At this point, it’s something of a foregone conclusion that Lincoln is going to sweep the Academy Awards. Even if it doesn’t win all 12 of its nominations, it’s a safe bet that Daniel Day-Lewis will take home the Oscar for his portrayal of the 16th president. And don’t get me wrong, he’s pretty great. He always is. He disappears thoroughly into the iconic role, making it his own while doing justice to the larger-than-life figure. As The New Yorker suggested on its latest cover, it’s easy to forget that you’re not watching the real Abe onscreen – he’s the definitive Lincoln.
However, there was another performance this year that was just as captivating, just as bold, and – importantly – even more original: Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in The Master. Oh good lord, how good is he in this movie? Sure, you might forget you’re watching Day-Lewis in Lincoln, but you also forget you’re watching Phoenix in The Master – arguably a more impressive feat, considering all the weirdo baggage that Joaquin Phoenix comes with. I knew that I loved Day-Lewis before this year, but I had no idea of Phoenix’s power.
I didn’t come here today to bash Lincoln. It’s basically flawless (except for that weird candle thing at the end). It’s also The Ultimate Hollywood Movie, a smooth and efficient Oscar-grabbing machine – it’s a biopic of a beloved historical figure, directed by Stephen Spielberg, written by Tony Kushner and featuring a cavalcade of stars. The Master, on the other hand, is personal, enigmatic and messy. It’s also supremely acted and beautifully filmed by one of the most challenging and innovative directors around, P. T. Anderson (remember There Will Be Blood?). It’s a film that demands to be seen again and puzzled out, while many would agree that sitting through Lincoln once was about half an hour too much already (okay, I came here to bash Lincoln a little).
The Academy loves biopics, but I think a purely fictional character as fully realized as Freddie Quell is a much more impressive feat. As Quell, Phoenix straddles the line between a monster and an innocent, all the while extremely compelling and deeply human. He goes through furious rage, raptures of joy, distrust, love, betrayal and ultimately peace. He’s really acting the shit out of this movie, but you’re never aware of any hint of performance. He’s amazing.
So, Joaquin, even if you don’t win the real Academy Award on Sunday, know that you’ve won the Academy Award of my heart (and really, it’s an honor just to be nominated). And take comfort in the fact that, if you do lost, you can always blame it on Hollywood being full of Scientologists.
Matt Crowley is a follower of the cult of The Master. You can be his follower on Twitter: @MatthewPCrowley