All fake: Joaquin Phoenix meltdown and film

Sep 17, 2010
Aly Duncan

From bizarre Letterman appearance to I’m Still Here documentary - it was all a sham admits Casey Affleck

The fervid speculation over Joaquin Phoenix's supposed meltdown and the resulting film, I'm Still Here, has been brought to an end – and it was all a fake.

A bizarre appearance on the David Letterman show, a proposed change of career to become a rapper, and the movie itself - until now presented as a documentary - were all part of the act, director Casey Affleck has revealed.

Affleck told the New York Times: "It's a terrific performance, the performance of his career.”

The director said it was essential to maintain the facade so audiences could watch I'm Still Here without knowing Phoenix's withdrawal from acting and his subsequent pitiful attempts to launch a hip-hop career were fictitious.

At last week's Venice film festival, Affleck was still punting the "straight-up documentary" line, telling journalists the film was an "unflinching" and "sympathetic" portrayal of Phoenix's breakdown. However, he would not comment directly on whether certain scenes were staged.

Their ruse did not entirely dupe film fans and the media, where speculation has been rife that it was a set-up. But until now news organisations have been wary of confidently asserting that I'm Still Here was a sham, partly because of the star's unconventional history - even by Hollywood standards.

Phoenix was born to members of the religious cult The Children of God. Phoenix – then named 'Leaf' - and his four siblings became child actors, having begun performing on the streets and in talent contests to help provide for the family.

He withdrew from acting in the late 1980s, before making a comeback in Gus Van Sandt's To Die For alongside Nicole Kidman. The film was released in 1995, two years after his elder brother, River Phoenix, died of a drug overdose outside a Hollywood nightclub.

In 2005, after being nominated for Oscars for his performances in Gladiator and Walk the Line, Joaquin checked himself into an alcoholism clinic, with his publicist saying: "He was uncomfortable with the way that he was living his life."

So where does Affleck's revelation leave Phoenix?

It can be assumed that he is no longer retiring from acting. But will audiences now see him as "that guy who tried to dupe us with the breakdown stunt" – or, worse - "the weirdo off the Letterman show"? And, if so, will the Hollywood studios see him as too great a risk?

As Casey Affleck points out, his performance on Letterman and elsewhere in I'm Still Here was strong enough to at least keep people guessing. With the film's reception being broadly favourable, his reputation as a fine actor seems likely to remain intact.

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