For the past week or so, Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master’, a film that explores the facets of religious cults, has been the talk of almost every cultural quarter in both Europe and America. On its opening weekend in the US, it has broken records in the world of arthouse cinema, generating nearly eight-hundred thousand dollars after being screened in only five cinemas. In stark comparison to other films of a similar nature, it has achieved a prodigious success in a nation where arthouse is usually received with indifference. After being awarded with the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival, it is a tantalising offering for British cinema-goers who gravitate towards arty films, and it promises to be an engrossing spectacle upon its release.
But an intriguing sub-story to the film’s acclaim is the return of one of its stars, Joaquin Phoenix, who shared the Volpi Cup for Best Actor with his co-star, Phillip-Seymour-Hoffman. Phoenix has been working in the shadowy confines of Hollywood since his last project, ‘I’m Still Here’, an embarrassing, somewhat ridiculous “mockumentary” which was released two years ago. Directed by Casey Affleck, Phoenix’s brother-in-law, the film was a botched attempt to confuse the public and the media, in spite of the scrambling efforts of the pair to conceal the true motives behind it. Phoenix put a great of deal of effort into the role, playing a heightened, obnoxiously arrogant version of himself, sacrificing much of his public and professional appeal in the process. His exertions are in some ways, highly commendable, and perhaps if the film had always been promoted as a mockumentary his performance might have been highly praised, but for many reasons it was not to be.
Since his portrayal of the late singer/songwriter Johnny Cash in ‘Walk the Line’, Phoenix had been riding on a wave of applause and respect, winning a Golden Globe for Best Actor as a reward for the impressive results of his labour. Consequently, the reception of ‘I’m Still Here’ soiled the actor’s name slightly, perhaps even embarrassing him. So it is a pleasing and welcome return to form from a star who promised a great deal in his previous pictures, particularly ‘Gladiator’, ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ and the aforementioned biopic. At thirty-seven, there is enough of time on Phoenix’s side for him to be involved in more great projects and, less importantly, award ceremonies. He has displayed plenty of flair and grasp for characters in the past, and the acting circuit is still short of a few convincing leading men.
The major players who have sidled into the limelight in the past few years such as Michael Fassbender, Ryan Reynolds, and James Franco are not as formidable as some of their predecessors, for example, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Christian Bale, who have all cemented their reputations and are now veterans of the red carpet mania. To be fair, Fassbender looks the real deal and his career has soared rather belatedly, and the let us not forget likes of Leonardo Di Caprio and Ryan Gosling who will inevitably dominate the industry for years to come, but if Phoenix can maintain his position in the fold and acquire the big parts, the public will have more to look forward to.
Since the dawn of the silver screen in the eighteen-nineties, generations of movie-goers have been enthralled and amazed by the stars that played before their eyes, especially after sound was introduced in the nineteen-thirties. The fifties, a decade that broke the mould, brought Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, and James Dean. The sixties saw the emergence of Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman, who, along with Al Pacino, would emerge as giants in the seventies and beyond. The late eighties was rocked by the sheer intensity of Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Gary Oldman, who were soon to be followed by the commanding presence of Denzil Washington, and a whole host of other names who would govern the nineties. The importance of the leading man is paramount to the allure of cinema, and it just seems as if the flame has died down a little in recent years, with fresh faces still being overshadowed by older ones. Jaoquin Phoenix has enough substance to not only bolster the strength of the current circle acting dignitaries, but to also enhance the overall prestige.
It’s a concrete cold fact that household names put people in seats, and for those who are not enthusiastic about the alarming rise of digital technology, authentic emotions emanating from the soul and through the flesh and bone of another human being is what makes watching films truly remarkable. ‘The Master’ has given Phoenix the opportunity to clamber from the predicament of a failed project and declare to everybody, ‘I’m still here.’ Let us hope it is for real this time.
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