The Internet’s Loving Joker Star Joaquin Phoenix’s Tribute To Heath Ledger At The SAG Awards

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At the 26th Screen Actors Guild Awards, Joaquin Phoenix took home the statuette for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role for his performance as Arthur Fleck in Todd Phillips’ intense character study and period piece Joker. The win puts Phoenix in an enviable position going into next month’s Academy Awards, as 73% of SAG winners in the last 25 years have gone on to win Oscars. This year is the actor’s fourth nomination, following Best Actors nods for 2013’s The Master and 2006’s Walk the Line and a Best Supporting Actor nod for 2001’s Gladiator, none of which he won.

The win is notable enough on its own, but it was Phoenix’s acceptance speech that has the industry and the internet buzzing. After receiving his award, the actor acknowledged a previous performer who so famously and fearlessly portrayed another award-winning version of the Joker. “I’m standing here,” Phoenix told the audience at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, “on the shoulders of my favorite actor, Heath Ledger.”

Of course, Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight is generally regarded as one of the most powerful performances committed to film in the superhero genre, as the actor embodied the character as a nearly mythical archetype of chaos. Ledger, like Phoenix, was awarded a Screen Actors Guild trophy for the role, though posthumously and for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role, and was later posthumously award an Oscar as well.

But circling back to Phoenix’s win last night, and his little nod to Ledger has sent fans into meltdown, with many taking to Twitter to show their support for the actor, as evidenced below:

From the moment that Phoenix was announced in the role of Arthur Fleck as a more grounded, realistic depiction of the character and his descent into the kind of madness that has always been the Joker’s hallmark, comparisons were made and lines were drawn, with some insisting that no performance could surpass Ledger’s. Of course, many of the same people had said many of the same things about Ledger himself when it was announced that he would be playing a character formerly made iconic in 1989 by Jack Nicholson, but the memory of the Internet is a short and fickle thing.

In acknowledging and even implicitly crediting Ledger as the foundation on which his own performance stands, Phoenix went a long way in mollifying some of the critics whose primary complaint seemed to rest on little more than the fact that he wasn’t Ledger. Of course, his personal relationship with Heath notwithstanding, Phoenix certainly holds the Dark Knight star in a special regard: Ledger passed on January 22nd of 2008 due to an overdose of a fatal combination of drugs, while Phoenix’s own brother River also suffered a drug overdose at the Viper Room before passing early in the morning of October 31st of 1993.

With humility and grace, the Joker star has earned a large measure of goodwill toward his own interpretation of this tragic, tortured character.

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