Accepting the Best Actor prize for his performance in the blockbuster Warner Bros. hit at Sunday’s ceremony, the 45-year-old held the late Australian actor — who previously played the DC Comics villain in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 drama The Dark Knight — up for his talents on the big screen before his death 12 years ago.
“I’m standing here on the shoulders of my favorite actor, Heath Ledger, so, thank you,” Phoenix said at the close of his speech, referencing the trail Ledger blazed with his Oscar-winning, boundary-pushing work in the superhero thriller.
Though their respective films aren’t narratively connected, both put a unique cinematic spin on the oft-represented comic book character, with Phoenix’s Todd Phillips-directed standalone Joker film becoming one of the biggest hits of 2019 with over $1 billion in global ticket sales since release in October of last year.
Phoenix previously told journalists at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival that, for Phillips’ project, he didn’t channel Ledger’s prior performance as the Joker in favor of making his own mark on the character.
“The attraction to make this film and this character was that we were going to approach it in our own way, so, for me, I didn’t refer to any past iterations of the character,” he said of putting a new spin on the origin story of Batman’s archenemy. “It just felt like something that was our creation in some ways.”
Earlier in his speech, Phoenix individually praised his fellow nominees — Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Taron Egerton (Rocketman), Adam Driver (Marriage Story), and Christian Bale (Ford v Ferrari) — including a playful memory from his early acting career.
“When I started acting again and going to auditions, I’d get to the final callback and…. [I’d] always lose to this one kid, no actor would ever say his name because it was too much,” he recalled of DiCaprio while the crowd laughed. “”You have been an inspiration for over 25 years to me and so many people.”
Though the actors haven’t starred in a film together, they have played the same character, with Phoenix playing Garry Buckman-Lampkin in Ron Howard’s 1988 film Parenthood and DiCaprio taking on the same part in the 1990 TV series of the same name.
Phoenix went on to praise Bale’s commitment to his roles in ways that he could “only dream” of: “It’s infuriating,” he joked before begging Bale to “just suck once.”
The performer’s victory marks the latest in his pre-Oscars winning streak. The film — which led this year’s Academy Award nods with 11 total notices, including one for Best Picture — has thus far earned Phoenix standout notices from the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice Awards on top of nominations at the BAFTA Awards and the Oscars.
Watch Phoenix’s 2020 SAG Awards acceptance speech above.