A Master & His Muse

 I am posting this article in memory of beloved actor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman.  This piece was originally published last year in the Loyola Phoenix as part of “Oscar Watch: 2013″…

As the saying goes…lightening never strikes twice. However, if you are Paul Thomas Anderson you have the rechargeable brain power to make it strike six times in 16 years.

While it is too early to make any definitive Academy Awards predictions, Anderson’s latest cinematic gem, The Master, has all the countenance of Oscar gold. The statuette has eluded Anderson twice before, but this could all change as he introduces audiences to his ‘master’ piece.

The rise of this superlative director plays out like a carefully executed game of dream catching.

Anderson spent time honing his craft in the 80’s as a suburban teenager in the Sam Fernando Valley before he burst onto the international film scene in 1997 with Boogie Nights. In 1988, at age 18, Anderson made his biggest impact as an amateur director with the mockumentary, The Dirk Diggler Story. He followed up his proletarian success by taking a page out of Tarantino’s book and getting his first feature film, Hard Eight, developed and financed through The Sundance Lab.

Hard Eight went largely unnoticed by mainstream audiences, but was a smash on the indie circuit. Anderson took home the prize for Best New Filmmaker at the Boston Society of Film Critics Awards (1997). Hard Eight also earned Anderson nominations for The Grand Special Prize at the Deauville Film Festival (1996) and Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards (1998). Perhaps the greatest reward Anderson received from Hard Eight was a keen eye for the art of ensemble casts…as  well as a unique kinship with a young, pale-skinned, blond character.

Phillip Baker Hall and John C. Riley star in this black comedy about two men who strike up an unlikely father-son relationship. As the two become expert gamblers, their lives are suddenly turned upside down by a perilous event involving a young Gwyneth Paltrow, staring as a cocktail waitress who moonlights as a hooker. Anderson casts Philip Seymour Hoffman as a young craps player. Although Hoffman’s role is small in Hard Eight, he becomes a huge supporting character in P.T. Anderson’s career.

A year later, in 1997, Anderson released his second feature, Boogie Nights—and this time Hollywood took notice.

The film takes a deep dive into the underground world of pornographic filmmaking in the 70’s. The story focuses on the compelling dynamics of an interdependent group of people operating as a family unit. Anderson utilizes his steely eye for ensembles in order to make this dysfunctional household of porn stars and industry big-wigs seem as practical as Ozzie and Harriet’s.

The film incorporates a drug overdose, a murder-suicide, a coke-addicted mother fighting for child custody, an imprisonment for possession of child pornography, a donut shop hold-up, two “competition orange” Corvettes and a drug dealer who loves his mixed tapes.

In addition to Hall, Riley and Hoffman, Anderson creates an unforgettable cast of characters including Mark Wahlberg as Dirk Diggler, Burt Reynolds as Jack Horner, Julianne Moore as Amber Waves and Heather Graham as Rollergirl.

In 1999 Anderson introduced the world to Magnolia. Much more than a film, it is an experience-A spellbinding glimpse into the human psyche, where demons and taboos are in constant upheaval.

Anderson masterfully weaves together a sexual healer on a “seduce and destroy” mission, a delicate coke addict in search of acceptance, a legendary game show host with more secrets than Emmys, a whiz kid looking to break an important record, a former ‘Quiz Kid’ in need of braces, a nurse tending to a cancer stricken millionaire, the millionaire’s wife searching for a way out and a dutiful cop wanting a companion. Some of them are bound by blood, others by choice and all of them by fate.

Throughout the movie, there is a single calming presence:  Phil, the nurse. Anderson wrote this role with Hoffman in mind and it is executed beautifully. The sweet voice of Aimee Mann and the compassionate manner of Phil are the two angels that guard this interlocking web of lost souls.

In the years following Magnolia’s success, Anderson performed a creative mental reboot. He channeled his knowledge for small-scale, art house flicks and produced Punch-Drunk Love. This dark comedy stars a psychologically damaged Adam Sandler who is being extorted by a fake phone-sex operation headed by Hoffman.

In 2007, P. T. Anderson made a smashing return to the film circuit. He revamped his trademark style, abandoned ensembles and wrote an adapted screenplay. The result:  There Will Be Blood.

The film stars Daniel Day-Lewis as a borderline sociopathic oil magnate. There Will Be Blood examines the parallel themes of religion, business, greed and opportunity amidst the Southern California oil boom at the turn of the century. Anderson made ambitious calls with his grand script:  No dialogue for the first 20 minutes, no women in the film and the lead character is in every scene. All bold moves, that all paid off.

In the end, Anderson lost his Oscar to the Coen brothers and their grizzly, dark comedy, No Country for Old Men…but not before Day Lewis walked away with a Best Actor statuette.

On September 14th, the most anticipated film of Anderson’s career—The Master— opened nationwide to resounding audiences. If Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood had a threesome, The Master would be their love child. This film is the perfect marriage of the dominate themes embedded within P.T. Anderson’s best work.

The heart of the film focuses on the relationship between a pair of misfits. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a recluse with a volatility boiling inside. Haunted by his days in the Pacific, Freddie has a passion for concocting bootleg whisky and an animalistic need for meaningless sex. He has a vengeance within that can erupt at any moment and has a difficult time adapting to any sort of port-war normalcy.

The perplexity of Freddie is juxtaposed by the ostentatious Lancaster Dodd, portrayed seamlessly by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Dodd is the leader of a religious organization known as the Cause. The energy behind Hoffman’s execution is intoxicating. Dodd is brilliant, well-spoken, eccentric and in constant command of a room… and the screen.

When Dodd meets Freddie, he becomes transfixed on the notion of cultivating a future prodigy. Dodd is fascinated by Freddie’s peculiarities and invests all of his time into his new disciple. The two men are drawn to one another’s oddities and they play off each other like Simon & Garfunkel. The Cause becomes their life and any man who stands in their way has only himself to blame.

The finished product is an epic work of art by a genius craftsman. Anderson is able to arouse something within his stars that is often unreachable by other directors. His partnership with Hoffman has catapulted both men into the company of such legendary duos as Scorsese & De Niro, Spielberg & Hanks and Woody & Mia. Hoffman is in freakishly rare form and Phoenix has never been better. Freddie’s signature walk, his sometimes rabid looking eyes and haunting laugh are entrancing—Phoenix does not portray Freddie Quell, he becomes him.

Anderson is a definite Oscar contender but Affleck (Argo), Spielberg (Lincoln), Tarantino (Django Unchained) and Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) will be waiting in the wings ready to unleash masterpieces of their own over the next couple of months. We will know in February if Anderson and Hoffman will finally strike gold together.

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