Ahead of its release, all the conversation around Joker was about the harm it would cause, how it would encourage copycat violence and awaken a sleeper cell of resentful white guys itching to wreak violence upon the innocent. The joke was on us: Joker has paved the way for one of the most progressive and undeniably bizarre acceptance speeches in living memory, courtesy of Joaquin Phoenix at last night’s Oscars.
Phoenix had been building up to this over his 2020 awards season, not least at the Baftas, two weeks ago, where he burst the bubble with a speech mentioning “systemic racism” and the messages such white-dominated awards shows sent out to people of colour. Taking the stage to pick up his best actor Oscar, he began with a heartfelt plea for tolerance: “Whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice. We’re talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender or one species has the right to dominate, control and use and exploit another with impunity.”
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But Phoenix, a lifelong vegan, somewhat undercut his broad opening sweep by then narrowing his focus on the cruelty of the dairy industry: “We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. Then, we take milk that’s intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.”
In other words, don’t expect a Joker frozen yoghurt tie-in any time soon. Suddenly we were in the territory of Marlon Brando’s famous surrogate Sacheen Littlefeather, at the 1973 Oscars, who read out a speech against the stereotyping of Native Americans by Hollywood. Or the time Shirley MacLaine, winning for Terms of Endearment, thanked everyone she’d ever met in her life and the other life she might have had, how “we all manifest what we want”. Or perhaps Emma Thompson’s 1996 speech, which took in Jane Austen’s grave in Winchester and the writer’s popularity in Uruguay. Phoenix played Jesus two years ago in the movie Mary Magdalene – had it all gone to his head?
But Phoenix brought his speech back round to a stirring plea for selflessness, forgiveness and respect. “When we use love and compassion as our guiding principles, we can create, develop and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentient beings and to the environment.” He wasn’t simply banging the drum for a pet cause, he was pretty much calling for a rethinking of human civilisation.
Phoenix was opening himself up for ridicule but he is unlikely to care. Sure enough, the usual outlets have obliged, with his performance variously described as as a “bonkers Oscars acceptance speech” (Breitbart), a “sprawling sociopolitical epic” (Vox), and a “rant about veganism” (Mail Online). On the other hand, he has drawn praise from the likes of Peta: “This is what a true ally to animals looks like.”
Most actors talk the talk about using their exposure to change the game; Phoenix is actually doing it – in small ways (he’s already forced several ceremonies to change their meat-centric menus) and, as he did last night, large ones, calling out racism, misogyny, intolerance, inequality, cancel culture and bovine rights. He’s not quite Hollywood’s messiah, not yet, but he’s definitely more Jesus than Joker.
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