Like his brother River, Joaquin Phoenix started off a child actor (originally billed as Leaf, by his own choice), racking up TV credits and film roles in the likes of "SpaceCamp," "Russkies" and most notably, "Parenthood," in which he gives an impressive turn as Dianne Wiest's porn-obsessed teen son. But aside from a 1991 short, Phoenix spent the next six years away from acting, only to come roaring back (less than two years after the death of his brother) in Gus Van Sant's "To Die For." Based on a script by "The Graduate" writer Buck Henry, it's a prescient look at celebrity culture starring Nicole Kidman as Suzanne Stone, a murderously ambitious weather girl unhappily married to the sweet but unambitious Larry (Matt Dillon). When his desire to start a family threatens to get in the way of her career, she befriends a group of local teens, led by Jimmy Emmett (Phoenix), who she seduces and enlists them to kill her spouse. Van Sant's wickedly satirical film (one of his best) is undoubtedly dominated by Kidman's breakout turn, but Phoenix impresses almost as much; he's believably sullen and adolescent (he was 21), inarticulate and deeply in awe of Stone. But he doesn't have her cold heart; after killing Larry, he's haunted by the man's struggles when he died, and it's deeply sad to see him given a long prison sentence because of her machinations. Phoenix would give mightier turns down the line (James Gray's "The Yards" in 2000 is the moment when it became clear that Phoenix was a monumental talent), but this was when his star exploded.
While he's now one of the biggest movie stars in the world (and one of the most lauded by the Academy, with two Oscars and six total nominations, including this year's "Flight"), success didn't come immediately to Denzel Washington. The actor spent half a decade working in TV and theater before landing a regular role on long-running hospital series "St. Elsewhere." He didn't become an overnight sensation, but it started to help him get big screen roles -- reprising his stage role in Norman Jewison's "A Soldier's Story," an impressive part in Sidney Lumet's underrated "Power" -- before Richard Attenborough picked him to play South African civil rights activist Steve Biko in "Cry Freedom." Let's be honest, the film itself hasn't stood the test of time. It's well-meaning enough that it's hard to dislike, but it's the model of the black-person's-struggle-told-through-white-eyes sub-genre, the birth of everything Ed Zwick's ever made. The film is hurt by placing so much emphasis on Kevin Kline's journalist (although Kline is strong), and the second half suffers from the absence of Washington's Biko, but that's in part a testament to the fire of the actor's performance in the film, which won him his first Oscar nomination. There's a quiet, calm control to him, a passionate decency, and Washington somehow infuses a sense of internal life, even if director Richard Attenborough never lets us see Biko except through the eyes of Donald Woods (Kline). It was the first real demonstration of his pure, natural charisma, the kind that could make a man like Biko a leader, and a man like Washington a star.
Thoughts? Do you have a favorite elsewhere that we omitted? Sound off in the comments and be sure to return tomorrow for our final installment with the leading ladies.