Illustration by Dustin Harbin
What’s in a face? This week, we invited ten writers to take part in a statuette-free celebration of what draws us to the people we can’t stop watching. Read the whole series here.
I find Joaquin Phoenix almost unbearably, intestine-shrivellingly handsome. Probably the most prominent feature of Joaquin’s face—the way those eyes stare back with some unspoken kind of intimacy, I feel like I’m allowed to call him Joaquin—is the scar on his lip, a little tug on the left side of his Cupid’s bow. That scar (not a cleft lip, so I’ve learned, but apparently something closer to a birth mark) is a reminder that he’s just a guy and not, say, a bored show husky I also want to have sex with. Joaquin is handsome, there’s no way around that, but that small scar serves as some kind of disruption.
I saw him for the first time when I was nine, in Gladiator. My mom was busy marvelling at Russell Crowe’s round nose and sad eyes, but I was distracted by Joaquin’s irritated prep-schooler looks. He came off like a moody jerk, angry and stewing. These were affectations of his character, sure, but there was something about the slope of that nose, that brow like an awning. His bright green-blue eyes darkened when he frowned, his thick brows shaded the rest of his face. He just looked mean, the kind of mean you can’t wring out of a person. The kind that oozes from their hair and pores, like cigarette smoke.
There is a too-clean version of Joaquin, and it makes me anxious. I get to see too much of his face in Walk the Line or the first half of The Master, with his slicked-back hair and shaved chin. What I find there is almost too dark to bear. I prefer to watch him hiding behind himself at his most sickly, with eyes sunk deep into his head and hair matted against his cheeks. I hated Inherent Vice—I’m no film buff, but that movie was about 90 minutes too long and you cannot convince me otherwise—but Joaquin’s weary, zonked-out face, fuzzy and sweaty and sunburned, made it easier for me to keep my eyes open throughout the whole thing. The bags under his eyes were an inch thick, and he somehow managed to appear both bearded and shaven at the same time.
I like it when he looks a little scared, because it makes me feel less scared. I like my men messy and older, because, too clean, they can be intimidating. Too young, they are impish and unmanageable. Messy and older feels comforting. These days, Joaquin looks more like someone who used to be very handsome and is letting the world wear down his face. As he ages, his face is firmly that of an adult. Or, maybe more than that: it’s the fact of a man getting old. He’s getting tired, and leaning into it, and, somehow, looking a little kinder in the process.
Messy Joaquin, like his scar, is a disruption: attractive and interesting and striking, but not exactly perfect.