Joaquin Phoenix’s Monumental Montgomery Clift Mash-Up


When Quentin Tarantino was doing press for Inglorious Basterds, he was asked by a reporter what films or filmmaker would inspire him today if he was just starting out in the business. He answered Paul Thomas Anderson, writer-director of The Master, opening Friday in LA and New York:

“We’re really good friends and we have a very kind of artist romantic relationship. I feel I’m Marlon Brando to his Montgomery Clift. But there is a reality. Brando was better because Clift was out there. Same thing, Clift was better because he knew f*ckin’ Brando was already there, all right?”

In Anderson’s The Master, Joaquin Phoenix is one part Brando and four parts Clift. The actor’s colossal portrayal of Freddie Quell, a man who quite literally is fighting at every moment to quell his personal demons, ranks as the first performance in a very long time to recall the on-screen syncopated beats and off-screen tortured genius of an actor who had his own fair share of “The” titled films (The Search, The Heiress, The Defector).

After watching The Master at the Venice International Film Festival, where Phoenix and co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman shared an acting prize, BFI blogger Nick James likened the two lead performances to “a violent Montgomery Clift coming under Orson Welles’ wing.” This week on the IMDb discussion boards, the Clift resonance is also being debated.

The Master takes place at the exact moment in time when Clift’s career as a film actor began its vertiginous flight – late 1940s, early 1950s. In fact, the Clift movie plot that resonated most for this reviewer while watching Phoenix in The Master – 1951’s A Place in the Sun – coincides with the apex of Anderson’s narrative.

Phoenix’s body slam of The Method and the male-bonded love story at the heart of The Master make Anderson’s 70mm-retro epic in many ways A Place in the Shadows. Though the film as a whole is not nearly as successful, Phoenix is one of the few performers who will legitimately be able to give Daniel Day-Lewis a run for the 2012 Best Actor awards money.