And they're right. In his "comeback" role, four years after purportedly retiring from acting to pursue a career as a rapper (only to finally let the world in on his elaborate prank), Phoenix is nothing short of astonishing. It's a fiercely physical, animalistic performance that calls to mind the young Jack Nicholson — the one seen in Five Easy Pieces and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest — in its diabolical unpredictability, its paroxysms of emasculated rage.
When we first see Freddie, he's living it up as a gregarious Navy prankster, making hooch out of torpedo fuel and waking up hungover on top of the ship's mast (an episode Anderson borrowed from the life of his late Magnolia star, Jason Robards). But by the time Freddie ends up as a department-store-portrait photographer — one of several short-lived, postwar jobs — he appears radically transformed, with the tense, rigid posture of an arthritic old man or of a tightly compressed powder keg primed to blow (and when he does, it's terrifying). At the same time, Phoenix uses his distant, soulful eyes to imbue the character with the sense of a wounded, fragile being trying desperately to find his sea legs on solid ground, struggling to find a suitable explanation for the turning of the world.
"I knew he'd be good, but I can't say that I expected what we got," Anderson says between sips of white wine. "I love watching him, and I get the impression people don't understand that there's actually a truly inventive and disciplined actor there, which I guess is great. I would hate to say too much and uncover the mystery." Anderson had wanted to work with Phoenix for years, ever since he offered the actor a role in Boogie Nights, which he turned down (as he did a later offer to appear in There Will Be Blood). Then, when he began casting The Master, Phoenix had temporarily gone off the acting reservation. For a while, Jeremy Renner was attached to the role, until a series of lengthy production delays forced him to drop out and left Anderson once again searching for a leading man. By that point, Phoenix was back in the movie business and ready to get his game face on.
The Master was supposed to be the movie that broke Anderson's habit of taking breaks between projects long enough to rival one of his filmmaking idols: Stanley Kubrick. Although, as I point out, Kubrick managed to direct eight features in his first 16 years as a director, whereas he has managed only six. To which a visibly unamused Anderson responds: "Oh, fuck off. It's been no fault of my own!"
But The Master was to have been different. Written quickly by Anderson in the wake of There Will Be Blood, the project was initially set up at a major studio — Universal — but stalled almost immediately when Hoffman (for whom Anderson had written the title role) announced that he would be busy with stage commitments for most of the next year. When Hoffman freed up, the studio had cooled on the idea, which landed the movie looking for a new home, "and it was dry as a bone," Anderson recalls. "There were no real takers." You'd think, I say, that the studios would have been clamoring for the next project from the director of There Will Be Blood, which became not only the biggest critical success of Anderson's lauded career, but also his biggest box office hit (grossing $40 million domestically and another $35 million internationally on a $25 million budget). "I thought that, too!" he says. "They had me convinced that the world was mine for a few days, and then they said, 'Not so fast.'"
It was a moment at which Hollywood's decade-long infatuation with the independent-film world, spurred on by the breakout Sundance successes of the late 1980s and early '90s, was coming to an abrupt end. Anderson's erstwhile hitching post, New Line, was in the process of being swallowed up by Warner Bros. (at the same moment Warner was shuttering its nascent Warner Independent Pictures division). The Weinstein brothers had left the Miramax building. Next, Paramount announced it was curtains for their in-house "specialty" label Paramount Vantage (which distributed There Will Be Blood). "It did seem like there was a cashing out, pushing the chips across the table and saying, 'That's enough of that horseshit,'" Anderson says. Then the filmmaker himself started to have doubts about the Master script and went back to do several months of rewrites.