The Joaquin Phoenix Exploding Plastic Inevitable came full circle last night with his return appearance to David Letterman’s show, where the actor first kicked off this happening that briefly freaked America out, until our jaded modern sensibilities took over. Echoing the contrite statements made by his I’m Still Here cohort Casey Affleck, Phoenix was gracious, clean-shaven, and making every effort to look employable, just in case Clint Eastwood was watching. As for Letterman, he wanted to clear up the impression that he’d been in on the whole thing, as writer Bill Scheft had recently put forward: Letterman said that while he knew something was up as soon Phoenix had walked out looking the way he did, he asked him to confirm that he’d never been warned beforehand or been privy to any sort of script.
Of course, in addition to Scheft’s testimony, there’s the fact that Casey Affleck told Jay Leno last week that he’d also let Paul Shaffer in on the ruse before the interview ever took place—which lends itself to yet more conspiracy theories. But exactly when Letterman knew Phoenix was faking is immaterial; he handled Phoenix as deftly as he’s handled all his other thoroughly postmodern guests like Andy Kaufman and Crispin Glover and turned it into the most entertaining thing to come out of this whole project, and last night he once again reaped the benefits.
For Phoenix’s part, he said he knew Letterman “would know the difference between a real person and a character,” and that he’d come on the show specifically looking for “a beat down,” which Letterman certainly delivered—and he gave him a little taste of it again last night for old time’s sake, including demanding $1 million for the free publicity he’d given the film and for use of the footage, which no longer counts as fair because, “guess what, it’s not a documentary.” Phoenix then asked to talk to him about it privately, after which Letterman got in one parting shot: “Yeah, we’ll go to one of your screenings.” But the best dig of the night had to be when Phoenix explained how the idea of the film was about “exploring celebrity and the relationship between media and the consumers” etc. etc., and Letterman cut him off, saying, “Really, all I care about is me in this.” Which is pretty much how we feel about it.