- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2009

Three of James Gray’s four films star Joaquin Phoenix. So the writer-director was as surprised as everyone else when the 34-year-old actor declared “Two Lovers,” Mr. Gray’s latest film, would be his last.

“I was very sad about it, to be honest with you. He didn’t tell me personally,” Mr. Gray reveals during a recent telephone interview. The filmmaker was working in his home office when his wife called him into the kitchen.

“My wife had a Web site on the computer showing him looking like Rasputin and saying, ‘I’m quitting acting.’”

Hollywood observers wonder whether Mr. Phoenix is serious about starting a new career as a rapper, especially after his first, bizarre performance. Mr. Gray doesn’t. “He’s built a recording studio in his house. If it is a joke, he’s taken it very seriously,” the director says. “For selfish reasons, I can’t stand it … I talked to him today; he said, ‘No, dude, I’m out, I’m finished.’”

The filmmaker doesn’t like the decision, but he sort of understands it. “He’s been doing it for 30 years. A lot of people don’t realize that. He said to me toward the end of the movie, ‘I’m beat, I’m tired, I’m tired, I don’t want to do it anymore,’” Mr. Gray says.

“Oftentimes, very talented people are openly resentful of their own talent and want to do something else — Michael Jordan goes to play baseball. If I had one quibble with him, it’s that he doesn’t respect his own talent.”

Mr. Gray certainly does. “I’m biased; I think his performance is brilliant. It’s a thing of beauty,” he says of Mr. Phoenix’s possibly final screen appearance. “He has such vulnerability, he’s so conflicted in it. To me, it’s such a lovely performance.”

Mr. Phoenix plays Leonard, a mentally unstable young man who has moved back in with his parents after some personal turmoil. The lonely guy becomes torn between two women, the nurturing and parent-pleasing Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) and the also unstable but beautiful and sexy Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow).

“Two Lovers,” a quiet drama about alienation and longing, feels very different from Mr. Gray’s first three films, the crime stories “Little Odessa,” “The Yards” and “We Own the Night.”

The director himself isn’t so sure.

Despite genre elements, his early films “were very personal stories,” he says. He pauses a moment and adds, “It’s odd that your life feels like an urban ‘70s crime drama.”

Still, Mr. Gray admits, there is something different about “Two Lovers.”

“Even though it’s the least autobiographical of the movies I’ve made, it’s the most personal in a way. I guess the reason is that I’d been really focused on authenticity of emotion. I wanted to put as much of myself emotionally in the picture as I could, to create as little distance between myself and the characters, and the actors and characters,” he explains.

Making a movie is never easy, he says, but he found this one harder to grapple with because of that quest for emotional truth.

The result can be as hard to watch as it was to film. Mr. Gray took a situation that would have lent itself well to romantic comedy — a man forced to choose between two very different women — and turned it into a sometimes painful drama.

“When you’re making a picture and people say, ‘I love you,’ it’s usually a joke because there’s such a difficulty about being direct about your emotions. Think about it. The state of love is so preposterous, inherently. You run around doing stupid things, acting like you’re 10-year-olds. The heart has its own logic,” he says. “If you’re obsessed with a girl when you’re 10 years old, you call and hang up when she answers the phone. You might do that when you’re 30, I’m sorry to say. It lends itself to comedy.”

Mr. Gray had a bigger mission in mind, though.

“Americans are very good at making films that laugh at people. We’ve become a very coarse and cruel culture,” he says.

“The problem with our culture today — not to sound like some reactionary or something — but if you’re trying to create a work of art, if I can use that word, in a context where everything is a joke, everybody is to be laughed at, and everybody is an idiot, where is that chance for transcendence, which is really what you seek as a creative person?”

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