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Posted at 12:32 PM ET, 09/22/2010

Ahead of tonight's Joaquin Phoenix interview with Letterman, a few words from Casey Affleck

By Jen Chaney

Joaquin Phoenix -- the actor, not the bearded, non-hair-combing, hip-hop artist version of Joaquin Phoenix -- is scheduled to return to the public eye tonight on "The Late Show With David Letterman," in his first interview as himself since disappearing into his "I'm Still Here" persona.

Last night, in an apparent effort to cover all bases of the late-night talk show circuit, Casey Affleck sat down with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" and answered some questions about the real-life Phoenix performance that I dubbed an impressive hoax, Leno describes as "a social experiment" and Affleck characterizes as something he would "just sort of call a movie."

During the interview, Affleck backed away from the idea that he and Phoenix wanted the public to think the actor was having a massive meltdown before the movie came out.

"Did you want people to think this was real?" Leno asked.

"I wanted them to think it was real while they were watching [the movie]," Affleck said. "And then I assumed that when it was over, they would understand it wasn't real."

He hesitated to characterize the episode as a social experiment -- "I would just, sort of, call it a movie," he quipped -- but did note that Phoenix came up with the idea of playing the role.

When asked by Leno if anyone ever expressed concern about Phoenix's well-being, Affleck said he never got any phone calls to that effect.

"After the movie comes out, the critics like to say, this is crazy, this is disturbing, this is sick and we should be worried about him. But while it was happening, people were happy just to mock him and make fun of him."

Unlike some of those critics -- like, say, Roger Ebert -- I don't have a problem with Phoenix and Affleck faking out moviegoers and the public at large. In many ways -- including the level of borderline insane commitment this whole endeavor required of Phoenix -- I find it kind of brilliant.

But I don't know why Affleck doesn't just embrace the notion that they were involved in a social experiment. If it were just a movie, Phoenix wouldn't have gone all beardo-weirdo on Letterman last year, or announced his retirement from acting well in advance of the film (as Leno rightly points out). All of those choices generated a buzz that got at least some people swept up in a guessing game about what was actually going on and, let's not forget, prompted enough interest to ultimately land a distribution deal with Magnolia Pictures.

Admitting that was all part of the plan makes Affleck and Co. seem pretty smart. A little devious maybe, but smart. I'm hoping that Phoenix demonstrates a bit more candor on that point tonight when he sits across from Letterman -- who apparently wasn't "cranky" enough for Leno during their previous appearance.

If Affleck and Phoenix contend that "I'm Still Here" only aimed to create a faux-reality within the framework of the film, that not only sounds dishonest, it turns this whole episode into just another potentially forgettable little indie -- which, based on some of the reviews and its box office numbers, may be exactly what it turns out to be. But admitting that Phoenix's behavior on-set and off was a more elaborate effort designed to make us question our love/hate relationship with fame and what it does to people? That pushes "I'm Still Here" a bit closer to the term "work of art."

By Jen Chaney  | September 22, 2010; 12:32 PM ET
Categories:  Celebrities, Movies, Pop Culture, TV  
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Joaquin definately deserves an Oscar for his performance. It seems like the premiere would have gone better if Joaquin would have announced on Letterman that he was returning to acting before he released I'm Still Here. I think that would have avoided any confusion. However, that would have changed the film and the pereception of the film, and missed the point they were trying to make. I think Casey deserves an Oscar for directing since he not only directed a disturbingly funny film, he also raised awareness about the media's portrayal of celebrity which directly ties back into the narrative thread of I'm Still Here. Absolutely fascinating. Thank You and congratulations to both of you!

Posted by: JohnDoe18 | September 22, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure you understood Ebert's review--he thought it was a very good film and he didn't seem to have any problem with the ambivalence about whether it was a hoax or not. However, his review takes the project at face value without second guessing it. That's Ebert's strength as a reviewer--he accepts the premise laid out by filmmakers and then holds them accountable for how well they fulfill it. He also wrote a blog entry once Casey Affleck spoke up, and he still didn't seem to have a problem with the premise of the project:

Also, why are we talking about this as a "hoax"? It's not like him doing his acting over the course of a year and in the public view actually affected or impacted any of our lives in any real way. What we should be discussing is whether we should be considering this whole thing an indictment on how we perceive and treat celebrities--all year news of Phoenix's meltdown was sold as entertainment. Participating in it by reading news coverage or seeing the film (before Affleck's remarks) is an exercise in schadenfreude.

The saddest thing about this whole thing, however, is that Casey said no one called expressing concern for Phoenix. Either he has fairweather friends, no friends, or they were all in on it and understood at some level that it couldn't be real (see, for example, Gwynnie's interview where she said with a twinkle that she couldn't imagine that he was giving it up for good, and she was sure we'd see him acting again).

And, one last point--shouldn't Affleck and Phoenix have held the truth off a bit longer? The film was barely released when they came clean. Now it's lost its power except as a vanity project where we're supposed to admire his commitment to pretending to be crazy.

Posted by: auntiemare | September 22, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

Ebert also posted an exchange with Affleck about the project this morning:

Posted by: auntiemare | September 22, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

Auntiemarie: perfectly excellent analysis, although I've also appreciated Chaney's coverage of this little cultural sideshow. I like the premise so much -- interesting work from establishment-accepted mainstream actors.

Posted by: scoopy2 | September 22, 2010 10:29 PM | Report abuse

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