Joaquin Phoenix's Oscar for best actor in a leading role capped months of  critical acclaim for his portrayal of eccentric villain Arthur Fleck in "Joker."

Not surprisingly the 45-year-old actor stayed true to his well-crafted persona in accepting the award — not as Fleck, but as an outspoken advocate for climate change, animal rights and the end to racism.

Since "Joker" was released in October, Phoenix has used the limelight to unleash passionate speeches on the issues that he has advocated for years. Awards ceremonies, red carpets, talk shows — Phoenix has championed causes he sees as nonpartisan.

"I've been thinking a lot about some of the distressing issues that we are facing collectively," he began. "I think at times we feel, or are made to feel, that we champion different causes. But for me, I see commonality."

At the Golden Globes, where he won another Best Actor trophy, he chastised fellow nominees for taking private jets from L.A. to Palm Springs to avoid traffic and spoke at length about the link between agriculture and climate change. After the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards he skipped the after party to join a slaughterhouse vigil that comforted pigs. At the Critics Choice Awards he pointed out how "Joker" addressed issues surrounding mental health. "You took a comic book character and used it to talk about childhood trauma, gun violence, isolation and mental health," he said from the stage.

At the BAFTAs, where he picked up yet another Best Actor award, he gave an impassioned speech on a number of social ills, decrying what he called the "systemic racism" of the filmmaking industry.

"I think that it is the obligation of the people who have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it," he said, accepting the award. "So that's on us." 

It's not the first time a performer has used their star power to make their views known. They've been doing it for decades — since well before 1973, when Marlon Brando used his best actor win for "The Godfather" to chastise Hollywood portrayals of indigenous peoples.

Even at the 92nd Academy Awards on Sunday, many of the stars spoke out against the lack of diversity among the nominees and the failure to nominate any women in the best director category.

But Phoenix, a four-time-Oscar nominee, seems to embrace the spotlight and his causes with an unusual tenacity. A vegan since the age of 3, he has used the recent movie award circuit to champion plant-based meals at the Golden Globes, Critics' Choice and the Academy Awards Ceremony. 

Brando was widely chastised for his advocacy. Since then, most in Hollywood have accepted that actors will use their voices for more than just their lines.

Viewership for the Oscars this year was down from almost 30 million last year to 26.5 million this year. A decade ago, viewership was closer to 40 million. There is plenty of blame to go around for the decline; the show is notorious for being long and often lackluster.

But some worry though that the stage-as-pulpit may also be off-putting to some fans. 

Still, Phoenix is unlikely to be daunted. He believes his fame is an obligation to speak up.

"I think the greatest gift that it's given me, any of us in this room, is the opportunity to use our voices for the voiceless," he said during his acceptance speech.

Published on Feb 11, 2020