Joaquin Phoenix Shares River Phoenix's Words in a Plea for Our Common Humanity in Poignant Oscar Speech

Joaquin Phoenix wins his first Oscar for his turn as the unraveling Arthur Fleck in Todd Phllips' dark supervillain origin story and has a few things to say about our shared humanity

By Natalie Finn Feb 10, 2020 4:15 AMTags
Watch: 2020 Oscar Nominations: Joaquin Phoenix, Brad Pitt & More

Joaquin Phoenix earned every second of that standing ovation tonight—although there wasn't much time left over for applause once he was done speaking.

As expected, he won his first Oscar on Sunday night, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for his haunting turn as a mentally unraveling forgotten soul on a bloody journey to becoming one of the all-time comic book supervillains in Todd PhillipsJoker, which earned 11 Oscar nominations and more than $1 billion at the box office worldwide.

And Phoenix used his allotted time onstage, and then some, to make a plea in favor of our common humanity.

"I'm full of so much gratitude right now and I do not feel elevated above any of my fellow nominees, or anyone in this room," he began, "because we share the same love, the love of film, and this form of expression has given me the most extraordinary life. I don't know what I'd be without it. But I think the greatest gift that it's given me, and many of us in this room, is the opportunity to use our voice for the voiceless. I've been thinking a lot about some of the distressing issues that we are facing collectively, and I think at times we feel, or are made to feel, that we champion different causes. But for me, I see commonality."

See the Winners of the 2020 Oscars

He continued: "I think whether we're talking about gender inequality or racism, or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we're talking about the fight against injustice. We're talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender, or one species has the right to dominate, control and use and exploit another with impunity.

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"I think that we've become very disconnected from the natural world and many of us, what we're guilty of is an egocentric world view, the belief that we're the center of the universe," Phoenix went on, at times looking almost overcome with emotion. "We go into the natural world and we plunder it for its resources. We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow and when she gives birth, we steal her baby. Even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. And then we take her milk that's intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal. 

"And I think we fear the idea of personal change because we think that we have to sacrifice something to give something up but human beings, at our best, are so inventive and creative and ingenious and I think that when we use love and compassion as our guiding principles, we can create, develop and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sent yet beings and to the environment. Now, I have been I've been a scoundrel in my life. I've been selfish, I've been cruel at times, hard to work with and ungrateful, but so many of you in this room have given me a second chance and I think that's when we're at our best, when we support each other, not when we cancel each other out for past mistakes, but when we help each other to grow, when we educate each other, when we guide each other toward redemption. That is the best of humanity. 

"When he was 17, my brother wrote this lyric, he said, 'Run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.' Thank you."

Joaquin was 19 when his big brother River Phoenix died at 23 of an overdose in 1993.

All the Reunions You May Have Missed at the 2020 Oscars

While there's a handful of actors who have been nominated for Oscars for their portrayals of the same character, he and Heath Ledger become only the second pair to win—and the first to do so in films not made in conjunction with each other. The only other duo to do it were Best Actor winner Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in The Godfather and Best Supporting Actor winner Robert De Niro, who played Vito Corleone as a younger man, for The Godfather: Part II, both 

"Really, I'm standing here on the shoulders of my favorite actor, Heath Ledger," Phoenix said at the SAG Awards last month in paying tribute to his late predecessor, who died in January 2008, seven months before The Dark Knight came out and the accolades started pouring in.

2020 Oscars: Lead Actor

This was Phoenix's fourth nomination, having previously been up for his supporting role as the "terribly vexed" Commodus in 2000's Gladiator and best actor for his portrayal of Johnny Cash in 2005's Walk the Line, for which he did his own singing, and again for his turn as a World War II vet who falls under the sway of the genteel leader of a "religious movement" in 2012's The Master.

But it was playing the ultimate tragic clown that finally put Phoenix on top, all season long. In addition to the SAG and Academy Awards, he won the Golden Globe, Critics' Choice and BAFTA Awards.

Warner Bros.

"It's an exciting time," the veteran star, who's been acting since he was a child, said on The Empire Film Podcast before Joker—the most hyped fall release after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and becoming ragingly controversial even though most people hadn't even seen it yet—hit theaters. "It's not familiar territory for me. I'm very comfortable making movies that [have] a limited audience and I've been very fortunate to continue to have the opportunity to make movies, even though the movies that I've made don't have quite so much of an impact."

Not true, but we'll let the man have his humble fantasy.

The competition Phoenix topped this year included Leonardo DiCaprio for Once Upon a Hollywood, Antonio Banderas for Pain and Glory, Jonathan Pryce for The Two Popes and Adam Driver for Marriage Story