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Joaquin Phoenix: Complex? Yes. Odd? You bet. Rapper? Uh ...

Many years ago, as Baretta star Robert Blake was slouched sullenly on Johnny Carson's couch, muttering single-word responses to the host's questions, a frustrated Carson proceeded to impersonate his cold lassitude so viciously, he elicited a smile from the taciturn star.

Yet, since then, celebrities increasingly feel entitled to treat the press (and fans, which is a whole other story) with aloof indignation.

When stars are cornered by the press, they are merely lobbed softballs, like, "Did you like filming your last movie?" or "How about a smile?"

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You would think amid all of this petting, all of this obsequious, inane banter they might respond politely. But no. They have to start spitting, death-glaring or mumbling as if impersonating, as if feeling like the exotic goat that hung itself on the weekend at the Calgary Zoo, in front of horrified visitors.

Check out TMZ's video gallery, any day, and you will see stars (some of them very minor) acting, as questions are thrown out to them, as though they are walking through leprous attack monkeys.

This week, check out the latest Hollywood nightmare, Joaquin Phoenix, rapping at Lavo nightclub in Las Vegas this past Saturday, after having announced at both a Paul Newman charity and at the premiere of his film Two Lovers, that he is quitting acting.

On one occasion, he wrote, à la Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, BYE! and GOOD on his knuckles; at another, Phoenix offered the same "exclusive" to a bemused reporter, which made the star furious, if not paranoid. "Why are you laughing at me?" Phoenix asked, before cutting the reporter off and stalking away. The same reporter asked a far more clean and decked out Casey Affleck (Phoenix's brother-in-law) if the story was true and Affleck's eyes darted around his head as he said, "Yeah, yeah, he's doing, ah, music now."

Affleck should know: He has signed on to film a documentary of Phoenix's music career, and started filming with the Lavo show.

Phoenix has always sung, and to prepare for the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, he taught himself to play guitar and tweaked his vocals until he sounded almost as dirty and sweet as Cash., for some time now, has expressed incredulity at Phoenix's alleged career transition, and having seen a few clips of the Lavo show, I tend to agree.

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In the clips and amid rumours he intends to work with Sean Combs, Phoenix looks like a filthy hog; broad and bloated, his hair virtually obscuring his face; his ruined jeans exposing, repulsively, the tip of his penis. The rapping he performs consists of him yelling and smoking, then whistling energetically, then falling off the stage. It is ridiculous, not tragic, but vile - an attempt on his and Affleck's part to mock his credulous admirers and put one over on the kind of straight media Phoenix despises (when promoting Walk the Line, he would stop interviews to ask if an alien was growing out of his head, and so on). This behaviour may be intriguing as instances of performance art, in which the actor is expressing, covertly, his disdain for the star system, which is, arguably, a revolting tissue of lies and imposture.

Yet, if Phoenix is now an avant-garde artist of this kind, he has not gone far enough, by any performance artist's standards. Had he vomited on the smiling reporter while burning his SAG card, we may have the beginnings of a new, good show.

More likely, he is a shambling wreck. Phoenix, who got to watch his older brother River die in front of the Viper Room while the so brave Christina Applegate was said to perform an amusing impersonation of River's death throes in the parking lot for her high friends, has always been a wild card.

Roles, such as those he played in To Die For and Gladiator, are good indicators of the complexity and oddness of his talent.

His private life has always been just that: private. Occasionally linked to an actress, he willfully shuns publicity, and, climaxing with the Lavo show, appears in public looking and acting like Gary Busey's understudy.

One is tempted to call him a poignant figure, while wondering if he is as crazy as a fox. He is, undeniably, abnormal, yet he cultivates abnormality the way Howard Hughes cultivated his fingernail harvest.

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And if he is a wreck, why is the squeaky-clean Affleck following him around with a camera, not a butterfly net?

All signs point to a revision of the Merry Pranksters' antics of certain 1960s artists, yet it is still disquieting to see such beauty and talent being consumed by the self-loathing that is particular to those whose lives have been shattered by trauma.

Actors love to talk about their "demons." Why are they so bedevilled?

Maybe, as fans, we are perceived to be these very devils. I just feel like a vexed mother: Sew your pants! I want to yell at him. Cut your hair and would it kill you to shave?

You know I love you, crazy-talented, strange and so pretty, Joaquin.

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