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Joaquin Phoenix returns to David Letterman, this time with a different goal

September 22, 2010 | 10:54 pm

 The last time Joaquin Phoenix was on "The Late Show With David Letterman," he said little but grabbed a lot of the spotlight. This time he said a little bit more, but with his polite, gum-less guise, it was Letterman making the most of the airtime as Phoenix came on ostensibly to promote his fauxumentary "I'm Still Here." (Video hopefully coming soon.)

Phoenix was well-behaved and deferential, saying he was sorry -- and, perhaps, just a tad surprised that Letterman didn't catch on the first time.

"You've interviewed many people, and I assumed that you would know the difference between a character and a real person. But I apologize. I didn't – I hope I didn't offend you in any way." (Unclear is why Phoenix didn't just tell him on the spot, or right after the fact, just as he did some of the other entertainers who appeared in "I'm Still Here.")

There was a surprising amount of attention paid by the pair Wednesday night to demonstrating that Letterman was not in on the joke  ("Did I know anything about this," he asked Phoenix, who replied with a "No," the first of several such assurances.) That's probably as much for Letterman's sake as the actor's. It doesn't serve the host to have the implication hanging out there -- as this writer's comments essentially does -- that he's in cahoots with a guest to put one over on the audience.

But then, inexplicably, Letterman went in the opposite direction -- that he smelled a rat. He acknowledged that Phoenix took off his glasses as they were going to commercial and reverted to his normal, non-zoned-out personality, to Affleck's chagrin. And of Phoenix's rap career, he said, "Frankly, when I heard about it later, I was surprised that anybody had believed it." So he did know about it? He sort of thought he knew but he wasn't officially let in on it? (But then wouldn't he have asked Joaquin's reps what was going on?) It spins your head in almost as many directions as, well, Casey Affleck's appearance on Jay Leno the previous night.

Watching the original Letterman clip again, incidentally, it strikes one as possible that the host may in fact have been annoyed at the time. But as long as Phoenix held out an olive branch tonight, Letterman was happy to take it. "I was not offended. I'm telling you, it was so much fun. It was batting practice," Letterman said of his opportunity that night to say things such as "Joaquin, I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight" and other asides. "Every one of them was a dinger," he said.

Of course Phoenix got what he wanted out of the '09 exchange too -- namely, a big-name star whom he could use in his movie, and a point of reference in the film to a pop-cultural moment we all remembered. The actor acknowledged as much in his appearance Wednesday. "We'd hoped to come on a talk show and I was looking for a beat-down, and I got one."

Letterman did get another especially good line off tonight, saying that, in order to talk about something privately, “we’ll go to one of your screenings.” This was all in between Phoenix's Affleckian explanations about the purpose of the movie and how he was trying to explore the nature of celebrity, and what we as a culture were happy to believe about entertainment and reality TV, etc. (Not sure our reaction to watching this particular meltdown says as much about our gullibility as it does about our perception of Phoenix, but anyway.)

Apart from putting his face front and center, it's not clear how any of this will help "I'm Still Here." If part of what was driving interest in the film was the ambiguity -- a point Affleck has made several times --  that's pretty much gone after this appearance. Even if the public forgives him and let's go of any ill will, it also, at the same time, won't harbor much curiosity either. "I'm Still Here" becomes just a story about a fictional character melting down, with none of the real-life tabloid overtones.

Of course if Phoenix's goal in this new Letterman appearance was to show Hollywood he's ready for a new role -- and also show the powerbrokers in town that the public is willing to accept him again -- then, by all indications, he accomplished his mission. In that sense, at least, this was a bravura performance.

--Steven Zeitchik

http://twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Joaquin Phoenix in Two Lovers. Credit: Magnolia Pictures

RECENT AND RELATED:

Casey Affleck is still here (offering tortured explanations)

Casey Affleck now says Joaquin Phoenix movie was really a hoax

The non-question questions around Joaquin Phoenix's I'm Still Here

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