30 Best Paul Thomas Anderson Actors - Rolling Stone
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The Masters: 30 Best Paul Thomas Anderson Actors

From ‘Hard Eight’ to ‘Inherent Vice,’ we’ve ranked the MVPs of PTA’s movies

Martin Short and Paul Thomas Anderson

Martin Short and Paul Thomas Anderson on the set of 'Inherent Vice.'


Whether or not you’re a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, one thing is certain — the man can direct actors. Over his seven features to date, no other American director (with the possible exception of Robert Altman, his idol) has helped inspire more great performances per capita to film. Sometimes, he’s working with actors who are no-brainer choices for roles: think Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, or Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. Other times, these great performances come from the most unlikely places: think of Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love, or Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights. Or, hell, even Tom Cruise in Magnolia.

Anderson’s latest — the impossibly dense, surreal, and very funny Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice — continues the trend. Like the book, the film follows the perpetually high hippie-cum-private-eye Larry “Doc” Sportello attempting to uncover a vague conspiracy involving a vanished ex-girlfriend, a kidnapped millionaire, Asian drug runners, evil dentists, powerful land-owners, corrupt cops, surf-musician stoners and a host of other warped Me-Decade denizens. And as with the rest of the writer-director’s back catalog, each of the movie’s performances feels like a mini tour de force.

As Inherent Vice is scheduled to hit theaters this Friday, we decided to look back over his body of work and select the 30 top performers in his films. Drink somebody else’s milkshake, skirt past that plague of frogs and dig in.


Julianne Moore

As the adult-movie veteran Amber Waves in Boogie Nights, Moore is the very picture of compassion. Her character has to play den mother to the retinue of younger actors who congregate around her partner Jack Horner, even as she deals with her own screwed-up life. Moore brings out Amber's fragility, but she never strays into overt pity; this is a character who always thinks of others first, to a fault. In Magnolia, she has a much harder edge – she plays the younger wife of a dying Jason Robards, and her suicidal insecurity and shame manifest themselves as a frantic, nervous stand-offishness. It's amazing to think that the same actress played both parts. But that's Julianne Moore for you.


John C. Reilly

This character actor's first lead role was in Anderson's debut drama Hard Eight, playing a down-on-his-luck gambler; when Anderson moved on to his next film, he used the actor in an entirely different way. In Boogie Nights, Reilly was the cocksure Reed Rothchild — goofy porno actor, erstwhile magician, coked-up comic relief and adorably loyal sidekick to young superstar Dirk Diggler. Then, in Magnolia, he wound up as good-hearted, devout, lovesick cop, in the film's one storyline that suggested there might still be hope for humanity. No matter the part, Reilly seems to bring real warmth to these characters; we want him to be okay in these dark, dangerous worlds that Anderson spins around him.


Tom Cruise

If you think about it, Tom Cruise had been yelling "Respect the cock!" for years via his driven, alpha-male performances. It just took Paul Thomas Anderson to make him actually say it. As Magnolia's preening, foul-mouthed, misogynistic self-help guru Frank T.J. Mackey, Cruise gave what might have been one of his most unlikely performances. Though grotesque, Mackey feels like an extreme, twisted variation on Cruise's leading man roles, and the actor brings his typical energy, vitality, and single-mindedness to the part. But by playing everything up to such a degree, Cruise turns his regular persona into something genuinely poisonous and terrifying. It's a stand-out performance for the actor. And now that his career is no longer what it used to be, the star should seriously consider re-teaming with Anderson; something wonderful might happen again.


Philip Baker Hall

Already a treasure of American acting, Hall shone as the other lead of Anderson's debut feature Hard Eight. The role was a delicate balancing act: A character with mysterious motivations whose backstory remains firmly hidden until the film's very end. Hall also put in an appearance in Boogie Nights as the profit-hungry money man who pushes Jack Horner towards video and cheaper, less "artistic" productions. And then comes his commanding performance in Magnolia, as a philandering, abusive, long-time game show host dying of cancer. Hall's Jimmy Gator is one of the most extreme characters in a film full of extremes: A soft-spoken, broken-down monster; a "carefree" celebrity suffering an on-air meltdown; a person who has done horrific things yet still somehow manages to elicit our sympathy. It's a magnificent performance.


Joaquin Phoenix

Phoenix has been at the center of two Anderson films so far, and has delivered two of the strangest leading man performances ever committed to film. In The Master, he was broken-down WWII vet Freddie Quell, full of inchoate longing and unable to connect – an all-American fuck-up who found a home in the bosom of Philip Seymour Hoffman's bizarre, all-consuming cult. In Inherent Vice, however, he's a loser of a different kind – a tripped-out, lovesick, paranoid private eye who, investigating his ex-girlfriend's disappearance, stumbles upon what might be a terrifying, yet vague, conspiracy. But the character is more than just a funky, Pynchonesque collection of tics. Rather, he's a figure who is at the constant mercy of his impulses – he can't resist any offer of sex or drugs. There's a universality to both these performances that suggest that Phoenix is portraying not just a very specific character, but also a whole category of messed-up American male.


Daniel Day-Lewis

Day-Lewis's Oscar-winning turn as ruthless wildcatter Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, Anderson's epic about the oil rush in turn of the century California, has already become iconic, complete with its own catchphrases ("I drink your milkshake!"). It's a remarkably broad performance — animalistic in the film's first act, silver-tongued and scheming in later scenes, and downright monstrous in the shattering finale – that somehow never overwhelms the narrative. But there's subtlety in there, too. This is a man who, for all his cutthroat determination, understands the horrifying cost of doing business. Has he consciously buried his humanity, or did he never actually have any?  Day-Lewis leaves sly little hints of tenderness in there, suggesting that Plainview might be a far more damaged, tragic figure than we could possibly imagine.


Philip Seymour Hoffman

Hoffman's greatness was never more evident than when he was acting for Anderson; he appeared in five of the director's films, more than any other actor. What's more, his range in these films is astonishing: The cocky good old boy who briefly takes on Philip Baker Hall at the craps table in Hard Eight; the repressed, pathetic sound man in Boogie Nights; the shy, kindhearted nurse in Magnolia; the hair-trigger furniture salesman/pimp/con-man in Punch Drunk Love. But Hoffman's final performance for Anderson was undeniably his greatest: As the vaguely L. Ron Hubbard-like cult leader Lancaster Dodd in The Master, he had to be avuncular, narcissistic, grandiose, paranoid, comforting, and domineering, sometimes all at once. He not only nailed all of these — he gave the character a humanity that tied all these elements together. If The Master is a film about the rootlessness of Homo Americanus after WWII, Hoffman's Dodd represents both the wolf that lays wait for lost souls and a lost soul himself. It's a terribly poignant performance, now made even sadder by the knowledge that this monumental actor will never again get to collaborate with his cinematic soul mate.

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