Joaquin Phoenix, who has proven to be one of the strangest actors of his generation, may actually be one of the most talented as well. “The Master” a film in which Phoenix shares the lead role has won the actor accolades from his peers. Though some early viewers have found the film mystifying and frustratingly complex, nevertheless, Phoenix’s unpredictable performance opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman has been roundly lauded. The “Venice Film Festival” selected both Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Joaquin Phoenix to share the best-actor trophy. One played the Scientology-style cult leader and the other his devotee in “The Master.” Paul Thomas Anderson clinched the directing prize for the movie.
The 37-year-old actor has been receiving rapturous plaudits for his ferocious performance as a volatile ex-naval officer in “The Master.” Though the actor was a no-show during the films press conference, the five-time Academy Award-nominated writer-director found time to lavish praise on Phoenix — and he’s certainly not alone.
Phoenix portrays Freddie Quell, a chronically unhinged alcoholic who returns home from the Second World War with neither direction nor purpose until he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the magnetic but slippery founder of a new religion.
The actors share many intimate scenes together as Dodd attempts to reform his willing but damaged disciple — and they learned Saturday that they’re also sharing the Venice Film Festival’s prize for top actor (Anderson took directing honors).
Anderson said he’d targeted collaboration with Phoenix for years, but he had to wait until the 37-year-old actor had finished making his bizarre 2010 pseudo-documentary/performance-art project “I’m Still Here.”
Well, Anderson said it was worth the wait. Phoenix brought a fierce intensity to Freddie, as if the lustful war vet was perpetually teetering on the brink of violence.
“I knew he was great,” Anderson said of Phoenix. “But this was something else.”
Three-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams portrayed Dodd’s formidable wife, an easy gig given that the 38-year-old “Enchanted” star had collaborated with Hoffman before.
“I adore, worship, love Philip, so to get to play someone who adores, worships, loves Philip was not a big stretch for me,” said the flame-haired actress with a smile.
Still, she admits she had nerves first stepping onto the set.
“I thought this experience was going to be this very serious Paul Thomas Anderson film with Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman,” she said.
“And it was actually a lot of fun. We laughed a lot. There was a lot of exploration. So just the freedom to experiment and to fail, it was unexpected.”
“Joaquin Phoenix is a life force in this film,” Hoffman told the Venice audience. “I kind of rode that life force, and that was my performance.”
“It was something that was untamable,” he said of his character’s effort to rein in Phoenix’s unstable Navy veteran.
At the press conference Saturday, however, certain topics were not up for exploration.
When asked how he felt about the Oscar buzz surrounding his film, Anderson merely smiled and replied: “Great.”
The other major discussion point surrounding the film is whether Hoffman’s character is inspired at all by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
The similarities are numerous. Followers of Dodd’s doctrine are urged to rid themselves of past-life demons accumulated over trillions of years of existence through “processing,” similar to Scientology’s “auditing.” Like Hubbard, Dodd portrays himself as an author, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher and a sea captain. And the film takes place in 1950, two years before Scientology was founded.
While Anderson has acknowledged that the origins of the religion served as inspiration before, he winced as if in physical pain when a reporter brought up the connection on Saturday before gently encouraging the inquisitor to drop the topic.
Anderson did, however, address a flap over the Venice festival awards. “The Master” was reportedly the first choice to win the festival’s top prize for best film, but because of a quirk in the rules restricting a movie from winning too many trophies, the award instead went to South Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s drama “Pieta.”
But Anderson, who said the positive response to his film thus far was “so satisfying,” shrugged off the apparent controversy.
“I’m thrilled with whatever they want to hand over,” Anderson said.
“I heard some of the scuttlebutt recently, but I’m just thrilled with whatever they’ve given us.”
The controversy was solved when jurors decided to award the best-film trophy, or Golden Lion, to Korean Kim Ki- Duk’s “Pieta,” about the encounter between a young loan shark and a woman claiming to be his mother. The director sang a song in Korean after picking up his prize.
“The Master” is Phoenix’s first film to arrive in theaters since “I’m Still Here,” but it’s not the only thing he’s been at work on. He’s made a movie with director Spike Jonze’s called “Her” in which he plays a lonely writer who falls in love with his personal computer’s new operating system. And he will appear in “Nightingale,” a new film from frequent collaborator James Gray.
Last week, Gray showed a short clip of “Nightingale” at the Telluride Film Festival; it features Phoenix as yet another dark, complex character and stars Jeremy Renner and Marion Cotillard.
The films are a welcome opportunity for Phoenix, who initially found Hollywood giving him a bit of a cold shoulder when the bizarre fake documentary premiered.
Guy Lodge, a film critic for In Contention and Variety who witnessed the overwhelming response to Phoenix in “TheMaster” in Venice, can think of only one direct precedent to the actor’s image turnaround: Christian Bale, who put behind his infamously profane chastising of a crewmember on the set of 2009’s Terminator Salvation that went viral on the Internet. The following year, the Batman actor would take home the supporting-actor Oscar for The Fighter.
“The praise for Phoenix’s remarkable performance is heartening proof that most true movie lovers don’t have a tabloid mentality — we care about the talent more than the man. The consensus in Venice is that it’s the defining performance of his career so far. You can practically hear the gears of an Oscar campaign grinding.”