Staying true to his last name, Joaquin Phoenix has made a career out of making a couple of films, disappearing, and then reappearing from the ashes to rise upward toward greater glory. The actor, who began his career under the name of "Leaf," lived for a long time in the shadow of his older brother, River. After River's tragic death at the age of 23, Leaf abandoned his career for two years, making a comeback in 1995 with his performance in To Die For, directed by Gus Van Sant (who ironically directed River in one of his last films, 1993's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues). Since then, the actor, who changed his name back to Joaquin in the early '90s, has worked steadily in Hollywood, solidifying both his experience and reputation.
Born Joaquin Raphael Phoenix on October 28, 1974, in Puerto Rico, Phoenix was raised in a close-knit, unconventional family. His parents encouraged all of their children to go into acting, and Phoenix did just that, following in the footsteps of older siblings River and Rain. As Leaf Phoenix, he got his first significant role in 1986's Spacecamp, and then went on to star in Russkies (1987) and Parenthood (1989), the latter of which was successful enough to make Phoenix something of a fledgling star. However, he chose to retreat from Hollywood, spending a few years traveling and living with his father in Mexico.
It was River's 1993 death that brought his younger brother -- now called Joaquin -- back into the limelight, albeit a very unwelcome limelight. The 911 call that Phoenix made as his older brother lay dying was broadcast over radio and television in the aftermath of River's death. Again, Phoenix left Hollywood, not to be seen again until 1995, when his performance as the tragically confused and horny Jimmy Emmett won him an array of positive reviews. From there, Phoenix went on to film Inventing the Abbotts (1997), which failed at the box office but introduced the actor to his co-star Liv Tyler, with whom he had a three-year relationship.
Phoenix's next project, Oliver Stone's U-Turn (1997), also proved to be a modest flop, but Return to Paradise (1998), in which he starred with Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche, was a bigger hit among critics and filmgoers. He starred again with Vaughn in Clay Pigeons (1998), which unfortunately didn't fare as well as his previous film. However, his next endeavor, 8MM with Nicolas Cage, although not a huge box office hit, did win him acclaim for his portrayal of thoughtful porn shop owner Max California, further proving that the family talent was not solely the province of Phoenix's late, great older brother.
In 2000 Phoenix took one of his biggest and most extravagant roles to date as Commodus in director Ridley Scott's big-budget peplum Gladiator. Phoenix's turn as the devious Commodus was a marked departure from the actor's generally likeable characterizations, and proved further indication of his dramatic versitility. On the opposite end of the period piece spectrum, Jaoquin appeased art-house crowds with a memorable performance as the priest who runs the asylum housing the Marquis de Sade in Quills before moving closer to the present and impressing critics with a leading role in Buffalo Soldiers (2001). As a bored military camp clerk who runs goods in the black market, Phoenix's impressive performance was well recieved by festival critics and continued to provide further argument for his viability as a leading man. Phoenix would next turn-up alongside Mel Gibson in The Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan's rural alien invasion thriller Signs. Replacing actor Mark Ruffalo after Ruffalo pulled out of the film due to ill-health, Phoenix stepped into the role as Gibson's younger brother, a member of a family caught in an alien invasion following the appearance of crop circles in the family's cornfield.
In 2003, Phoenix lent his voice to the Disney animated film Brother Bear, before re-teaming with M. Night Shyalaman for The Village, a thriller in the same vein as Signs that proved a major disappointment to audiences and critics alike. He followed this with a small part in the highly respected Hotel Rwanda, playing an American camera man covering the 1994 war in Rwanda that ended in 1 million deaths as a result of genocidal murder. This performance, along with his role as a rookie firefighter in Ladder 49 helped him establish himself as an everyman, as well as a character actor.
By 2005, Phoenix had developed a reputation as a dependable, versatile actor, but he would rise from respectability to greatness with his depiction of legendary country singer Johnny Cash in James Mangold's biopic Walk the Line. Performing all his own singing for the part and learning the guitar from scratch, Phoenix received a Golden Globe Award for the film, along with his costar Reese Witherspoon.
Phoenix's reputation for reliability fell under question when he arrived for a guest spot on Late Night with David Letterman disheveled and seemingly intoxicated. Though his appearance on Letterman was intended as a promotional piece for Two Lovers (2008), a romantic drama following a depressed young man (Phoenix) who finds himself in the middle of a love triangle, it was eventually revealed that the Letterman appearance was intended for I'm Still Here, a "biopic" depicting Phoenix as a drug-addled, emotional disaster. Shortly before the premier of I'm Still Here, director Casey Affleck admitted the film was satirical in nature and not meant to be taken literally.
Two years after that public-relations hiccup, Phoenix returned earning rave reviews for his role as a disturbed war veteran who falls under the spell of a charismatic cult leader in Paul Thomas Anderson's drama The Master. His work in that film was recognized by the Academy, who tapped Phoenix for the Best Actor category.