OVER*Flow: What’s in a Frame? Paratexts, Performance, and Joaquin Phoenix in Joker
Justin Rawlins / University of tulsa

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker
Joaquin Phoenix Stars as the Joker in Warner Brother’s Box Office Hit

Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as unemployed clown/aspiring comedian-turned-murderer in Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019) has been widely lauded as an awards season frontrunner and has just become the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time. Despite its polarized reception, the film’s champions and detractors both frequently agree that Phoenix’s performance is Joker’s most notable—in some cases, its only redeeming—feature.[ (( Some critics at the Venice Film Festival began applauding it before the credits rolled. Other critics have labeled it a plotless amalgamation of GIFs “stuffed with phony philosophy,” conveying “a rare, numbing emptiness.” Zacharek, Stephanie. “Joke Wants to Be a Movie About the Emptiness of Our Culture. Instead, It’s a Prime Example of It.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Time, 31 August 2019, https://time.com/5666055/venice-joker-review-joaquin-phoenix-not-funny/. Accessed 21 October 2019; Brody, Richard. “’Joker’ is a viewing experience of rare, numbing emptiness.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. New Yorker, 3 October 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/joker-is-a-viewing-experience-of-rare-numbing-emptiness. Accessed 21 October 2019.))] This shared sensibility among otherwise divergent readings points to a latent understanding of screen performance that is mobilized, but not interrogated, in the language used to describe his portrayal of Arthur Fleck/Joker. What can we glean from such consensus? What can it tell us about Phoenix’s acting, and about our understanding of screen performance writ large? By way of an answer, I offer potential lessons we can glean from probing cultural productions related to—but outside of—the film. In these texts, I suggest, we can see Phoenix’s turn in Joker framed to both emphasize his substantial weight loss and conflate it with great acting. Consciously or unconsciously, I follow, these same discourses entangle Phoenix’s received performance with long-entrenched popular cultural understandings of “Method” acting connecting his perceived work in Joker to his other screen labor, to other Jokers, and to the exclusive club of “Method” practitioners.

Despite concerns about audiences’ premature reactions to Joker, the fact is that audience experiences of motion pictures have long been preceded and thus framed by texts emanating from studios, critics, viewers, and other constituencies. These “paratexts”[ ((Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately. New York University Press, 2010, 25.))]—texts that prepare us for other texts—constitute crucial parts of the interpretive landscape within which we make sense of cinema. By approaching Phoenix’s performance through the paratexts that shape popular reception, we become attuned to the various ways audiences are primed to ascribe disproportionate value to physical transformation as a barometer for exceptional acting. Examining a range of paratexts that include the film’s two trailers and its many reviews, an overwhelming emphasis on Phoenix’s emaciated body comes into focus, as does its correlation with prevailing understandings of so-called “Method” acting.

Joker lifts his arms as he dances
Fig. 1. Gun in hand, Arthur lifts his arms as his dances in Joker’s teaser trailer. Like many other moments in Joker’s two trailers and the film itself, the camera lingers on Fleck’s exposed torso and showcases the “strange concavities” made possible by Joaquin Phoenix’s reported 52 pound weight loss. This, and other language about the actor’s “transformation” for the part, have been fixtures in the paratexts orbiting the film.

Joker’s April 3, 2019 teaser trailer—likely audiences’ first exposure to Joker footage—insists on such focus early and often. Ten seconds in, the camera follows the hunched lead, Arthur Fleck, whose slight frame, loose-fitting clothing, and sluggish gait intimate the character’s diminished physical, mental, and social state. Two shots of the topless Phoenix soon follow, revealing his gauntness. The effect is heightened when, for the third time in forty seconds, Arthur’s exposed torso appears. Fleck’s voiceover, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” accompanies the camera’s slow, foreboding approach toward Phoenix’s bare back. Bones push the skin to its breaking point as Arthur strains to stretch his leather clown shoes, producing a sound of twisting flesh that could just as easily be emanating from the man’s body. A later image of him dancing with arms stretched over his head (Fig. 1) again accentuates his skeletal physique, while glimpses of action (primarily running) juxtapose his earlier sluggishness with a flailing freneticism that—though fully clothed—nevertheless showcases the awkward angularity of Fleck’s frame.

Joker's shirtlessness showcases bodily transformation
Fig. 2. Arthur’s shirtlessness continues in the film’s final trailer to showcase Phoenix’s skeletal transformation for the role, a recurring aesthetic of Joker and key facet of Phoenix’s paratextual performance.

The film’s August 28, 2019 final trailer sustains this emphasis, rehashing the shoe-stretching scene from a different angle while retaining its fixation on Phoenix’s wrenching and the audible sound of groaning flesh. Arthur stares into the kitchen sink as his protruding ribs catch the grim fluorescent light (Fig. 2). Soon after, his angular, sunken face reacts to the perceived treachery of late-night host Murray Franklin. Later still, another shirtless Fleck looks up from a hunched position, arms spread wide as if to call further attention to his wasted physique (Fig. 3). As with the first trailer, the final trailer (released on the verge of the film’s triumphant debut at the Venice Film Festival) paired the stark visualizations of Phoenix’s physical transformation with action shots that, even though clothed, further emphasized the centrality of his skeletal state to the character’s motion and psychology.

Joker looks up from unnatural pose in final trailer
Fig. 3. In Joker’s final (second) trailer, Fleck/Phoenix looks up from a pose reminiscent of other similarly unnatural postures that figured prominently in the film and its paratexts. Paratexts suggested that these frequent moments underscored the extremity of both the character’s interiority and the actor’s performance style.

From select screenings in Venice and Toronto to its wide release, critical discourse surrounding Joker has devoted outsized attention to Phoenix’s weight loss, connected it to Fleck’s trauma and mental illness, and suggested it is indicative of the actor’s extraordinary performance style. Allusions to sacrifice, transformation, immersion, mutation, embodiment, commitment, and other superlatives even underwrite otherwise negative assessments of Joker, with Phoenix described as “a virtuosic actor destroying his body” to hold together a film with otherwise fatal shortcomings.[ (( Walsh, Kate. “Controversy aside, ‘Joker’ is all setup, no punchline.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Chicago Tribune, 2 October 2019, https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/sns-tns-bc-joker-movie-review-20191002-story.html. Accessed 21 October 2019; Coyle, Jake. “Funny how? In ‘Joker’ a villain turns ‘70s anti-hero.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Associated Press, 2 October 2019, https://apnews.com/f7cd3e5c71e24a6c9a0f71d7db11a9f8. Accessed 21 October 2019; Burr, Ty. “’Joker’: The dark villain rises.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Boston Globe, 2 October 2019. https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/movies/2019/10/02/joker-the-dark-villain-rises/Dc4KhfL0KvBv6cpke7vnIO/story.html. Accessed 21 October 2019.))] Such consistently exceptionalizing discourse has, perhaps unsurprisingly, led to widespread speculation about Phoenix’s award-worthiness distilled in the declaration that “you might as well start engraving his name on the Oscar right now.”[ (( Hammond, Pete. “Joaquin Phoenix Kills It In Dark, Timely DC Origin Movie That Is No Laughing Matter.” Review of Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Deadline, 31 August 2019, https://deadline.com/video/joker-review-joaquin-phoenix-robert-de-niro-dc-comics-venice-film-festival/. Accessed 21 October 2019.))]

Approaching Joker paratextually allows us to not only draw out these themes but also situate them within a broader constellation of discourses outside of the film itself. In the case of Joaquin Phoenix and Joker, the above-mentioned superlatives about his acting exist alongside other paratexts painting him as enigmatic, difficult, and idiosyncratic. Mercurial behavior, an on-set meltdown, and the sense of overall intensity surrounding the performer and his ascribed acting style collectively link Phoenix’s specific turn as Fleck/Joker to the actor’s earlier performances and his overall star image, as well as those of others explicitly and implicitly identified as “Method” practitioners. References to Heath Ledger and Jared Leto are expected given the character they all portrayed: the Clown Prince of Crime. These comparisons are also particularly loaded with popularly-received notions of “Method” acting. Ledger’s hyper-intensive absorption in his version of the character, which prompted rampant speculation that Method acting may have killed him, bears resemblance to Phoenix’s comparatively muted ferocity, while Leto’s transformation has become the subject of popular derision, an example of Method acting’s supposed excesses and self-importance that have been lampooned for decades.

Paratextually speaking, the “Method” acting attributed (explicitly and implicitly) to Phoenix, Leto, Ledger, and others is not inherent in the film performances themselves but instead emerges out of the interpretive landscapes that surround motion pictures and help us make sense of them. Over the course of decades, such circumstances have given rise to a prevailing understanding of “Method” acting adjacent to—but in other ways very different from—the actual techniques and philosophies of Method and Modern performance.[ (( Baron, Cynthia. Modern Acting: The Lost Chapter of American Film and Theatre. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.))] This Method-adjacent discourse—what I call Methodness—entangles Joaquin Phoenix’s sacrificial weight loss and his intensity, absorption, and inscrutability with the long-entrenched popular reception of Method acting that selectively confers award-worthy prestige. This provokes many additional questions concerning (among other things) how paratexts animate inclusive and exclusive hierarchies of performance, how they inform our priorities in historicizing performance, and what we consciously or unconsciously perpetuate when we continue to traffic in such shared language.

Image Credits:

  1. Joaquin Phoenix Stars as the Joker in Warner Brother’s Box Office Hit
  2. Figure 1 (author’s screen grab)
  3. Figure 2 (author’s screen grab)
  4. Figure 3 (author’s screen grab)


Interrogating Female Selfhood, Styled Identity Performance, and Visuality in Gossip Girl
Meg Hansen / Dartmouth College

Title Image

Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) and Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) in Gossip Girl.

The postmodern moment, saturated with technologically manipulated and hyperreal images of female beauty, warrants a reevaluation of how female beauty and selfhood are (re)constructed in relation to the aesthetic apparatus. The aesthetic apparatus includes all material elements (clothing, accessories, and beauty products) used to cultivate and present one’s self, in what I term, the styled identity. To examine the ways in which the social concepts of beauty and styled identity are informed by materiality, discourse, and textuality, the following essay employs a ‘co-productionist’ framework, as defined by Sheila Jasanoff in her essay, “The idiom of co-production”:

[T]he co-productionist framework is understood as neither a simple reflection of the truth about nature nor an epiphenomenon of social and political interests. Rather, co-production is symmetrical in that it calls attention to the social dimensions of cognitive commitments and understandings, while at the same time underscoring the epistemic and material correlates of social formations. [ ((Jasanoff, Sheila. “The Idiom of Co-production.” States of Knowledge: The Co-production of Science and Social Order. Ed. Sheila Jasanoff. London: Routledge, 2004. 1-12.))]

Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage’s television show Gossip Girl (2007-2012) [ ((Gossip Girl: The Complete Series. Prod. Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage. Perf. Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, and Chace Crawford. Warner Bros. Television, CBS Television Studios, Fake Empire Productions, Alloy Entertainment, 2013.))] is particularly useful to this inquiry, as it provides unique commentary on the female self and body as material and discursive phenomena. The show employs the aesthetic apparatus, not merely as a prop or spectacle to disrupt the narrative flow, but as an integral tool to construct the styled identity and selfhood of the two heroines: Serena van der Woodsen (played by Blake Lively) and Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester).

While conceptualizing the show, Savage hired acclaimed costume designer Eric Daman to create distinct styled identities for the protagonists, as she wanted narrative and aesthetic elements to play equally significant roles in character development. Savage elaborated, “I find it hard to imagine the characters without thinking of how they express themselves through their clothing”. [ ((Five Years of Iconic Style, The Complete Fifth Season of Gossip Girl. Prod. Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage. Perf. Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, and Chace Crawford. Warner Bros. Television, CBS Television Studios, Fake Empire Productions, Alloy Entertainment, 2012.))] Thus the aesthetic apparatus serves as a language system that attributes various meanings to material objects, inspires discursive reflection on the same, and thereby contributes to creating styled identities that are performative and reproducible in nature.

To establish the performative nature of the styled identity, I turn to Jacques Derrida who argued that iterability, or the “capacity of signs to be repeated in new situations and grafted onto new contexts” [ ((Balkin, John M. “Deconstruction.” A Companion to the Philosophy of Law and Legal Theory. Ed. Dennis Patterson. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. 367-74.))], forms the true precondition of performativity. Specifically, he discussed the example of the personal signature, which is endlessly reproduced by the individual as a testament to authenticity but can also be recreated as an imitation. [ ((Derrida, Jacques. “Signature Event Context.” Limited Inc. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1988. 1-23.))] Similarly, the styled identity is also reproduced via the ‘signature piece’ – a fashion item worn so frequently by a character that it comes to signify her very being. In Gossip Girl, Blair’s headbands and the color gold for Serena form a material-discursive link that collapses the divide between the object and subject, thus conflating self-presentation and selfhood.

Not only does Blair constantly wear headbands, but she also requires members of her exclusive clique at Constance Billard High School to follow suit as a mark of allegiance. In a sense, the headband serves as a tiara, symbolizing her status as the teenage queen of high society in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. When Blair learns that she had not been admitted to Yale University because of Serena’s actions, she confronts the latter in a physical altercation. During the fight, Serena grabs Blair’s headband, tramples on it angrily and declares, “I hate that stupid headband” (“New Haven Can Wait”), thus treating the accessory as a substitute for Blair the young woman.


Blair Waldorf’s style-signature, the headband, as depicted in Gossip Girl.

In another incident, when Jenny Humphrey (Blair’s one-time protégé) finds herself embroiled in an ugly feud with Blair, she proclaims, “Your era is over. And so is that headband” (“They Shoot Humphrey’s, Don’t They?”). And when Blair graduates, Jenny and the other schoolgirls commemorate the occasion by rejecting Blair’s tyrannical social rulebook and announcing, “There is no more hierarchy. The steps of the Met will no longer be restricted to a certain crowd. No more Nairtinis. No more headbands. Let freedom reign” (“Dan de Fleurette;” emphasis added).


Blair Waldorf’s styled identity, symbolized by the headband, reproduced by various female characters in Gossip Girl.

Similarly, the show establishes Serena as its golden girl by portraying her in striking gold-colored apparel during key moments. For example, she wears a gold tunic by Tory Burch on her first date with male protagonist Dan Humphrey; a splendid gold Pamela Dennis gown as a debutante at the Manhattan Cotillion ball; and a sparkling disco-inspired gold sequin dress by Diane von Furstenberg at the Rhodes-van der Woodsen family reunion. In the series finale, she appears in a gold-and-white Georges Chakra couture dress looking, in the words of Daman, like a glorious “Oscar award”. [ ((Rabin, Julia. “Gossip Girl Style: Costume Designer Eric Daman Talks About Six Seasons Of Fashion.” The Huffington Post. AOL Inc., 12 Sept. 2012.))]

The materiality and discourse related to gold-colored clothing construct Serena the woman as a golden goddess – an identity that can be accessed and reproduced by others. When Ivy Dickens (a charlatan posing as Serena’s estranged cousin Charlotte Rhodes) becomes envious of Serena, she borrows her gold debutante dress without asking in order to dress like and therefore, become Serena. It is also interesting to note that Blake Lively began emulating her character’s styled identity in real life. Daman observed that Lively began modeling her personal wardrobe after Serena’s styled identity, describing the convergence as a “symbiotic relationship” that grew steadily over time. [ ((Rabin, Julia. “Gossip Girl Style: Costume Designer Eric Daman Talks About Six Seasons Of Fashion.” The Huffington Post. AOL Inc., 12 Sept. 2012.))]


Serena the Golden Goddess. Top left to right: Serena’s wedding day (Season 6.10 “New York, I Love You XOXO”); Serena’s first date with Dan Humphrey (Season 1.5); Serena’s biological father returns (Season 3.21 “Ex-Husbands and Wives); Serena’s high school prom dance (Season 2.24 “Valley Girls”). Bottom left to right: The Rhodes-van der Woodsen family reunion (Season 5.9; “Rhodes to Perdition”); Serena in Paris (Season 4.1 “Belles de Jour); The debutante ball (Season 1.10 “Hi, Society”).

Understanding the co-productionist dynamic between the styled identity and the construction of female beauty and selfhood in Gossip Girl enables “intimate dimensions of self to be written into dress and fashion,” which in turn, facilitates important investigations into the “social nature of subjective experience”. [ ((Parkins, Ilya. “Building a Feminist Theory of Fashion.” Australian Feminist Studies 23.58 (2008): 501-15. Taylor and Francis Online.))] Thus by situating interrogations of female identity formation within broader networks of visual and material cultural knowledge, the show establishes a dialogic on visuality and the role of aesthetics as it relates to female identities, and offers fertile ground to interpret femininity and its discontents in the specular economies of postmodern media and culture.

Image Credits (all author’s screencaptures and collages, courtesy of The CW Television Network):

1. Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) and Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) in Gossip Girl.
2. Blair Waldorf’s style-signature, the headband, as depicted in Gossip Girl (author’s collage).
3. Blair Waldorf’s styled identity, symbolized by the headband, reproduced by various female characters in Gossip Girl (author’s collage).
4. Serena the Golden Goddess (author’s collage).

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