Joaquin Phoenix on His Brutally Physical Performance in ‘The Master’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

It has been two years since we saw him in “I’m Still Here,” the mockumentary on his alleged retirement from acting and bizarre transformation into a hip-hop artist. Now, thankfully, Joaquin Phoenix has returned to acting in Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic triumph “The Master.” Justin Craig of Fox News calls Phoenix’s performance “brutally physical,” and Peter Travers of Rolling Stone says the actor gives “the performance of his career” as Freddie Quell, a deeply disturbed World War II veteran. Just watching the various movie trailers for “The Master” reminds us of how emotionally raw Phoenix can get whenever he is onscreen, and it is both amazing and scary as there is no doubt as to how far he will go in preparation to play a character.

It turns out Anderson had Phoenix in mind when he was writing the role of Freddie, and he admitted to being amazed at Phoenix’s acting abilities and of his discipline while on the set.

“He’s like Daniel Day-Lewis in his level of concentration. He just got in character and stayed there-for three months he didn’t stop. Joaquin is very unpredictable. A lot of the time I didn’t know what he was going to do,” Anderson said.

Phoenix himself only says so much about how his preparation for a role as he compares actors to magicians in that they “don’t talk about how their tricks work, because people would go, ‘Oh, that’s all you do?'” He did say, however, how Anderson set up two cameras for certain scenes between him and Philip Seymour Hoffman who plays the charismatic Lancaster Dodd. This allowed both actors to “be in the moment and not be worried about shooting the one side and then re-lighting and shooting from the other side.” Phoenix described this as making a huge difference for him while portraying Freddie.

There is also the story of how Anderson showed Phoenix a video of a monkey falling asleep and told the actor the monkey was him.

“Paul called me Bubbles on the set,” Phoenix said. “Bubbles was Michael Jackson’s pet monkey, and I was Paul’s pet monkey. The key to Freddie is an animal, just pure id. For the scene where he’s arrested and put in jail and all that, I just watched videos of wild animals that get into suburbia. If you’ve seen video of a deer or a bear that finds its way into suburbia and the cops have to tranquilize it, it seems as if the brain stops working. If they’re cornered, they’ll slam into walls, or one leg tries to go left while the other is going right. Its complete fear and chaos. They can’t control themselves at all. That was the key to Freddie. And Paul certainly called me his pet monkey.”

While Phoenix still says he experiences problems with acting, it does look like he has rediscovered his love for it in “The Master.” Hearing him talk about being an actor shows how much he has struggled with his gift to where he had to rediscover a whole new way of doing it.

“Part of why I was frustrated with acting was because I took it so seriously,” said Phoenix. “I want it to be so good that I get in my own way. It’s like love: when you fall in love, you’re not yourself anymore. You lose control of being natural and showing the beautiful parts of yourself, and all somebody recognizes is this total desperation. And that’s very unattractive. Once I became a total buffoon, it was so liberating.

“I’d see child actors and I’d get so jealous, because they’re just completely wide open. If you could convince them that something frightening was going to happen, they would actually feel terror. I wanted to feel that so badly. I’d just been acting too long, and it had kind of been ruined for me. I wanted to put myself in a situation that would feel brand-new and hopefully inspire a new way of approaching acting. It (“The Master”) did do that for me.”

SOURCES:

Justin Craig, “Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in ‘The Master’ has Oscar written all over it,” Fox News, September 13, 2012.

Peter Travers, “The Master” movie review, Rolling Stone, September 10, 2012.

David Ansen, “Secrets of ‘The Master’,” The Daily Beast, August 20, 2012.

Jessica Winter, “‘The Master’s’ Joaquin Phoenix on Animal Inspirations, Curb Your Enthusiasm and the Pleasures of Discomfort,” Time, September 13, 2012.

Philip Seymour Hoffman Talks About Portraying ‘The Master’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012. Philip, you are still missed.

Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman remains one of the best character actors in movies today, and his role as Lancaster Dodd in “The Master” is yet another brilliant performance on his never-ending resume. The movie reunites Hoffman with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson who has cast him in five of his six movies. From the gay and painfully timid boom mike operator in “Boogie Nights” to the infinitely angry mattress store own Dean Trumbell from “Punch-Drunk Love,” Hoffman has gone from playing one unique character to portraying one who is the complete opposite, and makes one wonder how he goes about preparing to play each role he takes on.

In an interview with Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers, Hoffman made it clear he was not out to turn Lancaster into some sort of bizarre human being with scary ideas.

“The thing is that this character needs to be as accessible as possible,” Hoffman said. “That when you meet him in the film and then when you get to know him in the film that you don’t judge him so much. I think we (he and Anderson) succeeded in that you actually take him in. He’s a real person, and you can almost see how he’s brought so many people close to him or been so successful. You could see how he can function in the world. You know he’s not too idiosyncratic or too eccentric even. He’s full of passion for his ideas, and some of his ideas are really good ones.”

Hoffman said it was those things he and Anderson wanted to concentrate on as opposed to the “oddity” of the character. When it came to Lancaster Dodd, he never looked at him as the head of a cult or even a religion. In his mind, the character was really the leader of a movement and not a fraudulent person.

Of course, much has been said about how “The Master” was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology to where many are already nauseated at hearing this said over and over. When talking to the Wall Street Journal’s Rachel Dodes, Hoffman tried to clear up this issue as best he could:

“The idea that L. Ron Hubbard and that movement (Scientology) was the basis for some story in the film is accurate, but it’s really not a film about that, so it isn’t accurate enough for me to play L. Ron Hubbard. And so, I didn’t,” Hoffman said. “It wasn’t enough of that kind of story to do that. So, I wanted to think about other people because it was a fictional thing and the character is a very fictional character. So, I thought about other people who had that kind of charisma and moved people and people followed them, and what that meant for me. I steered clear of anything having to do with ‘The L. Ron Hubbard Story’ because it’s too specific and the film wasn’t going to support that, so I thought it would be confusing.”

From there, Hoffman was a bit cryptic as to what individuals he based Lancaster Dodd on. Dodes told him she heard Orson Welles was an inspiration for this role, but Hoffman said he never tried to emulate the “Citizen Kane” actor and director in “The Master.”

“It’s like when you are thinking about something, a lot of ideas go through your head, and references go through your head but ultimately you are just looking for something in yourself. There are certain behaviors, the way people sound. I didn’t really try to play anybody if that’s what you’re looking for.”

Like his co-stars Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman is getting serious Oscar consideration for work in “The Master.” The fact he already has one Academy Award for “Capote” doesn’t seem to matter to anybody because the general feeling is he will get a second one at some point in the near future. Whether he does or does not, it is for certain we can expect many more great performances from this actor as his attention to character remains impeccable.

SOURCES:

Peter Travers, “Philip Seymour Hoffman on New Film, ‘The Master’,” ABC News, September 13, 2012.

Rachel Dodes, “‘The Master’ Star Philip Seymour Hoffman: ‘It’s Not a Scientology Movie’,” Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2012.

La Vie en Rose – Marion Cotillard is Beyond Exquisite

This review is for my friend Cordell as he begged me to watch this movie constantly.

Every once in a while, you witness a performance so utterly brilliant that it leaves you in a state of total awe. It’s the kind of performance which really blurs the line between the actor and the character they are portraying. You don’t see any trace of the actor because they have succeeded in fulling inhabiting a character as opposed to just playing one. Mickey Rourke pulled this off in “The Wrestler” as did Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight,” and this goes for every role Daniel Day Lewis played in his entire career. An actor’s job is never as easy as it looks (if you are serious about the craft of acting that is), and it involves tearing down all those protective layers we surround ourselves with to protect us emotionally. To do this requires an immeasurable amount of bravery, and if they succeed in what may seem impossible to some, they will leave you believing no other actor could have played such a role as good as they did.

You can add Marion Cotillard to this list after witnessing her extraordinary performance as Edith Piaf in Olivier Dahan’s “La Vie en Rose.” She plays Edith from when she was a teenager to her death at the age of 47, at which point she looked more like she was elderly. It’s surprising to learn Cotillard was in only her early 30’s when she took on this role, and it is a performance which feels flawless from both an emotional and a technical point of view. She gives a performance bursting with emotion, and her portrayal of Piaf at the latter part of her life is never less than believable. Her Oscar win for Best Actress was seen as a surprise by many, but this is probably because they never bothered to watch the movie when it was released.

Watching Cotillard play Edith in the different stages of her life instantly reminded me of the opening shot of Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” It showed Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta in his post-boxing years, overweight and smoking a cigar while he runs through his standup act before going on stage. It then goes from there to when LaMotta was in his fighting prime with DeNiro a lot slimmer and in better shape. I remember watching this transition and almost having to remind myself it was the same actor playing LaMotta. Cotillard accomplishes this feat as well in “La Vie en Rose” as she portrays Edith Piaf from when she was young to where her life was fading all too slowly. This is also in part due to the equally brilliant job by the makeup artists who were also deservedly rewarded with Oscars as well.

“La Vie en Rose” does follow the similar path of biopics as we see Edith Piaf from her lowly beginnings as a child, and of how those experiences end up informing the rest of her life as she grows up to become the singer we were so moved by. Dahan does not try to sugarcoat Edith’s life as it was not exactly an enviable one. We see her as being more or less neglected by her mother, and then later by her father when he leaves her for a time in a brothel which ironically gave her some of her happiest memories as she is cuddled constantly by the prostitutes who work there. When we are presented with a childhood which is absent of parental guidance and neglect, we know this is a life which defines the word “dysfunction.”

Edith as child is played by two young actresses: Manon Chevallier at age 5 and by Pauline Burlet at age 10. Both are wonderful, and their performances are not your average child actor performances that are full of over emoting and forced reactions. I point this out because it is incredibly difficult to pull off performances like these for young actors, and both do great work as they chronicle Edith’s young adventures and her inevitable heartbreaks as reality eventually comes crashing down on her.

Dahan moves the story back and forth in time which, in another movie, might seem distracting, but it helps break up the usual rhythm of your average biopic to where it doesn’t feel so much like others we have seen before. In seeing Edith confined to a hospital after her morphine addiction has long since ravaged her already fragile body, we know full well her story is not going to have a happy ending. Still, it made me wonder how Dahan was going to end the movie. Would it be at Edith’s dying breath, or at some other point in her life? I leave it to you to find this out.

Seriously, I cannot get over just how amazing Cotillard’s performance is. She brilliantly captures the stage fright which threatens to keep Piaf from going onstage, and we see how she slowly overcomes it through her first performance. We then see her move on to bigger houses to sing in, and it’s almost like she is becoming a different person in front of our eyes. From when she becomes an acclaimed star of stage and screen to her tragic demise, Cotillard nails every moment she has in the movie perfectly and never misses a beat. Watching her go from what seems like infinite happiness when she finds who she believes is the love of her life (the look in her eyes is beautiful) to the tragedy which takes it all away is simply enthralling. I am still thinking about her performance long after the movie ended, trying to figure out how she accomplished all of this without falling into the trap of playing a caricature.

Even as we see Edith’s body giving out, and her looking 20 years older than her actual age, Cotillard makes you believe you are seeing someone who has lived and experienced much more than the average human being does. This could have been where her performance would have suffered from overacting, but she keeps us entranced throughout the movie’s two and a half hour running time.

But a lot of credit should also go to Dahan for making one of the best biopics ever, and he surrounds Cotillard with a wonderful cast who does their best to hold their own in the wake of her ultimate tour de force. Gérard Depardieu has a nice supporting role as Louis Leplée, the nightclub owner who discovers Edith singing in the streets and gives her the opportunity to perform in front of a big audience. I also loved Emmanuelle Seigner’s heartbreaking performance as Titine, the prostitute who desperately wants to adopt Edith regardless of the odds never being in her favor.

“La Vie en Rose” may tread the familiar ground of many film biographies, but this one has an immense power all its own, and it stands way above many other films in its genre. Cotillard gives, as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote, “a performance for the ages.” I can’t stop gushing over just how phenomenal she is here. I am so glad she got the Oscar.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’ Digs Deep Into His Life

gonzo-the-life-and-work-of-dr-hunter-s-thompson poster

I felt like I could never figure Hunter S. Thompson out. Whenever I saw films based on his work, he seemed like some crazed lunatic living in a world of his own creation and madness. After watching “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” I feel like I now know what he was all about. Hunter was as patriotic as any American can get, and while he always seemed to be losing his mind, no one can deny he was a true visionary. At the very least, he was never boring.

This documentary was directed by Alex Gibney who managed to get many people to talk on camera about Hunter who, whether they loved or hated it, had to admit to feeling the upmost respect for all he did. The fact Pat Buchanan participated in this documentary is a big surprise considering how Hunter described him as a “half-crazed Davy Crockett running around the parapets of Nixon’s Alamo.” The writings of Dr. Thompson are featured throughout, and the documentary is narrated by Johnny Depp who played the eccentric author in Terry Gilliam’s film version of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.”

Hunter is credited with creating Gonzo journalism, a style of reporting where reporters involve themselves in the action to such a degree to where they become central figures in their own stories. He would take on assignments like covering a motorcycle event, and then he would veer off into something else like the death of the American dream. Through his writing, he got at the ugly heart of the matter and exposed it for all its misleading falsehoods.

“He was a reporter with a wild imagination.”

-Tom Wolfe

“He was not afraid to express himself in sometimes shocking ways.”

-President Jimmy Carter

We see Hunter take on his first big assignment when he meets the Hell’s Angels in California which he looked up to as the last outlaws in the world. This relationship, however, turned sour when he witnessed them gang bang a woman at their party. The group later suspected Hunter of trying to profit off of what he wrote, and they beat him severely. This whole experience ended up shaping him as a writer as he looked beyond the façade sold to the public on a regular basis.

One of the most interesting parts in this documentary is how it shows Hunter’s love of America and his sadness over the death of one of his favorite politicians, Robert Kennedy. It is made abundantly clear how Hunter so wanted to believe in the hope of a better future. His sadness only deepens when he is witness to the beatings at the Democratic convention which took place the same year Robert died, and he berated the Democrats for not doing their part to put an end to the violence.

I got a huge kick out of the section where Hunter runs for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, as it showed how visionary he was as he had all these plans for revitalizing the town of Aspen. He called for the decriminalization of drugs for personal use, but he also wanted to keep a ban on trafficking as he was no fan of people profiting off of them. Furthermore, he wanted to tear up the streets and replace them with grassy pedestrian malls, he proposed placing a ban on tall buildings being built as they obscured his view of the mountains, and he wanted to rename Aspen “Fat City” in an effort to deter investors who wanted to commercialize the city. Of course, Hunter lost the election which was no real surprise to him, but his run for the office was never ever forgotten.

“Gonzo” also does a great job of looking at the various relationships Hunter had throughout his lifetime. We get a look at his marriages and learned what it was like living with him. To know Hunter was to tolerate him. Perhaps the most interesting relationship documented here is the one between Hunter and artist Ralph Steadman who created some of the most insane drawings which accompanied Hunter’s feverish writings in Rolling Stone magazine. It is interesting to learn Steadman was actually a conventional artist whose work was no different from anyone else’s. But then Hunter turned Steadman on to drugs, and his work evolved into what he is best known for. There is a great moment where we see Steadman at work, and he has this utterly insane look on his face as if he is gleefully possessed. Who knows what would have happened to him had he never met Hunter.

Perhaps the most important section of “Gonzo” is when Hunter supports George McGovern’s run for President of the United States. McGovern was the democratic nominee running against incumbent President Richard Nixon. The Vietnam War was raging on, and hundreds of young American lives were being snuffed out day after day. McGovern sought to put an end to the Vietnam war which the whole country had since gone against. Hunter had a vicious hatred of Nixon, and he saw the possibility of Nixon going on to a second presidential term as a possible death blow to this country.

As important as this section of the documentary, it was a bit overlong and could have been shortened. It gets redundant as we clearly get the message of Hunter’s disillusionment with politics in general. Fortunately, “Gonzo” picks up in the last half as we see how Hunter became trapped by his fame to where his work suffered as a result. But the McGovern section is still important, especially when Hunter is interviewed in the documentary and says this, “I desperately wanted to put an end to that senseless war [in Vietnam]. I’m sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”

Sound familiar? No wonder Hunter got depressed when George W. Bush got elected and the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001. Hunter wrote about those events as if he knew exactly what they would lead to, another war overseas with America striking back in revenge mode. This was all another depressing example of how history repeats itself.

For the most part, “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” does an excellent job of making you understand him better and of where he was coming from. We need people like Hunter, people who challenge authority and get us riled up about the way the country is heading. His suicide, other than being very selfish and hardly noble, robbed us of a powerful voice we need in times when politicians continue to deepen the divide between the rich and the poor. Hunter was a crazy man at times, and he was also proof that if you take enough drugs, they will completely mess up your head. But you had to love him because he was never boring and always fearless. It is likely there will never be another man like him.

* * * ½ out of * * * *