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No Joke: Gladiator Gave Joaquin Phoenix His Best Bad-Guy Role

Forget about Gotham! It’s Rome where Phoenix did his wickedest villain’s work.

By Benjamin Bullard

“Tell me what you’ve been doing… busy little bee.” Nearly a quarter century after Joaquin Phoenix whispered those words in Gladiator (stream it now on Peacock!), the almost-silent menace in his dangerous voice can still send icicles stabbing through your blood. 

Sure, he’s since gone on to play some truly epic bad guys (like Gotham’s off-the-rails antagonist in Joker and the upcoming sequel Joker: Folie à Deux), but Phoenix’s turn as the backstabbing Emperor Commodus in Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning 2000 revenge epic remains a definitive, fully-committed portrait of a villain who’s, well, fully committed to being all-the-way bad — even if it ultimately kills him.

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Great Caesar’s Ghost! Why we love Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator

Incestuously obsessed with his sister Lucilla (a stellar Connie Nielsen) and bent on making the most of his father Marcus Aurelius’ (the late, great Richard Harris) treacherous patricide, Phoenix’s weak, vile serpent of a Caesar rates as one of the most smoldering portrayals of wickedness ever to sear a screen. Everything he does in Gladiator feels like a feral, futile stab in the dark against righteous hearts and minds far nobler than his own… and Phoenix transmits all of Commodus’ impotent petulance with a sneery, wretched inner turmoil that reveals a deliciously recursive tendency to truly damage no one, for all his flailing, except himself.

Phoenix has a magician’s knack for facial telegraphy, an actor’s gift that lets him tell entire stories with only a suspicious glance or a brooding, vexatious scowl. It’s a killer skill that does a ton of heavy lifting to heighten the hair-raising drama in Gladiator: Commodus knows he lacks his father’s stoic will to live in virtue, so he lets all pretense of magnanimity straight out the window in exchange for a short life of imperially-sanctioned crime… and with every anguished twitch that passes over Phoenix’s face, you can see the frustration Commodus feels at his own moral cowardice.

Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) stands in the arena in Gladiator (2000).

It helps, too, that Gladiator’s remarkable cast paints every single one of Commodus’ sick deeds in such stark contrast against their own highly principled actions. With few true allies (except for the sleazy Senator Falco, played to great effect by David Schofield), Commodus is unlovable and unloved — and he lives in torment as Lucilla, Maximus (Russell Crowe), the honor-bound Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi), and even ringmaster Proximo (the late Oliver Reed) all deliver one understated lesson after another in mastering their natures and living for something greater than themselves. 

David Franzoni created the story for Gladiator and penned the screenplay alongside writers Douglas Wick and Branko Lustig, and it must’ve been loads of satisfying fun to watch Phoenix breathe evil life into the words they’d so carefully crafted for the film’s core nefarious character. “They whispered in dark corners, and went out late at night, and conspired, and conspired,” Commodus hisses in the movie’s most mesmerizing scene, telling imperial heir Lucius (a young Spencer Treat Clark), his nephew, a scintillating tale of Roman treachery while mother Lucilla — knowing she and her child are hugely endangered hostages — looks on in helpless and fully-alarmed fright. 

In that scene and all throughout the movie, Phoenix commands his lines with such force and conviction that it’s impossible not to succumb to at least one Shakespearean shudder now and again — even if you’ve never so much as cracked the cover of a bygone backstabber’s tale like Antony and Cleopatra or Julius Caesar. In Gladiator, Maximus might’ve won the movie’s greater moral victory… but it’ll always be Phoenix’s twisted Emperor Commodus who haunts our lingering memories of one of Ridley Scott’s greatest films. 

Stream Gladiator on Peacock here — and for even more Roman arena action, save the date for July 18, when Roland Emmerich's gladiator epic Those About to Die lands on the bird app as a Peacock original series.