By all accounts, Paul Thomas Anderson’s father was a likable guy who had a close relationship with his son. A former Cleveland TV personality who went on to become the voice of the ABC network’s promos, Ernie Anderson raised Paul in Los Angeles, where they were surrounded by colorful showbiz types who—like Ernie—encouraged the creative, precocious future filmmaker to pursue his passion. Even though Anderson has made a lot of movies about young men who desperately need father figures, that particular dynamic doesn’t seem to be autobiographical.
But metaphorical? Maybe so. In Anderson’s films, the literal and figurative dads frequently represent something larger, like divine guidance, the promise of a better life, or the insistent press of civilization. The five characters below run the gamut from meddling to more or less absent, but together, they illustrate how often Anderson has populated his pictures with imposing older men, either bestowing blessings or withholding them, seemingly on a whim.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut feature was originally called Sydney, which should clarify that it’s first and foremost a character sketch, and not the tough neo-noir that the title Hard Eight suggests. Set in and around Reno and Las Vegas, Hard Eight stars Philip Baker Hall as an accomplished gambler with a criminal past. At the start of the movie, Sydney meets a hapless young man named John (John C. Reilly) and becomes his guide to the ins and out of how to make enough money to survive in Nevada. Later, Sydney tries to couple up John with Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), a cocktail waitress who moonlights as a prostitute. But Hard Eight isn’t really about John or Clementine—except for when it’s about the many ways they disappoint Syd.
Sydney is a flawed individual too. He has a secret connection to John that a local hood named Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) tries to exploit. And he has a stubborn streak, exemplified by his willingness to lose everything by betting on long shots. But something about Sydney makes those long shots feel bad when they fail to come in. In one of Hard Eight’s best scenes, a cocky, loudmouthed craps player (Philip Seymour Hoffman) mocks the old man, though the whippersnapper’s face falls when he can’t make the “hard eight” roll to pay off Sydney’s big wager.
Sydney is full of advice about proper comportment—how to talk around a lady, how to appear neat and professional, how to think several moves ahead—but the tragedy and comedy of Hard Eight is that he wastes that advice on people too broken to do any more than pervert it. When Sydney teaches John how to cycle $150 around a casino enough to turn it into a free meal and a free room, John is so awkward and fumbling—making up extraneous details about himself when he requests a rate card from the floor manager—that he almost blows it. And when John and Clementine get into real trouble, they try to justify it to Sydney by appealing to the kind of codes of honor that they think he’ll respect. (“Fucker hit her, Syd,” John says, explaining why he’s holding a man hostage.) Instead, Sydney exasperatedly tells them that they’re not going to squander all he’s taught them on “this bullshit.” He’s helpful to a fault, but even he has his limits.
Like Sydney Brown, Boogie Nights’ Jack Horner is a benevolent, somewhat shady individual who makes life easier for a motley assortment of young people—most of whom inevitably let him down. Unlike Sydney, Jack is distant, and somewhat inscrutable. An adult filmmaker and impresario, Horner recruits good-hearted misfits to work for him in front of and behind the camera, offering them a makeshift family and lives of modest luxury. But when their business begins to decline circa 1980, the decadence and optimistic creativity of the early years curdle into addiction and exploitation, and Boogie Nights’ hero, Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), ultimately quarrels with Jack and gets cast out of paradise.
Frequently, Anderson practices his own kind of adaptation in his films, turning recognizable source material into a starting point for something that incorporates his obsessions and influences. With Boogie Nights, Anderson directly copies details from documentaries and reportage about the heyday of porn in the San Fernando Valley, and the life of porn star John Holmes. But he mixes in his memories of growing up in California, and his affection for the 1970s New Hollywood directors Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese. In that context, the casting of Burt Reynolds as Jack Horner has added meaning. Reynolds, the ultimate 1970s stud, is for Anderson’s generation the embodiment of everything cool, desirable, and seemingly unattainable. Here, he’s the role model Dirk can never hope to emulate.
Anderson’s most personal film, Magnolia weaves together a dozen or so individual stories, all set in a Los Angeles the director knows well: a place where grubby apartment complexes and dark, carpeted dive bars sit just a few blocks down from TV studios and nice-looking, vintage suburban homes. The movie also features three major father characters: a boy genius’ emotionally abusive single dad, an alcoholic game-show host coming to grips with having molested his now-grown daughter when she was little, and a dying bigwig.
The bigwig, Earl Partridge (played by Jason Robards), casts the biggest shadow across Magnolia, even though throughout the film, he’s bedridden, weak, and mostly incoherent. Anderson reportedly drew on his own memories of watching his father die of cancer, which adds verisimilitude to the scene where the doctor tells Earl’s much younger wife Linda (Julianne Moore) that the pain medication will eradicate Earl’s personality, while Linda asks about other practical concerns, like what to do with the body when her husband dies. As Linda’s goes through that, Earl’s hospice nurse, Phil (Hoffman again), tries to contact his patient’s estranged son Frank (Tom Cruise), a self-help guru who gives men tips on how to coerce women into sex. The Partridge storyline builds to a scene where Frank rages at Earl, before watching the old man die.
Magnolia grapples with multiple themes, but the one that recurs most is the idea of loneliness, which Anderson broadens from romantic loneliness to encompass a larger disconnection from God. One of the film’s main characters is a well-meaning but somewhat ineffectual cop (Reilly again), who narrates his own life and acts as though he were appointed to keep mankind’s innate wildness under control in the absence of any divine presence. When Frank confronts Earl at the end of Magnolia, it’s like he’s a lost disciple, granted a long-delayed audience with his lord, only to find a frail, rotting human with no direction to give.
With There Will Be Blood, for the first time since Hard Eight, Anderson made a father figure the lead character again, though as with his debut, the dad is a phony. Early in the film, independent oil magnate Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) becomes the guardian of a baby, H.W., when the boy’s real father is killed at a digging site. A raging, unrepentant misanthrope, Daniel brandishes H.W. like a shield, using his “son” to hide his disdain for humanity and to convince potential business partners that he’s a family man. The genius of There Will Be Blood is that Anderson and Day-Lewis don’t make Plainview a complete prick. There are multiple scenes of real father-son affection and bonding, which makes it all the sadder when Daniel rejects the adult H.W. (shades of John in Hard Eight and Dirk in Boogie Nights), who’s committed the sin of attempting to apply dad’s lessons to his own business.
There Will Be Blood is another semi-adaptation for Anderson, taking some of the characters, scenes, and settings of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! and adding a visual style that evokes Terrence Malick, Hal Ashby, and John Huston (the latter of whom Day-Lewis semi-imitates in his performance as Plainview). Anderson also satirizes the economic and spiritual development of early-20th-century America, contrasting the shrewd, amoral Daniel with a demanding, weaselly evangelical preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). At times, Daniel Plainview comes across like a grimacing, mustachioed Grinch, pretending to be Santa Claus as he grabs oil-rich land from the unsuspecting. And Eli is his nagging little Cindy Lou Who, continually interrupting Daniel’s schtick to ask, “Why?” The film is anchored by its Daniel/Eli scenes, as the two men passive-aggressively—and aggressive-aggressively—try to get each other to admit that they’re dangerous frauds.
What gives that conflict dimension is that both sides’ intentions are at least partially honorable. Eli brings real comfort to his congregation, even if he’s not really healing them or casting out their demons. Daniel boosts the economy and improves the conditions of his oil-towns, even if he’s paying pennies on the dollar for the locals’ natural resources. After Boogie Nights and Magnolia, where characters struggle with the legacies of remote or dying patriarchs, There Will Be Blood restores Hard Eight’s sympathy for those men who try to leave something useful behind for the next generation—be it a code for living or a millionaire’s estate. It’s a complicated kind of sympathy, though. Daniel Plainview is in many ways an irredeemable, selfish savage. But when H.W. is rendered deaf by a derrick explosion, and Daniel holds him through the night, he becomes the most actively, positively engaged father in Anderson’s entire filmography.
Some of the more startling scenes in Alex Gibney’s documentary Going Clear involve rare interview footage with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, which proves helpful context in explaining how he roped so many people into following him. Bad teeth aside, Hubbard comes across in Gibney’s doc as a joyful, charismatic guy, with a way of living that encourages its adherents to be happy, and to be their best selves. Anyone who sees both The Master and Going Clear should be able to trace the connection between Hubbard’s ebullience and Hoffman’s performance as Lancaster Dodd, the movie’s controversial leader of “The Cause.”
When The Master was in production, there were rumors that it was about Scientology, but as always with Anderson, adaptation is a multi-layered process. Dodd was clearly inspired by Hubbard, but the film as a whole is more interested in America at the dawn of the 1950s, at a time when men scarred by the war were either integrating into or actively rebelling against a society increasingly geared toward soft civility. Dodd is another Jack Horner: a generous visionary who’s created a place where outsiders can congregate and feel welcome. And drunken, reckless libertine Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is another Dirk, eager to be around someone so seemingly in control, who can say before he goes to bed each night, “We fought against the day and we won.”
But Dodd’s weakness—and what sets him apart from other Anderson mentor characters—is his fascination with Freddie, who exemplifies mankind at its basest. The Master is similar in some ways to Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, in that it’s about someone whose emotions and impulses rise up and boil over in unpredictable, frightening ways. One of the great mysteries of The Master is whether Dodd is drawn to this “silly animal” of a man because he wants to understand what he’s up against as a prophet, or because he himself is soulsick, and compelled to misbehave.
The Leland/Freddie relationship is an inversion of Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday. Freddie is a lot like Daniel: venal and voracious, playing the devil on Dodd’s shoulder. But Freddie also does as so many Paul Thomas Anderson protagonists do, and forges his own ethos out of half-formed chunks of what he’s picked up from his elders. At the end of the film, Freddie repeats Dodd’s “processing” lingo while having sex with a woman he picked up. It’s another example of how Anderson’s films contain many different kinds of fathers, but the generations they’re raising are populated by the same short-sighted screw-ups.