Great actors almost never win Oscars for their best performances. As an institution, the Academy of Arts and Sciences has a tendency to reward many of Hollywood's biggest stars for specific roles that just happen to catch a wave of enthusiasm at the right time or arrive towards the end of a long career. Al Pacino winning Best Actor for 1992's Scent of A Woman instead of his far more iconic performances in The Godfather Part II, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon might be the most notable example of this phenomenon, but Oscar history is littered with examples of actors getting trophies for roles and movies that don't necessarily rank among their finest work. (Does anyone really think The Revenant is Leonardo DiCaprio's best showcase?) On Sunday night, Joaquin Phoenix joined that club.
He's traveled a long road to likely Oscar winner. After earning a Supporting Actor nomination for his villainous turn as the cruel Roman Emperor in 2000's sword-and-sandal action epic Gladiator, Phoenix took on a mix of challenging and audience-pleasing roles that helped establish him as a leading man. He fought off aliens with a baseball bat in Signs; he did the voice of a cartoon bear in Disney's Brother Bear; he played a firefighter alongside John Travolta in Ladder 49. But since 2005's music biopic Walk the Line, which earned him his first Best Actor nomination, he's been on an often fascinating run of idiosyncratic, risk-taking performances. (And, yes, there's that bizarre Letterman appearance, his "retirement", and the exhausting mockumentary I'm Still Here.)
Now, with his win for the controversial comic-book blockbuster Joker, he's collected the Best Actor trophy. After picking up the lead actor award at the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards, and the BAFTA Awards, where he made headlines with a speech calling out "systemic racism" within the entertainment industry, the 45-year-old actor cemented his frontrunner status. Somber and tedious, Joker is not exactly his most gripping movie or the best example of his talents. But if you think of it as a make-up win for any of the five performances below, it's easier to get excited about Phoenix's victory.