His posture, his play, is brilliant. The Letterman machine with its ready quips and its obedient audience that laughs and claps on command wants Phoenix to play his part. At first, Letterman tries to cajole him into advocating the actor's film—that is, to advertise the film, for that is what the Letterman show is at its most basic: an ad for Hollywood dreck.
Phoenix, however, does not play along. But what's so great, what's so brilliant, is his tactic. Once Letterman can't get him to play the ad man for the film, what options are left? Phoenix must be crazy—loaded or crazy, like Farah Fawcett. These are the options this idiotic machine offers: sell the goods or you're a lunatic.
But Phoenix plays neither. He sits sternly, quietly, and lets the madness around him unfurl. Suddenly, it's not him who looks crazy—it's Letterman! It's the inane audience who laughs at nothing, who laughs on command. Listen to what Phoenix says about the audience, "What do you gas them up with?"
Joaquin Phoenix jams the well worn circuits of celebrity. On the one hand, this is easy to do—the circuits are so well known, so well trodden, that to deviate is easy. On the other hand what makes this performance so great is that he never gets folded back into their discourse, back into the rules of their game. He never turns pugilistic, never antagonizes, never plays against what's happening. And nor does he ever allow for a knowing wink within the game, as if to reassure everyone that the money machine is still rolling along, that the life draining rules of propriety are still in play.
Neither fists nor wink, Phoenix chooses the ancient path of the warrior who sits silent and lets his enemies destroy themselves. It was painful for me to watch Letterman squirm and hawk—Letterman, who had once been the one to jam those idiotic circuits of celebrity, Letterman who never had patience for all the bullshit, now Letterman who is at once puppet and puppet master for the same old crap.
Joaquin Phoenix, stoic genius, sits quietly, insistent in his silence, graceful in his posture, refusing all attempts to co-opt him, all efforts to claim him. What a refreshing sight.