Foxx and Phoenix: Celebrity Impersonators?

Does Oscar appreciate extra credit?

I was flipping through a recent copy of Rolling Stone magazine (Issue 992, Jan. 2006) when something caught my eye. Joaquin Phoenix had performed a concert at San Quentin prison in California. Yes, the self-same joint where Johnny Cash recorded his legendary concert back in 1968. A picture showed Phoenix shot from behind, dressed all in black, guitar case in hand, looking generally world weary. An inset shot was also included. It showed Cash himself standing near the exact same spot, in front of the gates to Folsom. Johnny was dressed in one of his customary black, brooding outfits. I got the feeling Joaquin had seen these photos before his visit.

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My alarm clock radio is old school. And I don’t mean that in a bragging sense. The Smithsonian keeps calling me about getting their hands on it. So, when I heard the plaintive intro to Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” crackle through my speakers, I thought the ancient radio was channeling the man himself. I was wrong. This was the intro to the latest Ludacris single “Georgia”. After a few hundred repetitions throughout the tune, I realized it wasn’t even a Ray sample. It was Jamie Foxx reprising his role as Charles. He provided a similar service on Kanye West’s GrammyÃ?®-winning hit “Gold Digger”.

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My point is not to knock on the great talents of Foxx and Phoenix. I have followed their careers since Jamie played the cockeyed “Wanda” on In Living Color (“I’ll rock your world!”) and Joaquin (then named Leaf) was mentored by Keanu Reeves in Parenthood. Also, I understand that they each formed a strong bond with the musicians they were portraying. That’s part of their experience. They submerge themselves in a role in an attempt to get as close as they can to becoming that character. But someone forgot to tell them that it was over once the filming wrapped. Now they are going around pretending to be deceased musicians in everyday real-world public! This got me thinking. I couldn’t help but wonder the result if other actors in had similar troubles letting go of past characters. I randomly imagined their former classmates having to chat with these guys at their high school reunions. Small talk would get awkward quick-like. . .

To Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca: “More punch, Pete?” (Insert your own Chewy imitation response here).

To Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates from Psycho: “So, like, you still live with your mom?”

To Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter: “Geez, Tony! Easy on that pot roast! There are forks right over there.”

To Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands: “How was airport security?”

To Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump: “Yeah, yeah, we know-Life is chocolaty. Why don’t you go for a run? And make it a beer run.”

Getting submerged in roles is nothing new to Hollywood’s finest. There are the stories of De Niro packing on 50 lbs. to assume the identity of Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. Uma Thurman took countless hours of martial arts lessons before the Kill Bill films. Nick Nolte reportedly lived as a homeless man for a spell while prepping for Down and Out in Beverly Hills (although some may argue that Nolte had been researching the life of a vagrant for many years prior.) However, part of the craft is learning separation between fantasy and reality. More and more, it seems that actors are blurring the line between the two. Sure, one can also argue this phenomenon in reverse, as actors only play themselves over and over, no matter what character name appears on the script. Kevin Costner, Ed Burns and Michael Madsen, to name a few. This isn’t as absurd of a stretch, though. If anything, they are remaining true to their own identities.

Is this personality confusion a question of ego? Have these guys been praised so much on their performances that they’re actually starting to believe they are these characters? Or maybe it has to do with personal demons, psychology and the like. The two actors did share key elements in common with their namesakes. As with Charles, Foxx’s first love from an early age was music. Like Cash (and Charles), Phoenix lost a brother at young age and later struggled through time in rehab. Perhaps these actors found some dark treasures while diving so deep into their research. I can appreciate that. It’s just a bit much when displayed in a public forum. These guys are A-List stars. That should be enough identity to sustain them.

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