Joaquin Phoenix, Letterman make remarkable TV

Whatever is going on inside the head of actor Joaquin Phoenix, he certainly turned in a memorable performance last night on the Late Show with David Letterman.

Coming out in dark glasses with a full Hallelujah-I'm-a-bum beard, Phoenix chewed gum, gave one and two-word mumbled answers to Letterman's questions and generally seemed on another planet until Letterman started mocking him. Then, Phoenix took offense and ultimately signaled his contempt for Letterman by taking the gum out of his mouth and sticking it to the desk of the host, himself known for having one of the shortest tempers and longest needles in television.


"Joaquin, I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight," Letterman said to much laughter as he wrapped up the interview. He had preceded that remark by saying, "Maybe I'll come to your house some night and chew gum."

Say what you will, it was impossible to turn away from, and surely sent millions of viewers off to bed wondering whether they just witnessed a stoned actor deconstructing before the camera, or a daring performer deconstructing the very conventions of the late night TV talk show.


Phoenix has been channeling the persona of a hip-hop artist lately, and he mumbled something on the air last night to Letterman about doing his "hip-hop music." Could this be more possible  deconstruction -- this time, of the musicians and singers who are booked on talk shows and then act like they don't know why they are there?

Whether or not Letterman was irritated, he is at his best in such situations. Remember how he needled John McCain last fall after the then-presidential candidate had canceled an appearance at the last minute. No one can needle like Letterman.

Once the actor got the drift of the actor's out-of-it and hostile stance, he started playing to the audience with questions like: "What can you tell us about your days with the Unabomber?"

Comparisons are sure to be made to other put-on performers like the late Andy Kaufman, a comedian of the 1970s who took on various personas and lived them out in talk show appearances and even his life.

The easy answer is that Phoenix, who has talked in recent months about ending his days as an actor for a new career as rap artist, was out of it -- and Letterman was mad. But I'm not sure it is that easy.

Letterman ended the interview by referencing the former guest who held the previous record for the strangest appearance on his show: "We owe an apology to Farrah Fawcett," he said.