Awards Profile: The Master

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons

Synopsis: A 1950s-set drama centered on the relationship between a charismatic intellectual known as “the Master” whose faith-based organization begins to catch on in America, and a young drifter who becomes his right-hand man.

Awards Speculation:
Like the anticipation for Gravity, the collective excitement for the epic maybe-maybe-not-about-Scientology drama The Master can traced almost solely to the director behind it.  Paul Thomas Anderson, one of America’s most vibrant filmmakers, finally gives us his follow-up to There Will Be Blood five years after it secured him his first Best Director nomination.  All of the snags that have dogged this production over the years would have been cause for serious concern – maybe even skepticism – were it not for his presence and the rather intriguing possible controversy surrounding it.

Here’s what we do know about the story so far: Lancaster Dodd, disillusioned from his experiences during World War II, starts a faith-based organization in the 50’s.  Drafted up while at sea, he starts “The Cause,” which claims self-empowerment through regressions.  These intense, interrogation-esque sessions take a person back to their memories in order to conquer them.  The religion then starts to catch on and becomes the country’s fastest-growing religion, eventually earning him millions of followers and the love of a beautiful woman named Mary-Sue.

Sound familiar?  If you know anything about the cult religion of Scientology, a lot of bells should have been ringing on the parallels between Dodd and L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction author who eventually founded Dianetics and one of the most puzzling mass phenomena I have ever heard of.  Even though TWC and the film’s producers have explicitly made clear that the film is not specifically about Scientology, the similarities are hard to deny.  It also could explain why Anderson took such a long time to get it off the ground.  Consider, for instance, that only a month after The Playlist published their early script review of The Master back in 2010 and made the connections between the two religions, original backer Universal announced their turnaround on the film.  Their excuse was that the proposed $35 million budget was too much for a religion-themed period drama, but after the box office success of the similarly-budgeted There Will Be Blood, I would think the man has a little pull in this area (think Darren Aronofsky’s ability to commence Noah after Black Swan became a big hit).

"You are SO sued, Paul Thomas Anderson!"

It’s hard to tell just how explosive the backlash will be from Scientologists.  It’s been well-documented by now their history of intimidation and bullying in response to criticism.  A mini-controversy blew up over the infamous “Trapped in the Closet” episode of South Park; how much bigger could it be against a major motion picture?  Has there ever been a film of this scale that confronts the cult religion head-on?  Of course, knowing the kind of writer/director he is, Anderson is certainly not just going to bash Scientology for two hours.  Like his treatment of pornography and the oil boom of the early 20th Century, we’re probably in for much deeper examinations of faith, ego, and greed among a very era-specific snapshot of American life.  But then again, Brokeback Mountain was much more than “the gay cowboy movie” and that didn’t change the headlines one bit.

I bring this up because with all of the high-power Scientologists in Hollywood, I believe that this film will cut just a little too close for some people to fully embrace when the awards season heats up.  Not that the Academy has never gone for polemic or divisive films from time to time, but this is a different animal.

If there’s one thing that could make it a presence at the Oscars, it will most likely be Philip Seymour Hoffman as the charismatic founder of “the Cause.”  Hoffman has been a staple of Anderson’s films, though this is his first time headlining one.  With two Academy Award nominations and one trophy under his belt, the man is undeniably popular among critics and his peers, and the role of a religious figurehead is as juicy as any part written for a man this year (excepting a certain 16th President of the United States).  There is no doubt in my mind that the popularity of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in There Will Be Blood vaulted the dark, seemingly Academy-unfriendly film to eight Oscar nominations…perhaps Hoffman can manage the same.

Seriously, how does Hoffman snag such gorgeous onscreen lovers?

Playing his right-hand man Freddie Sutton is Joaquin Phoenix, replacing Jeremy Renner after he dropped out of the project.  We haven’t seen Phoenix since his failed mockumentary I’m Still Here didn’t connect with audiences the way he had hoped, being more a bizarre train wreck of a performance piece rather than any kind of commentary on celebrity.  He’s in desperate need of a comeback right now.  Who better to provide that than the man who convinced us that Adam Sandler could be a good actor?  Playing the not-at-all-connected-to-Hubbard’s-actual-wife Mary Sue is Amy Adams, replacing the original casting of Reese Witherspoon.  Hoffman has this unusual ability to take on parts that seduce beautiful women, and now it seems his charisma has taken in the sumptuous redhead.

Below-the-line, Anderson will be working again with Jonny Greenwood, whose assaulting score for There Will Be Blood was one of its most indelible elements.  Maybe the Academy can make it up to him after his absurd disqualification last time.  Oddly, cinematographer Robert Elswit will not be lensing this film, making this the first time that he has not collaborated with the director.  In his stead is Mihai Malaimare, Jr., who has done a few unsuccessful Francis Ford Coppola films before this.  It’ll be interesting to see if the film’s visual sense ends up different from PTA’s filmography.  All of this will be in the service of a film taking place in the 50’s, making it a strong possibility for several crafts nods…assuming the Church of Scientology doesn’t get their way.

And that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?  Hollywood’s premier celebrity religion hasn’t been at the center of a film with this kind of ambition before, and how they’ll handle it will be a big part of how it fares in the awards season.  Who knows, the publicity might even help the film.  “Trapped in the Closet” was nominated for an Emmy, after all…

The Master will be released in October 12th, 2012 and is being distributed by The Weinstein Company.

Oscar Potential:
Best Original Screenplay
Best Lead Actor – Philip Seymour Hoffman
Best Supporting Actress – Amy Adams
Best Supporting Actor – Joaquin Phoenix
Best Art Direction
Best Cinematography
Best Costume Design
Best Film Editing
Best Original Score