Joaquin Phoenix on Sunday was named Best Actor when awarded his first Oscar win for his role as failed stand-up comic turned clown-faced madman Arthur Fleck in Joker. After winning the Golden Globe, the Screen Actors Guild Award and the BAFTA, Phoenix was named the odds-on favorite to win the prize over nominees Adam Driver (Marriage Story), Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory), Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes), and Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood). The four-time Oscar nominee was first nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category for 2000's Gladiator, where he played Commodus, and was later nominated for Best Actor for roles as Johnny Cash in 2005's Walk the Line and Freddie Quell in 2012's The Master.
Phoenix previously admitted he had "a lot of fear" over taking the Joker role, his first collaboration with writer-director Todd Phillips. The filmmaker confessed both he and Phoenix shared a "certain fear" when stepping into the comic book movie genre for the first time.
"I always say there's motivating fear and debilitating fear. There's the fear where you cannot make a f—king step, and there's the kind where it's like, 'OK, what do we do? That's not good enough.' And you're digging deeper and deeper. I love that kind of fear," Phoenix told Total Film. "It guides us, makes us work harder."
When portraying the mentally troubled Arthur, who descends into villainy in early 1980s Gotham City, the actor didn't want Arthur's mental afflictions to be "identifiable" by real-world psychiatrists.
"I think oftentimes, in these movies, we have these simplified, reductive archetypes, and that allows for the audience to be distant from the character, just like we would do in real life," Phoenix said. "I thought that here was this film, and these characters, where it wouldn't be easy for you as an audience. There are times where you're going to feel yourself connected to him, and rooting for him, and times when you should be repulsed by him. And I like that idea of challenging the audience, and challenging myself to explore a character like that. It's rare to explore characters like that in any movies, but specifically in the superhero genre."
Phoenix ultimately lost upwards of 50 pounds to play the malnourished Arthur, a physical transformation that surprised co-star Glenn Fleshler. "When I laid eyes on him at a table read, he'd lost 50 pounds. He was like a shell of himself," Fleshler said in a making-of included on the Joker home release special features. "He was fully immersing himself in the role."
Phillips earlier revealed he scripted Joker with Phoenix in mind, admitting he pitched the R-rated character study to studio Warner Bros. with Phoenix in the lead role before the actor agreed to star. The director was drawn to Phoenix's "unpredictability," saying of the actor, "[Phoenix is] playing jazz while other people are doing math. He's just doing his own thing. And I feel like that's very much what we saw the character of Arthur-slash-Joker as. I thought, 'Boy, if we get him, we can really do something special.'"
Joker also led the nominees with 11 total nominations, including Best Picture, making it the first DC Comics film to compete for the award.