During his 2020 Oscars acceptance speech for Best Actor, Joker star Joaquin Phoenix gave a shout-out to his late brother, River. The 92nd Academy Awards ended on a major high as Parasite made history by becoming the first film not in the English language to win Best Picture. Director Bong Joon-ho took home no fewer than four Oscars, leading an incredible breakthrough for South Korean cinema at an event that has historically maligned foreign language cinema. Outside of the Parasite wins, however, the evening was one of predictable but welcome victories, especially as they pertained to the acting categories. All four winners from the night were essentially locks going into the ceremony, having swept up all the major awards from the Golden Globes onwards. Arguably the most notable win from that quartet was Joaquin Phoenix, who won Best Actor for playing the title role in Joker.
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Phoenix, who has been nominated three times prior to this year for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, received a standing ovation as he took to the stage and gave a deeply political, if somewhat rambling, Oscars acceptance speech wherein he touched on issues such as animal rights, gender and racial equality, and the power for change given to people in positions like his. The most touching moment of his speech came when he made mention of his brother, the late River Phoenix. Struggling to hold back the tears and stammering over his words, Phoenix said:
“When he was 17, my brother wrote this lyric. He said: ‘Run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.’”
For viewers of a certain generation, this moment was one of the true tear-jerkers of the night, and it was easy to gauge the ages of some Oscar fans on Twitter by their lack of knowledge as to who Phoenix’s brother is. River Phoenix was one of the most celebrated child actors of his generation in the mid-1980s with films like Stand By Me. He evolved into a deeply fascinating adult star thanks to films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Running On Empty, for which he received an Oscar nomination (he and Joaquin became the first brothers in history to receive nominations for acting). For many fans, he was the ultimate teen idol, a sensitive blonde-haired musician and animal rights activist who had the most fascinating life story. Tragically, River died in 1993 of a drug overdose at the age of 23. The 911 call that a then-19-year-old Joaquin made while his brother was dying on the streets outside the Viper Room in Los Angeles was then broadcast on national TV.
Understandably, Joaquin Phoenix and his family (including his actor sisters Rain and Summer) seldom talk about River in public. For many years, Joaquin was asked about his brother’s death in interviews, which he frequently walked out of. For a huge chunk of his career, Joaquin was primarily defined as “River’s tragic little brother”, which is a difficult legacy to live with. Over the past couple of years, however, Joaquin and his family have talked more candidly about River. Rain Phoenix recently released an album called River that is dedicated to him. They also talked about him and the grief they suffered after his death in an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes. Joaquin thanked River in a speech he gave at the Toronto International Film Festival, noting how it was him that encouraged Joaquin to keep acting.
The lyric quoted in his Oscars speech was one that River would frequently write to fans in response to letters they sent him. River and Rain performed in a band called Aleka’s Attic, which was often River’s creative priority over acting. The quote is indicative of the Phoenix family’s ethos, which has preached such values for the entire time they have been in the public eye. Joaquin Phoenix is an avid animal rights campaigner (he was key in encouraging most of the big awards shows this season to go vegan) who has used his awards season victory lap as a way to preach for his favored causes. He called out the BAFTAs for their lack of diversity and the systemic racism that plagues the industry, and his Oscars speech was driven, albeit in an unwieldy fashion, by a call for unity in the face of discrimination and marginalization. For Joaquin to quote his brother as the climax of this speech, and to even talk about his brother on the biggest platform in Hollywood, is a very big deal, one that proved highly emotional for himself and for many viewers at home. In many ways, this was him carrying on River’s legacy, something that has weighed heavily on him for close to three decades.
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