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How Nervous Should the Oscars Be About a Joaquin Phoenix Acceptance Speech?

Joaquin Phoenix at a podium with a green statue of a naked man.
Joaquin Phoenix accepts the Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role award at the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Jan. 19. Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

It’s been a fruitful awards season for Joaquin Phoenix, who has dominated this year’s circuit thanks to his role as the title character in Joker. Phoenix won Best Actor at the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice Awards, the SAG Awards, and the BAFTA Film Awards, among others. He’s now the favorite to win at the Oscars on Sunday—a prospect that might make some of the people watching a little bit uneasy.

Phoenix has been a formidable and unpredictable presence at the podium, going beyond the routine expressions of gratitude in his acceptance speeches to chastise the audience for their hypocrisy on climate change or to draw attention to the lack of the diversity at the very awards ceremony that just honored him. Though he may preach and provoke, he’s been self-deprecating and self-aware about it. “Contrary to popular belief, I don’t want to rock the boat. But the boat is [censored] rocked,” he said during his Golden Globes speech, to laughter.

Will he use the Academy Awards to poke the bear again? How nervous should the audience and producers be? Let’s review a few of his past performances.

Golden Globe Awards

Climate change was the major theme of Phoenix’s acceptance speech for Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama at the Golden Globes in January. “First, I would like to thank the Hollywood Foreign Press for recognizing and acknowledging the link between animal agriculture and climate change,” began Phoenix, who had urged the organization to adopt a vegan menu. “It’s a very bold move making tonight plant-based and it really sends a powerful message.” But that spoonful of sugar was soon followed by a dose of medicine when Phoenix (acknowledging that he himself has “not always been a virtuous man”) suggested that those present could all do better than sending well wishes to an Australia on fire, such as by cutting down on the “private jets to Palm Springs.”

Phoenix also once again dismissed the idea of awards ceremonies altogether, telling his fellow nominees that there’s no real competition between them. “It’s like, this thing that is created to sell advertisements for the TV show.” He threw in plenty of swearing, for good measure.

Who should be nervous for the Oscars: Hollywood jet-setters and whoever is live-bleeping the ceremony.

Critics’ Choice Movie Awards

First I’d like to thank the the awards for going plant-based and trying to offset our carbon footprint. I think it’s really an amazing message; I deeply appreciate that. I need to thank my mom. Mom, you’ve always been my greatest inspiration and even when self-pity led me astray you never gave up on me and always believed in me and I’m deeply appreciative of your support. Scott Silver and Todd Phillips, you tricked us. You took a comic book character and used to talk about childhood trauma, gun violence, isolation, and mental health. And instead of inciting violence you invited the audience in to see what it feels like when you’re one of the forgotten. And I deeply appreciate that. Thank you, all.

The acceptance speech at the Critics’ Choice Awards also began with a nod to climate change before moving on to praise Joker for addressing “childhood trauma, gun violence, isolation and mental health.” The jury is out on whether Phoenix’s complimentary characterization of Joker counts as rocking the boat, given the criticism of how the movie handles those very themes, but in any case, the way Phoenix redirected praise to director Todd Phillips and screenwriter Scott Silver was unquestionably smooth.

Who should be nervous for the Oscars: Joker haters.

BAFTA Awards

Phoenix’s BAFTA acceptance speech was all about lack of diversity in the industry—especially notable at a ceremony where all of the acting nominees were white—and the “systemic racism” behind it. It was also his most strongly worded speech: “I think that we send a very clear message to people of color, that you are not welcome here,” said Phoenix, adding that “I don’t think anyone wants a handout or preferential treatment—although that’s what we give ourselves every year. I think that people just wanted to be acknowledged and appreciated and respected for their work.”

Who should be nervous for the Oscars: Academy voters, who nominated 19 white actors this year and only one actor of color, Cynthia Erivo. It seems likely given the circumstances that Phoenix might again use his platform to call attention to the lack of recognition for people of color.

Screen Actors Guild Awards

In his comparatively tame acceptance speech for the SAG Awards, Phoenix praised fellow nominees Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, Adam Driver, and Taron Egerton at length and ended his speech with a shoutout to another Joker actor: “Really I’m standing on the shoulders of my favorite actor, Heath Ledger.”

Who should be nervous for the Oscars: Leonardo DiCaprio, who might have to smile sheepishly through yet another charming story about how other actors fear hearing his name at auditions.