Am I Not Merciful!?: Joaquin Phoenix’s Kaufman/Clifton Connection

When Joaquin Phoenix announced his retirement from the acting profession, it was a shock. It was an even bigger shock when Phoenix stated that he would be leaving acting to pursue a new career path… Rap music.

So, what is it that inspires arguably one of the most underrated, under-appreciated actors of his generation to ditch what brought him to the dance and become the bastard child of Eminem and Jim Morrison in his declining, whip-out-yer-pisser-onstage, gnarly beard-sportin’ days?

Does the name Tony Clifton ring a bell? One look at Joaquin Phoenix rapping recalls a modern day Tony Clifton, the loony lounge-singing alter-ego of comedic genius Andy Kaufman.

In short: Joaquin Phoenix is fooling us all.

Update the look a bit. Swap out the oversized shades for more discretley-sized dark sunglasses. Trade in the ’70s mutton chops for a modernized Grizzly Adams-goes-Orthodox beard. Ditch the jacquard prom tux for a more believable and understated black suit and you’ve got yourself the second coming of Tony Clifton.

As Clifton, Andy Kaufman could perform even more outrageous antagonistic antics. While Kaufman himself legendarily rattled the cage of wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler to the point of prompting the Pile Driver Heard ‘Round the World, there was a sort of sweetness and likeability underlying Andy’s pre-fabricated shenanigans. Tony Clifton, however, could show up drunk with prostitutes on each arm to the set of Taxi, dump eggs on beloved TV personality Dinah Shore, and just astound audiences with his overwhelming lack of talent and couth. There was nothing sympathetic about Tony Clifton, nothing within his persona that his audience could relate to.

While Phoenix’s talent as a rapper is debatable, he’s taken more of a passive approach at aggression as opposed to the in-your-face brand favored by Kaufman’s alter-ego.

As evidenced by the former actor’s nearly non-verbal interview with David Letterman, Joaquin Phoenix isn’t as confrontational as Clifton. He doesn’t berate his audience as much as he clams up in a silent protest at their laughter.

When he actually does talk, Phoenix’s slurred speech decorated with some indeterminable accent that creeped into his once-precise and enunciatory voice furthers the “WTF” reaction to this personal and professional 180 he’s undergone. He’s dour and humorless, but still manages to slap the smarm back in the direction of Letterman and his audience.

Phoenix makes it pretty clear that he’s taking this rap thing very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that his friend/brother-in-law Casey Affleck is chronicling this latest swerve down the ol’ career path.

Footage of Phoenix’s rap debut at a club in Las Vegas showed him channeling Tommy Lee during that unfortunate hip-hop phase of his career before rejoining his Motley brethren. Jumping up and down and gettin’ all sorts of embarrassingly jiggy with himself, Phoenix wipes out and falls off the stage.

The announcement of his retirement was shocking enough, but even more shocking was that Phoenix expressed that he had long harbored dreams of becoming a hip-hop star.

If Joaquin is, in fact, pulling everyone’s leg, hip-hop could be the best possible realm to carry this joke off to. Sure, he could have made the foray into country music. After doing Walk the Line, playing the role of Johnny Cash in the Man In Black’s biopic and bringing his own singing to the screen, country would seem like the logical genre of choice for Phoenix to ply his talents within.

But that would be too easy. Too convenient.

Even if he decided to take the indie-rock route favored by so many other celebs with a side-gig in music (i.e. Jared Leto’s 30 Seconds to Mars project, Jason Schwartzman with Phantom Planet, and Keanu Reeves in Dogstar, among others), Phoenix as just another wannabe rock star in Hollywood wouldn’t be anything noteworthy.

Instead, Joaquin is turning the tables on the trend of rappers-turned-actors, jumping headlong into the world of hip-hop. If “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” can win an Oscar for Best Song, why can’t an Oscar nominee freestyle?

So, what pushes an actor of Joaquin Phoenix’s caliber to this? A two-time loser at the Academy Awards, perhaps he took the Oscar snubs for Walk the Line and Gladiator personally? Maybe he got fed up with the inner-workings of Hollywood’s machine, tiring of the campaign-style politics that must be waged in order to curry favor with the Academy to win an Oscar? Maybe Phoenix wants to buck the system and the best way to do so is by mocking it from the inside. With that in mind, who better to look to than one of Hollywood’s legendary pranksters for spiritual guidance to pull off this coup?

While a Vanity Fair article pondered Phoenix’s possible Kaufman connection, referencing Kaufman’s Letterman-approved hijinx (but not those of Tony Clifton), Phoenix follows the path laid by the funnyman, even going as far as to incorporate David Letterman into this scheme. However, it seems that Joaquin is not letting anyone in Hollywood – the late night host, included – in on what could be his own inside joke.

If Joaquin is indeed punking all of Hollywood, he just may pull off the greatest move of his career, rising from the ashes like his namesake surname suggests.

Although elaborate pranks cemented Andy Kaufman’s legacy, Joaquin has yet to receive tangible recognition for his contributions. If anything, a pre-conceived slide down a slippery slope may help him to achieve this. Looking at the career renaissance currently being enjoyed by other über-talented actors like Robert Downey, Jr. and Mickey Rourke who, once upon a time, had fallen out of favor with Hollywood’s elite, if there’s anything that movie-town loves, it’s a penitent comeback kid with something to prove on his second go.

Say what you will, I still think Joaquin Phoenix is fooling us all. At least I hope so.

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