OSCAR HISTORY: Paul Thomas Anderson

The Weinstein Company has often had a stronghold over the Best Picture race, and this year is no different with three rather likely candidates. While Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained are waiting in the wings, the former less so than the latter, The Master has the good fortune of being the first major Oscar vehicle of the fall. It’s hard to believe that the film is only now being released to the public, given the abundance of 70 mm preview screenings over the past month. It doesn’t even go wide until next Friday, so the time is ripe to weigh the past odds of its acclaimed director, Paul Thomas Anderson.

PTA, as his name is often shortened to so as not to be confused with the much less talented Paul W.S. Anderson, is only six films into his career now, and yet he has already received comparisons to Robert Altman and Stanley Kubrick. Anderson is well on course to surpass Kubrick’s life total of twelve cinematic offerings, but he’s becoming more notorious for taking much leaving much larger gaps between releases. And though it may be decades before the Kubrick comparisons hold indisputable weight, one should acknowledge, in comparison to Anderson’s, Kubrick’s own history with the Academy Awards.

Kubrick was nominated three times for Best Picture, four for Director, and six for screenplay awards, never winning a single one. If Anderson were to follow a similar path, it would not be a universally terrible thing. As you might have been able to tell from the Academy’s track record, Oscar isn’t everything. Matter of fact, it’s barely anything, but it is public. A public acknowledgment of cinematic greatness is often seen much more favorably than a somewhat more exclusive one like the Sight & Sound list. To the point, you don’t need to be on your way to a film degree to become fond of the Academy’s choices.

Anderson’s first two films, Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, were released in roughly the same year, so there would naturally be something of a divide between the two. It’s fortunate that even one of them was nominated, and it makes sense that it would be Boogie Nights. It’s far more expansive, inclusive, and focuses on universal themes over Hard Eight‘s intimate ones. That said, the film wasn’t quite a heavy-hitter. Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore received nominations for their supporting performances, Moore being the crazed stand-out and greater representation of the film’s destructive themes. Anderson received a screenplay nomination, qualifying a first step in the Academy’s eyes.

Two years later brought Anderson back into the fold with Magnolia, building on the success of Boogie Nights with an ensemble cast and an ambitious story of fathers, sons, love, and frogs. Anderson has stated, “Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I’ll ever make.” That respectfully sums up the public reaction to the piece, a clever mix of astonishment and utter confusion. It was either going to pay off in spades or not at all, in terms of viewer-by-viewer opinions. How it fared with the Academy was, much like with Boogie Nights, a thing of mild admiration.

Another Original Screenplay nomination was well in the cards for Anderson, for how could they not have given them that acknowledgment. The film is, if nothing else, bursting with more ideas than it can hold down. Tom Cruise received his third, and most recent, nomination for his incredulously sexualized performance, milking every last ounce of over-egged masculinity that he could muster. The film’s third nomination was towards Aimee Mann’s end credits song, “Save Me”, which sweetly lulled us towards the end of a chaotic runtime. Once again, no wins.

Move forward three years to 2002, when Anderson releases Punch Drunk Love, a romantic-comedy starring Adam Sandler. That film is, in my humble opinion, perhaps his mostly uniquely profound, affectionate, and loverly a feature. As such, for all its unattainable moods and inclinations, it received not a single nomination from the Academy. It is worth mentioning that Anderson won the Director award for the film at Cannes Film Festival that year, so there was momentum going the film’s way. I suppose they just couldn’t find a place for even the obligatory screenplay nod amongst such genre bending work as My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Thus began Anderson’s current period of extended focus on specific projects. Based on his two most recent efforts, we may not see another PTA feature until 2017. The film that has pushed Anderson’s name into cinematic legend, beyond any feasible doubt, was There Will Be Blood. It’s the only one of Anderson’s films to be currently featured in the top 250 of Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time poll, and despite its less than luxurious length, it’s the film of his I have seen most often. Anderson goes for the gut in every moment of the film. It stays on your mind for an immense period of time.

The Academy was wise to finally bow to Anderson’s prowess in There Will Be Blood, showering the film in eight nominations, including his first for Adapted Screenplay, Director, and Best Picture. Only one cast member found their way through on the performance end, and it was unsurprisingly Daniel Day-Lewis’ veracious lead performance as Daniel Plainview. There was no performance even close to contending with him that year, mostly because his work in There Will Be Blood is so vibrantly outspoken and crazed that you have no option but to bow at his feet. He won, to no huge surprise but to much delight.

The other four acknowledgments of the film’s uniform greatness came for its below-the-line qualifications. The film’s robust art direction only begged for acknowledgment, rather than reward. Much of the film’s visual heft comes from its skillfully chosen locations. Sweeney Todd won for its comparatively more lavish visual spectacle. Few will argue, however, that where There Will Be Blood most deserved technical reward was in Robert Elswit’s devastatingly conceived cinematography. It was a proper climax to the cinematographers long collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson.

The remaining two nominations came for compositional factors that aren’t quite towards the surface as the others. The film’s sound design, like the sound work in many a feature, was a thing of less outspoken focus. The sound editing on There Will Be Blood made mindful use of the windy plains much of the film takes place in, but also towards a character arc of the film that augments the viewer’s sense of hearing. Lastly was the editing, contemplative and stretched unnervingly to its breaking point. Icing on the expertly crafted cake.

Which brings us back to the present, with The Master making the rounds as Anderson’s latest massive achievement. Last week’s debacle at Venice gave the film a healthy extra bit of press to bring it across the last stretch towards its release. The main question is, how much of a dent will the film make at this year’s Oscar ceremony. Having not seen the film, I can’t state anything for certain. However it is rather likely for the Venice emphasized categories of Best Picture, Director, Actor (for Joaquin Phoenix), and Supporting Actor (for Philip Seymour Hoffman) to be in the cards.

Alex, having had the chance to see the film earlier this week, is still in the process of… well, processing. Though a review will surely come in time, he was still able to hint, via twitter, the distinct likelihoods of nominations for its 70 mm cinematography, as well as Jonny Greenwood’s plucky score, of which you can hear a sampling of here. And I’ll just pencil in Anderson for a screenplay nomination, since it would just be awkward if he didn’t receive one. However, I must display doubts that this will be the film that earns Anderson his long deserved win.

The Master is proving much more divisive with critics than Anderson’s last film, and can mostly be attributed towards the particularly ambiguous focus of the film. You can tell that merely from the evasive-as-usual trailers for the film. I have no doubt this film will be just as perused over as any of Anderson’s past efforts, but I do not expect it to be the film to finally earn him the top prize. I may, however, be so bold as to say that it could still be his first Oscar win. Like I said before, the Academy loves his screenplays.

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  • This is an excellent write-up Duncan. PTA is one of my most favorite directors, his work is always astonishing. Fingers crossed for The Master.

  • While I have to wait over a week to see The Master (I’m moving next weekend, and won’t get a chance to see it until the Sunday after it comes out), I definitely agree with you that the film’s slightly more divisive response might lead to folks feeling alienated by it. Not good for a conservative voting body like the Academy, who’s been far noticeably more drawn to warmer & fuzzier movies of late.

    Ebert is suggesting that Ben Affleck’s more crowd-pleasing picture Argo, based on its reception at TIFF, will probably win best picture. But PTA is certainly respected, and the Director’s block of voters is far more likely to reward ambition than the larger group.

    What do you think of a possible split between the top two prizes this year? It’s rare, but it does happen (think Gladiator/Traffic or Crash/Brokeback Mountain)

    • I love it when the Academy decides to award a different director than the Best Picture winner. Too often the prizes go obligatorily hand-in-hand, when the directing prize is meant to go specifically to the best director. It takes a special year for that to happen, but I think this could be the year for it.

      With “The Master” being an original work and “Argo” an adaptation, I would be absolutely for a split like that, especially given some of the stellar things I’ve heard about both films. A year where the love is spread between several pictures is far better than a year when one film takes nearly every prize it’s nominated for.

  • I would argue that the cinematography in There Will Be Blood is the single best thing about it, besides Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance. Also it’s a shame that Boogie Nights wasn’t nominated for either cinematogrpahy or editing, or a whole number of other awards.

    Boogie Nights is actually my favorite film by Anderson, with There Will Be Blood being a very close second.

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