2010 interview after the film first screened.

"Joaquin's for real," he told MTV News.

"If he's not for real, he tricked me," Diddy said. "We went into the studio, did a record, mixed a record and everything."

Not everyone who was clued-in remained so tight-lipped. Around the same time as Phoenix began to perform his barely comprehensible raps around LA, Entertainment Weekly quoted a former co-worker who said Phoenix told him, "'It's a put-on. I'm going to pretend to have a meltdown and change careers, and Casey [Affleck] is going to film it."

Amid the confusion, Ben Stiller mocked the star's strange new swagger at the 2009 Oscars while presenting best picture alongside Natalie Portman.

In another skit at the Independent Spirit Awards, Frank Coraci imitated the actor - in an oddly foretelling twist - with Steve Coogan impersonating Christian Bale as Batman.

 

Steve Coogan as Christian Bale and Frank Coraci as Joaquin Phoenix at the Independent Spirit Awards, 2009. Picture: AP.
Steve Coogan as Christian Bale and Frank Coraci as Joaquin Phoenix at the Independent Spirit Awards, 2009. Picture: AP.

GRAVE CONCERNS

Confusion turned to concern as the seemingly drug-addled Her actor continued his attempts to convince crowds he was serious about a rap career backed by P Diddy, making wobbly onstage appearances at Hollywood events and parties along the way.

Many worried his erratic behaviour was a sign he was stuck in a downward spiral, and headed down the same self-destructive path that took the life of his older brother, River Phoenix.

"Given his actions, he [Joaquin] is starting to look a lot like his brother," US Weekly editor Ian Drew told ABCNews.com. in 2009 "It does make you question how his story is going to end - or continue."

River Phoenix died of a drug overdose in October 1993 after collapsing outside the Viper Room, a nightclub owned by Johnny Depp in Los Angeles.

The then-19-year-old Joaquin, who was at the club that night with their sister Summer, made the desperate call to police in an attempt to save his 23-year-old brother.

The concerns for the Oscar-nominated actor amid his "career crisis" weren't too far-fetched.

In 2005, after filming the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, which led to one of his three Oscar nominations, Phoenix entered rehab for alcohol abuse.

He told reporters preparing for the role as the notoriously troubled late musician led him down the path of alcohol dependence.

"I wasn't an everyday drinker but didn't have anything else to do, anything to hold me down," he said. "I was leaning on alcohol to make me feel OK. That's what it really was."

The actor was nominated for an Oscar for the 2005 film Walk the Line.
The actor was nominated for an Oscar for the 2005 film Walk the Line.

But through it all, Phoenix's loyal publicist was quick to quash any rumours Phoenix was self-destructing.

"He is fine and doing his music," Patricola assured media. "When Joaquin has more to say, I'm sure he will," she hinted.

THE LONG GAME

The star's perceived career plunge played out for two years.

Phoenix kept up the act up until at the 2010 Venice film festival - the very same event at which his Joker trailer dropped just a week ago - the truth began to unravel.

I'm Still Here was the product of the star's faux nosedive, a mockumentary comedy-drama film directed by Affleck, and co-written Joaquin Phoenix himself. It purported to follow the life of Phoenix from the announcement of his retirement from acting through his transition into a career as a hip hop artist.

Affleck sat alone in the theatre at the Venice premiere to the disappointment of fans, but as the film unfolded - in which Phoenix is depicted as wild and drug-obsessed, it became clear why he stayed away.

One source, however, claimed Phoenix was smuggled into the cinema - clean-shaven and slimmed down - shortly after the lights dimmed. Sitting with a friend right at the back "he laughed his ass off" as he watched the film about his fake plight.

In interviews after the film, Affleck maintained it was all real, even telling theGuardian he thought Phoenix was "a talented rap artist". A baffling compliment seeing as you could barely understand most of his lyrics.

Phoenix and Affleck continued the joke even after the film premiered. Picture: Supplied.
Phoenix and Affleck continued the joke even after the film premiered. Picture: Supplied.

THE BIG REVEAL

Affleck finally cracked after the New York Times announced Joaquin Phoenix was returning to the Letterman show for the first time since his trainwreck appearance 18 months prior. A fitting bookend.

There, Phoenix, looking back to his old self and properly enunciating his words, told the host of the film's origin; "We wanted to do a film that explored celebrity … that would feel really authentic."

Further explaining his inspiration, he said: "I started watching a long of reality television and I was amazed that people believed them because the acting is terrible."


Just like that, the joke was over.

A LASTING IMPACT

While the duo had successfully caused a stir in Hollywood and beyond, the finished product I'm Still Here was met with mixed reviews.

But Phoenix later said the hoax actually helped his acting career immensely.

"Part of why I was frustrated with acting was because I took it so seriously," Phoenix told TIME magazine when discussing the experience.

"I want it to be so good that I get in my own way. It's like love: when you fall in love, you're not yourself anymore. You lose control of being natural and showing the beautiful parts of yourself, and all somebody recognises is this total desperation. And that's very unattractive. Once I became a total buffoon, it was so liberating."

FROM PRANKSTER TO JOKER

10 years on, the long-awaited premiere for director Todd Phillips' Joker, in which another barely recognisable version of Phoenix stars, took place last Saturday night at the Venice Film Festival.

When the credits rolled, it received a whopping eight-minute-long standing ovation, Variety reports.

Joaquin Phoenix and Director Todd Phillips walk the red carpet ahead of the screening. Picture: Getty.
Joaquin Phoenix and Director Todd Phillips walk the red carpet ahead of the screening. Picture: Getty.

Previously played by Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger and Jared Leto, Phoenix's incarnation of the character has many suggesting Joker will be headed "straight to the Oscars."

So it's a good thing he didn't leave acting for a rap career after all.

Joker launches in Australian cinemas on October 3.

The actor looked vastly different in 2007. Picture: Getty.
The actor looked vastly different in 2007. Picture: Getty.
Phoenix as The Joker. Picture: AP.
Phoenix as The Joker. Picture: AP.