What if Joaquin Phoenix was a better Johnny Cash than the real Johnny Cash? Or Jamie Foxx a better Ray Charles than Ray himself? Isn’t it possible for an actor to be so committed to their craft that they learn to be a better version of the person they are portraying?
Yes, however incendiary it might seem. Johnny Cash, for instance, was just a person. He had an interesting story and badass attitude, but he was still just a person. However, through the way he acted and the glimpses the world had of him, he came to stand for much more; an outlaw. Maybe this was calculated and a smart strategic move on his part. But more than likely it was society and culture turning him into something they were looking for. The punk movement used him as a symbol of anti-authoritarianism. The alternative movement in the 1990’s used him as an iconoclast that pushed the boundaries of music. He did do things that fit with both of these movements, but in using him as a symbol he came to stand for something larger than himself. Johnny Cash was no longer a person, he was an idea, a romantic ideal that people used to mean something specific to themselves.
When Joaquin Phoenix played Johnny Cash, he was basing his portrayal off of all the videos, interviews and appearances that Cash had made. These were the same videos and appearances that the American public watched as they fell in love with him and assigned their own personal meaning to him. Phoenix was playing the essence of Cash. He was playing Cash’s cultural identity. He was feeding the world’s hunger for Johnny Cash as an icon. When Johnny Cash got on stage he was just being himself, when Joaquin got on stage he was being what Johnny Cash had become. And it’s for that reason, you could argue, Joaquin Phoenix is better at being Johnny Cash than the Man in Black himself.
Found photo via Back Stage Blog Stage.