Joaquin Phoenix’s appearance on last night’s Late Show is being widely deconstructed on the internet and the radio. It’s true that he hasn’t hitherto been known as a pillar of dependability or stability —his past history and his recent decision to forswear acting to pursue a rap career have been widely reported— but these several minutes would seem to take weirdness to entirely new levels.
It was on my watch —in fact, early on my watch— that perhaps the quintessentially weird Letterman moment occurred: Crispin Glover’s July 1987 visit to Late Night. In that case, the guest was certifiably —and proudly— strange; and the pre-interview had not been without its surreal moments. But then he showed up at the studio in a heightened state of excitement that almost matched his wig, Even so, he was sufficiently coherent and professionally present for me to tell Dave and the producer that there was no need to scrap the segment.
It all began OK, but a few minutes in my life was flashing before my eyes; it continued to do so until Dave brought things to an end by walking off the set. As I went up and led Crispin back to his dressing room and then to the elevators, he seemed genuinely confused about what had happened, and why. (I was still on the job when, two years later, Crispin Glover revisited Late Night for an undeniably weird but otherwise more conventional appearance.)
So what about last night’s Phoenix gig? Was it real? Or was the actor doing a Borat-like shtick? (He is, apparently, involved in some kind of reality movie project.)
On one side is the fact that if he had been similarly uncommunicative and incoherent during the mandatory pre-interview there is no way he would have been booked. But there are degrees of things, and he has never been known for being chatty. On the other side is the fact that, while Dave is not beyond playing along with a bit, it’s unlikely that he would be part of such an extended fabrication — especially if it were in aid of a guest’s independent project.
Then there is the degree and kind of Dave’s reaction. The only thing that makes him mad is when a guest disrespects the gig by not —as he described it— “coming to play.” (Gum chewing was another thing that got his goat.) Dave would be helpful and patient and tolerant, and —where leggy supermodels and clueless one hit actresses were involved— even gallant, if the guest were trying but failing. His anger, which would manifest itself as increasingly remote contempt, was reserved for people who showed up and didn’t participate (hence the stinging power of his remark “I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight”).
So the jury —at least here on the Western Shore— is out but definitely leaning toward a verdict of legitimacy. But decide for yourself — here, depending on your point of view, is either a superb piece of performance art or an out and out train wreck: