David Letterman bests Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix, looking choir-boy clean and "Entourage"-slick in a grey suit, white shirt and dark tie, told David Letterman last night that his extended pose as a burned-out actor/would-be rap star was supposed to explore "the relationship between the media and the consumers and celebrities themselves."

What a terrible idea for someone like Phoenix!


This gifted actor has resisted making the career moves or leading the kind of public life that would brand him as a pop-culture persona. So his choice to stage a meltdown for Casey Affleck's mockumentary camera in "I'm Still Here" has no resonance, and his surprise that "consumers" bought it or cared seems disingenuous.

Why wouldn't they? The most they knew about him was that he was an actor's-actor who'd been nominated for two Oscars. What better candidate for a mid-life crisis? Phoenix and Letterman both said they thought the idea of him retiring at age 35 would be considered "ridiculous." Really? In an age when the retirement of ingenue Amanda Bynes burns up the Internet?


Phoenix said that he and Affleck had decided to take aim at "reality TV"-watchers' assumptions that as long as a reality-TV star gives his or her real name, the action on-screen is spontaneous, not staged or manipulated. But how did these creative partners expect to make that point in a cinema-not-so-verite movie -- aimed for art houses like the Charles (where it opens Friday) -- rather than a parody of a TV series?

Letterman, for his part, contradicted advance reports that when Phoenix appeared on his show on February 11, 2009, he knew exactly what was going on. Letterman said nothing had been scripted. He'd just assumed that when Phoenix showed up acting like he'd hit his head on the side of a tub and looking like "a side of beef in a suit" -- or as if he was "sitting on a piece of cheese and had swallowed a live mouse" -- something fishy was going on.

"People don't let guys like you out," Letterman told Phoenix last night. Phoenix said that he'd wanted someone to give him "a beat-down" and that Letterman had delivered it. (Letterman earlier said "it was like they brought out the heavy bag and turned me loose.") The comic replayed a moment at the end of the Feb. 11 appearance when Phoenix took off his dark glasses and appeared to break character. Phoenix explained that he had badly wanted to get off-stage.

"Don't go south on me tonight," Letterman quipped as Phoenix cleverly went looking for the wad of gum he stuck under his host's desk a year and a half ago.

But the put-on of the night came from Letterman. He said that when he and his company asked to be paid a license fee by Affleck for using five minutes of "Late Show with David Letterman" in "I'm Still Here," they were told that the excerpt was considered "fair use" for a documentary. In a comic gotcha moment, Letterman said that now they know it's not a documentary -- it's "a theatrical ruse" -- so "now you owe me a million bucks." ("Can we talk about this in private?" Phoenix asked. "Yeah, we'll go to one of your screenings," Letterman suggested.)

Still, you had to be invested in this fake phenomenon to stick with the interview. It was hard to judge what was more disappointing about last night's show -- the talk with Joaquin Phoenix or the performance of a "dancing macaw" who appeared to be riveted to his perch. AP photo