The road to Oscar glory ended in success for Joaquin Phoenix on Sunday, with the star hoisting his first Academy Award for best actor and giving an impassioned call for change in the world and the need for second chances.
In a lengthy and wide-ranging speech, the actor, tackled issues of equality and nature preservation, gave a nod to his late brother River and more.
"Now, I have been a scoundrel in my life. I have been a scoundrel, 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," he said.
It's the rise of the new Phoenix who has shown many complex sides this awards season.
The eccentric, media-shy Phoenix, 45, did the Oscar season his way – going from his rambling, F-bomb-filled acceptance speech at the Golden Globes to taking the entire film industry to task for systemic racism in his BAFTA speech.
"Joaquin Phoenix has been a fascinating presence on the awards circuit, especially as he’s more willing to play the game than he has in the past," says Dave Karger, special correspondent for IMDb.com. "He has his own idiosyncrasies, but at times he's been the trailblazing maverick demanding change. He's has a lot to say, and he's used the awards platform to say it."
Phoenix's reticence to promote himself became evident with his role as Johnny Cash in 2005's "Walk the Line," which earned him the second of four Oscar nominations.
During one infamous red carpet interview, Phoenix bizarrely asked the reporter, "Do I have a large frog in my hair?" When told there was no frog, Phoenix added, deadpan, "Something's crawling out of my scalp."
"We’ve always known he was a classic Hollywood oddball," says Tom O'Neil, founder of awards prognosticating site Gold Derby. "After the bravura performance in 'Joker,' we've seen the nuttiness sometimes. But he's been engaged, and using his moment to highlight important causes."
Phoenix has always been appreciated for his full devotion to the acting craft, disappearing in roles such as his breakout as simpleton Jimmy Emmett in 1995's "To Die For," the conniving Emperor Commodus in 2000's "Gladiator" (first Oscar nomination) and veteran Freddie Quell in "The Master."
His complete immersion as an aspiring rapper for the faux documentary "I'm Still Here" carried into one of TV's more bizarre moments with David Letterman in 2009, where Phoenix sported a bushy beard, sunglasses and mumbled incoherently.
Since the unveiling of "Joker" at Venice International Film Festival, Phoenix has accepted his role in the spotlight and pounded the red carpet. He even attended smaller awards show like Critics' Choice (Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio passed), leaving right after accepting his award.
Phoenix sat on the couch for Jimmy Fallon, drawing out and answering frivolous questions from the intimidated host, who blamed the softball questions on a segment producer.
"He really worked the circuit this year, which is not like him," says Erik Davis, managing editor of Fandango.com. "But Oscar voters love a good showy performance and he knocks it out of the park. He's one of the great actors of our generation."
Phoenix urged the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to serve a plant-based meal to its guests at the Golden Globes, a decision that resulted in the awards shows that followed going meatless. During his profane but gracious Globes speech, Phoenix congratulated the group for taking the "bold" move to aid the environment.
Backstage, it was Phoenix the oddball, telling the assembled journalists that he had been "tricked" into taking questions. He grew testy when asked about a predictable "Joker" sequel: "I don't think I've ever done too many predictable things."
At the BAFTAs, where only white actors were nominated, it was serious Phoenix at the winner's podium, calling out for change in the industry, and in his own perspective.
"We have to really do the hard work to truly understand systemic racism," said Phoenix. "It's the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it. So that's on us."
Phoenix left the stage to rousing cheers and applause. There was more applause Sunday night as Phoenix called himself "a voice for the voiceless" and called for a "fight against injustice."
"This Oscar is for perhaps the greatest performance of his career, but it's also a big Hollywood hug. An embrace for a career and a performance," says O'Neil. "He’s really shone in this moment, and he's done this his own way."
Contributing: Hannah Yasharoff