"WHY NOT go out on a limb? Isn't that where the fruit is?" said the late Variety scribe, Frank Scully.
IN DIRECTOR Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film, "The Master" (his sixth), not only does he go out on a limb, but he allows two of our finest actors--Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman--to hang precariously from that limb with him. The fruit of this endeavor? Probably a
long overdue Oscar for Mr. Phoenix, who gives the crazy/intense performance of the ages as a deeply disturbed World War II vet who becomes the pet project of a charismatic cult leader (Mr. Hoffman.)
Director Anderson is worshipped by those who worship sometimes impenetrable art movies--"film geeks" as they are referred to dismissively. Critics kiss his feet. He is an auteur who doesn't compromise, as anybody who has seen "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia, "There Will Be Blood" or "Punch Drunk Love" can attest. "The Master" had its New York premiere this past Tuesday 9/11, to a mostly silent audience. Whether the crowd at the Ziegfeld was reverent with admiration, or simply confounded, it was difficult to say. (Or perhaps it was simply the solemnity of the day itself. Significantly, there was no after-party.) What almost everybody did say, is that Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman give performances of such power and intricacy that Academy voters will be swept away. (Amy Adams is also excellent in a role that makes one forget all about her usual bubbly, charming personality--she's dour, plain and, well--rather frightening.) Shot in sweeping 70 MM, the movie has a magnificent look to it.
There's been a lot of chat that "The Master" is a sizzling expose of Scientology. It's not. Although the cult in the film, called The Cause, bears some resemblance to what we know of certain pseudo-worshipful and intimidating techniques, the movie is really about the complex, often humorous, often sadistic relationship between the lead characters. Reviews so far have been 90% positive. "The Master" is, already, "acclaimed." The few grumblings center on a certain aimlessness of plot, and even the extraordinary acting, which at times might come across as too actory, too effortful--every scene is a big scene and that can be exhausting, especially if the characters don't appear to develop much. But, perhaps that's life. Do any of us really change our character, even if, as in the case of Joaquin's tormented Freddie Quell, it's a life of agony, violence, and alcoholism. This is a challenging film that requires careful attention and patience. Those qualities become increasingly rare as our culture coarsens and movies move faster than ever. And don't expect a neat onscreen wrap-up of what you've just sat through for over two hours. It ends and you are left with your own stunned journey to enlightenment. Or not. (If enlightenment was even what the director intended.) The one thing that cannot be denied is that the twice Oscar-nominated Joaquin will surely find that the third time's the charm with "The Master." Mr. Hoffman already has an Oscar for "Capote" and will
likely be nominated again for this scary/funny/pathetic characterization. In fact, Mr. Hoffman will probably be nominated for almost every film he makes--a male Meryl Streep.
I won't spoil it for you, but Hoffman's final scene in "The Master" is one of the bravest things I've ever seen an actor perform onscreen, in unrelenting close-up. No matter what you think of this moment--silly or profoundly sad--it is astonishing.
- P.S. Watching the wizened, ravaged, twitchy, hunched-over Joaquin in this film, I was reminded of my one interview with him at the W Hotel in New York, a few years back. He was fresh off his success as the evil Emperor Commodus in "Gladiator." (His first Oscar nomination.) He was cooperative, sensitive and unusually attractive. Especially his eyes, which seemed to turn from blue to green to almost violet during our chat. I searched in vain to find a trace of that young man onscreen in "The Master," and failed. An impressive feat, and done without the help of prosthetics, either.
- PERHAPS YOU read the Times obit for my friend Robert Treboux, celebrated owner of the long-living Veau d'Or restaurant at 60th street between Park and Lex. Mr. Treboux had owned this "golden calf" eatery from 1985. He preferred to keep it in "a time warp" for customers who had included Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles, Grace Kelly, Oleg Cassini - and I might add Jackie Kennedy, Truman Capote and Diana Vreeland. (The restaurant has been in place since 1937 and not long ago, it still won the James Beard award for being the best French bistro in America.) M. Treboux was one of the last of those influential food experts, brought to the U.S. to serve in the 1950's under the expert Henri Soule at Le Pavillon. I had known M.Treboux since those days, when, green as a gourd and fresh out of Texas, M. Soule taught me how to eat caviar out of tasting spoons in the kitchen of Le Pavillon. - And I feel flattered that M. Treboux was buried wearing a tie I had given him of a black sheep--as he saw himself--among a field of white sheep. He is quoted as having said that his restaurant defined him: "To me that's living. This is my life. I like to talk. I like people."
- Anyway, several food lovers alerted the Times and William Grimes wrote a classy obit when he could not reach M. Treboux's daughter, Cathy, who now keeps the café going. The other night I was in Le Veau again and Cathy told me she had written her own personal obit of her father, which she says she would have given the Times if she'd thought about it. So here is Cathy's delightful version: "M. Robert Treboux did not die peacefully. He was surrounded by his family, not his 'loved ones.' They were all at his restaurant. He did not pass the torch; it was yanked from him. He said upon dying: 'It's all bull-sheet!' In lieu of flowers, please spend big at his favorite non-profit--Le Veau d'Or."
- I like the famed author Herman Wouk's answer to this query in the Vanity Fair Proust Questionnaire. "How would you like to die" goes the question. "Not much" comes the reply.