Phoenix was born Joaquin Rafael Bottom in the Río Piedras district of San Juan on October 28, 1974, the son of American parents from the U.S. mainland. He is the third of five children, following River (1970–1993) and Rain (born 1972), and preceding Liberty (born 1976) and Summer (born 1978), all of whom are actors. He also has a half-sister named Jodean (born 1964) from his father’s previous relationship. He was born with a mark on his lip, which he claims is not a cleft lip. His father, John Lee Bottom, is originally from California and is of mostly English descent with some German and French ancestry. His mother, Arlyn (née Dunetz), was born in New York City to Ashkenazi Jewish parents, whose families were from Hungary and Russia.
Arlyn moved to California, meeting Phoenix’s father while hitchhiking. They married in 1969; years later, they joined a religious cult called the Children of God and began traveling throughout South America. They eventually became disenchanted with the cult and decided to leave the group, returning to the U.S. in 1977 when Phoenix was three years old. They changed their last name to Phoenix, after the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes, symbolizing a new beginning. Phoenix began calling himself Leaf around this time, having been inspired by spending time outdoors raking leaves and desiring to have a nature-related name like his siblings. This became the name he used as a child actor, until he changed it back to Joaquin at age 15.
In order to provide food and financial support for the family, the Phoenix children performed at various talent contests, singing and playing instruments. In Los Angeles, his mother started working as an executive secretary for NBC, and his father worked as a landscape architect. Phoenix and his siblings were eventually discovered by one of Hollywood’s leading children’s agents, Iris Burton, who got the five children acting work, mainly doing commercials and television show appearances. At the age of eight, Joaquin made his acting debut alongside his brother River in the television series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in the 1982 episode Christmas Song. In his first major role, Phoenix co-starred opposite River in the ABC Afterschool Special entitled Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia (1984). Also in 1984, Phoenix made guest appearances in the Murder, She Wrote episode We’re Off to Kill the Wizard with his sister Summer, and individual episodes of The Fall Guy and Hill Street Blues.
After appearing in the CBS television film Kids Don’t Tell (1985), Phoenix made his theatrical film debut in SpaceCamp (1986) as Max, a 12-year-old who goes to Kennedy Space Center to learn about the NASA space program and undergoes amateur astronaut training. He guest starred in the anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode A Very Happy Ending in the same year, playing a child who blackmails a hitman (played by Robert Loggia) into killing his father (John Aprea). Phoenix’s first starring role was in Russkies (1987), about a group of friends who unknowingly befriend a Russian soldier during the Cold War. Phoenix then appeared in Ron Howard’s comedy-drama Parenthood (1989), in which he played the withdrawn teenage nephew of Steve Martin’s character. The film was well received by critics and grossed $126 million worldwide. Phoenix was nominated for the Young Artist Award for Best Leading Young Actor in a Feature Film for his performance in the film. After establishing himself as a child actor, Joaquin decided to retire from acting for a while and traveled to Mexico and South America with his father.
On October 31, 1993, three days after Joaquin’s 19th birthday, his older brother River died of an overdose outside The Viper Room. Phoenix, who had accompanied his brother and older sister Rain to the club, called 911 to seek help for his dying brother. After River’s death, the phone call was repeatedly broadcast on TV and radio shows. As a result of the media glare, his family retreated from the public.
2000–2005: Critical acclaim and commercial success
In 2000, Phoenix co-starred in three films. He made his first collaboration with director James Gray in The Yards. The film follows the corruption in the rail yards of Queens. Although failing to perform at the box office, The Yards was received with positive reviews. That same year, Phoenix played a fictionalized version of Roman Emperor Commodus in the historical epic film Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott. The film was a massive financial and critical success, becoming one of the highest earning films of 2000, with a worldwide box office gross of $457 million and received universal critical praise. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture. For his performance, which the critic Lisa Schwarzbaum described as deliciously creepy perversity, Phoenix was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture, the BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor, the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role and received his first nomination for the Academy Award in the category of Best Supporting Actor. He and late brother River Phoenix became the first brothers to be nominated for acting Academy Awards. To date they are the only brothers to hold this distinction.
Joaquin Phoenix later portrayed the conflicted priest Abbé de Coulmier in Quills. Inspired by the life and work of the Marquis de Sade, the film premiered in the United States at the Telluride Film Festival on September 2, 2000, and was a modest art house success grossing a total of $17 million at the box office. It was received with critical praise, eventually receiving three Academy Award nominations at the 73rd Annual Academy Awards and The National Board of Review selected the film as its Best Film of 2000. For his combined roles, Phoenix won the Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actor and the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor.
The following year, Phoenix starred in the satirical film Buffalo Soldiers (2001) as a U.S. Army soldier. The world premiere was held at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival in early September. However, because the film was a satire of the US military, its wider theatrical run was delayed by approximately two years because of the September 11 attacks; it was finally released on July 25, 2003. Although the film was a box office flop, it was received with mostly positive reviews. Film critic Roger Ebert praised Phoenix for his spot-on performance. Phoenix was nominated for the British Independent Film Award for Best Actor.
Phoenix also starred in M. Night Shyamalan’s science fiction thriller Signs (2002). Phoenix plays Merrill Hess, a former Minor League baseball player who, along with his older brother Graham (Mel Gibson), discovers that Earth has been invaded by extraterrestrials. The film was a massive financial success, grossing $408 million on its $72 million budget, and was received with positive reviews. Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers praised Phoenix’s performance, writing Phoenix registers impressively, finding the humor and the pain in this lost boy.
In 2003, Phoenix played the irresolute husband of a superstar-skater in It’s All About Love, and voiced Kenai in the Disney animated film, Brother Bear. The film grossed $250 million worldwide and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. He was replaced by Patrick Dempsey in the sequel Brother Bear 2.
In 2004, Phoenix paired with Shyamalan again, playing a lovestruck farmer in The Village. It received mixed reviews but was a financial success, grossing $256 million worldwide on its $60 million budget. For his second film that year, Phoenix starred in the drama film Ladder 49 as a Baltimore firefighter. The film earned $102 million at the box office despite receiving generally mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 out of 4 stars, praising the performances in the film. Phoenix’s final film of 2004 was Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda, playing photographer Jack Daglish. The film was a moderate financial success but was a critical success, receiving almost exclusively positive reviews from critics. For his performance in the film, Phoenix was nominated for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture along with the cast.
Awards and Nominations
Phoenix is the recipient of an Academy Award, a British Academy Film Award, a Grammy Award, two Golden Globe Awards, a Screen Actors Guild Award, the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival and the Award for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival, among numerous other accolades from industry groups, critics’ associations, and film festivals.
Joaquin and River hold the distinction of being the only brothers nominated for acting Academy Awards. Both Joaquin Phoenix and Heath Ledger won an Academy Award for their performances as the Joker, becoming the second pair of actors to win Academy Awards for playing the same character – the other pair being Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, who won Best Actor and Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor respectively, for their portrayals of Vito Corleone.