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After a calculated career detour as a rapper and what seemed like a mental breakdown, Joaquin Phoenix is back with a vengeance as Freddie Quell in The Master, which opens in a few theaters this weekend before expanding. There is already Oscar talk for Phoenix's role as the right-hand man of a charismatic intellectual (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who starts a faith-based organization (i.e. cult) in 1950s America.
We were worried about Phoenix for awhile, but he seems to have returned to turning in extraordinary performances instead of bustin' bad rhymes. Joaquin used to go by the name Leaf Phoenix, which is how he is credited in 1989's Parenthood as a pubescent boy who hides porn in a bag in his room. He earned a Young Artist Award nomination for this early role.
The movie that gave Phoenix (now Joaquin) his breakout role was the pitch-black comedy To Die For. Phoenix plays the teen boy whom Nicole Kidman manipulates into doing bad things for her by tempting him with sex (that old trick still works?).
The turn of the millennium was a golden time for the rising Phoenix. He earned accolades for his role in the crime drama The Yards opposite Charlize Theron and Mark Wahlberg and as the deeply religious asylum administrator in love with Kate Winslet's character in Quills. Phoenix then earned his first Academy Award nomination for his chilling performance as Commodus in 2000's Gladiator. After that Coliseum-shaking role, Phoenix became M. Night Shyamalan's go-to guy in movies like Signs and The Village. He earned more award nominations as firefighter Jack Morrison in Ladder 49 and as Jack Daglish in Hotel Rwanda, which was based on real-life events.
Phoenix's next role, as country music legend Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, was the most celebrated of his career (so far). Not only did he and Reese Witherspoon (as June Carter Cash) have to live up to the challenge of embodying these two iconic figures, they both had to learn to sing like them. In an era when most pop stars lip-synch in concert and use Auto-Tune to record their so-called music, it's beyond impressive that Phoenix and Witherspoon took the time to actually sound like the real-life people they were playing on-screen. She took home the Oscar—he was nominated but had to settle for a Golden Globe and a group Grammy(!)—but his performance as the Man in Black walks the line between brilliant and extraordinary.
Walk the Line came out in 2005, and although Phoenix appeared in other movies since then (We Own the Night, Reservation Road and Two Lovers), none earned him a fraction of the praise that the Johnny Cash biopic did.
In late 2008 Phoenix announced to the world that he was retiring from acting to become a rapper and confused everyone, especially when he appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman. It was all a stunt—although a lengthy one—for the mockumentary I'm Still Here. Watch the film to see Phoenix hit rock bottom as a bloated, drug-addled mess with the worst rapping on record—it only makes his rise to glory in The Master seem like something the mythical bird he is named after would do.