The moment came at the conclusion of a gracious speech in which Phoenix paid homage to fellow Screen Actors Guild nominees Leonardo DiCaprio, Adam Driver, Taron Egerton, and Christian Bale. As Phoenix came to the end, he paused, seemingly overcome with emotion. “I’m standing here on the shoulders of my favorite actor Heath Ledger,” he said. “So thank you, and goodnight.”
Heath Ledger famously played The Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight, although he died from a drug overdose before the film’s release. He was posthumously given an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
That was one of the night’s more emotional moments, but Joaquin Phoenix’s whole acceptance monologue was steeped in respect for his fellow performers. He began with a story about losing out on roles to the same person over and over again for decades.
“There would always be two other guys that I was up against and we’d always lose to this one kid,” he said. “No actor would ever say his name because it was too much, but every casting director would whisper, ‘It’s Leonardo.'”
At this point, Phoenix addressed DiCaprio — nominated for his role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — in a more tender tone. “You’ve been an inspiration for over 25 years to me and so many people. Thank you.”
Phoenix heaped individual praises on each of his fellow nominees. To Taron Egerton, up for Rocketman, he said, “Taron, I’m so happy for you… You’re so beautiful in this movie and I’m so happy for you, and I can’t wait to see what else you do.”
Turning to Christian Bale, nominated for Ford v Ferrari, he said, “Christian, you commit to your roles in ways that I could only dream of. You never turn in a bad performance. It’s infuriating. I wish you would just suck once.”
But perhaps his biggest praise was reserved for Adam Driver. For his work in Marriage Story, Phoenix suggested Driver deserved to win the award himself. “Adam, I’ve been watching you the last few years and you’ve been turning in these beautiful, nuanced, incredible, profound performances. I’m just so moved by you. You were just devastating in this film and you should be here [on stage].”
If he doesn’t win this time around, he might have a shot the next time he plays the Joker. Although, while most people are expecting a Joker sequel, director Todd Phillips says that’s premature.
Earlier this month, Phoenix was arrested at Jane Fonda’s climate change rally.
"I'm standing here on the shoulders of my favorite actor Heath Ledger." Joaquin Phoenix thanks the late #DarkKnight star while accepting the #SAGAwards statue for #Joker https://t.co/tD2ozkArqi pic.twitter.com/k9q8hwFFrM
— The Hollywood Reporter (@THR) January 20, 2020