In late July, the Weinstein Company announced it would be releasing The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson's new movie, on September 14, which is early for an Oscar candidate. Most Best Picture nominees come out no sooner than October so that they're as fresh as possible in voters' minds. Nonetheless, the Weinstein decision prompted one of the dumber headlines in recent years: "Is the Best Picture Race Over Already?" Obviously, that's dopey hyperbole—"Sorry, Lincoln, there's no point in coming out now"—but The Master does carry with it a mountain of Oscar expectations, even though it's not one of those middlebrow, feel-good choices like The King's Speech or The Artist.
Movies like The Master tend not to actually snag Best Picture, but people assume it will be part of the Oscar conversation, sight unseen, simply because it would serve as the coronation for America's most exciting, vital young filmmaker. Folks don't want The Master to win as much as they want Paul Thomas Anderson to finally get his due.
There are plenty of reasons why Anderson, 42, is the most significant under-50 American filmmaker, despite the impressive competition. Unlike David Fincher and Spike Jonze, he writes all his own movies. Unlike the great Christopher Nolan, he's worked on nothing but personal projects. Unlike Wes Anderson, he makes films that have a bold, expansive quality to them; they feel epic, even when they're about Adam Sandler trying to court Emily Watson. Unlike Steven Soderbergh, he's very deliberate—making only three films in the last 10 years—which gives each of his movies the momentousness of a major event. And unlike Quentin Tarantino, he eschews the spotlight, which lends him an air of mystery. Of junior auteurs, Anderson alone has a full house of cool credentials.
And that's not even discussing the movies, which are major in their own way. At first I thought he was all hype. Coming off the indie success of 1996's Hard Eight, Anderson became a sensation thanks to Boogie Nights, with the media touting him as the Next Big Thing. In a Los Angeles Times interview from the time, he famously declared that you could learn more about filmmaking from listening to the commentary track to Bad Day at Black Rock than you could by going to film school, which is the sort of punk-ass comment that you'd better back up by making great movies.
Boogie Nights was an ambitious film, but also a derivative one, the product of a life seemingly devoted to watching Scorsese and Altman movies and The Godfather over and over again. No doubt Anderson had talent to burn, but for a guy who spent his younger years making parodies and homages—including a mockumentary about his eventual Boogie Nights antihero, Dirk Diggler—he didn't yet seem free of his influences. (By the way, here's that mockumentary...)
Anderson's next film was Magnolia, which further illustrated his devotion to Altman, specifically the director's grand ensemble works like Nashville and Short Cuts. And like those films, Magnolia concludes with an incredible, traumatic event that affects all the disparate characters. Even more bold than Boogie Nights, Magnolia managed to make Tom Cruise cool again while exuding the giddy, youthful exuberance of a director filled with a "check out what I can do" cockiness.
He came across that way in interviews, too, especially in an piece in The Guardian where he talked about going to film school at New York University for two days before dropping out. "I had a feeling that I didn't want to go there anyway," he said. "The first day I took some pages from a David Mamet script and handed them in as my own—and it got a C-plus. I thought they should go fuck themselves because Mamet—you know, Pulitzer prizewinner, great playwright—he deserved a little better than a C-plus." As far as he was concerned, if you wanted to be a filmmaker, you just needed to study the classics: "I met all these people who said 'I'm gonna go learn about movies at film school.' And I would say, 'You're what? Watch your fucking TV! That's what it's for!"' Anderson's childhood friends have commented that he had been mouthy as a kid, and that hadn't gone away once he became a filmmaker.
By this point, Anderson was a critical darling and had earned Oscar nominations for his Boogie Nights and Magnolia screenplays. The Guardian spoke with him right before the 2000 Oscars, where Magnolia had been nominated for three Academy Awards. This is how the article ended:
The real surprise came when I asked him who he'd like to work with. "Somebody I'd really like to use is Adam Sandler. I just cry with laughter in his movies." As far as I can determine he's not being facetious. He also admires Daniel Day-Lewis. "He's just a powerhouse. All of his films are really solid." And of his own future? "Images, thoughts, ideas, preliminary stuff. But I'm determined it'll be 90 minutes. I'm gonna show the whole world..."
In a few sentences, Anderson predicted the next decade of his career with alarming accuracy. In 2002, he released Punch-Drunk Love, one of the best love stories of recent times and the main reason a lot of Sandler apologists insist that the comic star is more than just Little Nicky or Grown Ups. Though some critics didn't know what to make of it at the time, in retrospect Punch-Drunk Love really did lay the groundwork for There Will Be Blood.
In both movies, you have a driven, peculiar, probably deranged loner who sets out on a singular mission, no matter the obstacles. And in both films, an unconventional score mimics the hero's obsessive, unsteady mindset. But its most striking element—even more than Sandler's performance—is the fact that it wasn't clearly inspired by another director's style. Punch-Drunk Love is a character drama that stumbles into a romantic comedy before it gets kidnapped by a thriller. You don't ever quite know where it's going, which adds to the tension of being led around by a character who's capable of snapping at any moment. Anderson's best movie to that point, Punch-Drunk Love was the moment in which this filmmaker entered his exciting, unpredictable period. And after two films that were both over two-and-a-half-hours long, Punch-Drunk Love was around 90 minutes—just like he had promised The Guardian.
Then came There Will Be Blood. Because it's generally considered a landmark now, it's easy to forget that when the film came out in 2007, Anderson's standing was hardly secure. Despite having Sandler in it, Punch-Drunk Love made less money than Magnolia or Boogie Nights, and it received no Oscar nominations. But if Punch-Drunk Love represented a break from familiar genre types, There Will Be Blood was a departure from anything he'd done before: moving away from the San Fernando Valley for the first time since Hard Eight; doing his first adaptation (of Upton Sinclair's Oil!); and doing his first period piece. (Unless you count Boogie Nights.)
What nobody forgets is what an incredible achievement it is. There Will Be Blood is all bold themes—capitalism, empire, religion, family, greed—told in the sparest way possible. With a career-best performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood is the sort of sweeping, world-beating movies that you expect from directors who say things like "Boogie Nights and Magnolia are both fuck-you celebrations of the Valley." It's audacious, and from the moment you see it, you know it's going to be discussed long after you're dead. And just about none of his contemporaries have made a movie that has come close.
Anderson has handled the buildup to The Master's release beautifully, hosting a surprise screening in Los Angeles in early August at a revival theater that was showing The Shining. (He did something similar a few weeks later in New York.) Oscar season is all about endless hype, but the imminent arrival of The Master feels different: like a major artistic event, not another piece of award-hungry product, despite all the "Is The Master about Scientology?" gossip surrounding the film. In that 2000 interview, he promised that he was "gonna show the whole world." In the span of just five films, he's done that. As I get ready to see The Master, my question is: What else can he show us?
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.