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Paul Thomas Anderson: 13 of his Best Characters

10 January 22 words: Ashley Carter

To celebrate the release of Licorice Pizza, his ninth feature length film, we delve into the glorious world of Paul Thomas Anderson to pick thirteen of his best characters. We've avoided leading roles, so don't expect to see a Daniel Plainview or Dirk Diggler knocking around...

Before his big-scale commercial breakthrough with Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson wrote and directed Hard Eight (originally titled Sydney), a slick, low-key drama about gambling that provides an early indication of the burgeoning auteur’s penchant for sticking with actors that served him so well. Leads Phillip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly are joined for a three-minute scene by fellow PTA regular Phillip Seymour Hoffman, credited only as ‘Young Craps Player’, as an energetic, boisterous fellow gambler who taunts Hall during a game of dice.

Lighting a cigarette whilst running his mouth, a mulleted, magnetic Hoffman rolls back-to-back duds to lose the pair of them money. It would provide the first glimpse at one of a generation’s finest actors working with the director who, it could be said, got career-best performances from him.

Before you judge me for picking four characters from Boogie Nights, take solace in the fact that it was originally nine, and was only reduced down after a painful whittling process. It’s testament to PTA’s breakthrough film, a Goodfellas-esque romp trailing the rise and fall of porn star Dirk Diggler, that you could comfortably make an argument for pretty much any of the cast appearing on this list. But I couldn’t leave out Roller Girl.

At first, Heather Graham’s character seems to be just another relatively content cog in the pornographic machine built by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), but as the film progresses, and the initial, seemingly halcyon days descend into misery, shame and grime, she becomes the film’s embodiment of innocence lost. One scene, in which she is ruthlessly belittled by a former classmate, is amongst the most heartbreaking in the film. As well as being Graham’s most iconic role, it’s doubtlessly her career highlight.

In a film packed soup-to-nuts with pitiable characters, William H. Macy’s perennially cuckolded Little Bill takes the cake. As the cameraman on Horner’s porn shoots, his wife – one of Horner’s actresses – has a difficult time drawing a line between knowing when it’s appropriate to have sex with other men.

And in her defence, it’s a blurred line at best. Camera rolling? Fine. Camera off? Not so good. As her indiscretions continue, the mouse-like Bill turns his anger further and further inward, finally exploding in an incredible act of violence at a New Year’s Eve party.

No actor could tip-toe the tightrope between hilarity and pity quite like Phillip Seymour Hoffman. As Scotty J, the actor demonstrated an early example of the absolute mastery he would later perfect as an actor quite unlike any other. His relationship with Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler, the ‘gifted’ burgeoning porn star around who the film’s narrative is anchored, builds toward one of the film’s most memorable scenes, in which poor Scotty, carrying a secret love for the man he’s desperate to impress, attempts to kiss Diggler.

Running the gamut between funny, shocking, painful, off-putting, disgusting and, ultimately, heart-breaking, he used the entire canvas of human emotion to perfectly encapsulate the hanger-on wannabe. There isn’t another actor in the world that could have so beautifully pulled it off.

If there’s a character in cinema history that made as much of an impression in as short a time as Molina’s Rahad Jackson, I’m yet to see them. As Boogie Nights' lead characters' – namely Mark Wahlberg and John C. Reilly – story arc starts to move into nightmare territory, their journey through the looking glass leads them into Jackson’s bizarre world, where they attempt to rip him off during a drug deal.

Stepping into his vulgar suburban palace, the scene is already nerve-shredding, underpinned as it is with constant bangs, the result of Cosmo, a young Asian acquaintance of Rahad’s, letting of fire crackers in the middle of the living room. And then in he comes, resplendent in a silk robe open to the navel, his Tom Selleck moustache only matched by a rug of chest hair in which is nestled a small golden cross, he is the living, breathing embodiment of cocaine. Popping in ‘My Amazing Mix Tape #6,’ Rahad then delivers a gak-fuelled performance of Rick Springfield’s Jessie’s Girl that defies description. As the half-arsed robbery inevitably descends into chaotic violence, Rahad turns on a dime, metamorphosing into a Tony Montana figure. Not only does Alfred Molina steal the scene, he very nearly steals the entire film.

Picking a favourite PTA film is no easy task but, if you put a lost gun to my head, I’d probably have to say Magnolia. Anderson’s sprawling, dizzying opus is almost impossible to succinctly surmise, and I’ve found myself on countless occasions recommending it to friends, only to have it sound like a low-rate student film upon description. We have a dozen or so ‘main’ characters, each at varying levels of crisis in their lives, whose stories casually interweave with one another’s in a way that makes you feel like something larger is at play (an incredible opening sequence takes us through a series of bizarre historical coincidences in order to establish the motif).

One such character is Linda Partridge, played by Julianne Moore. The trophy wife of television producer Earl, who is dying of cancer (Jason Robards in his final film role), we’re first introduced to her as she’s crying to a doctor, explaining how hard it is to watch her husband suffer. An hour later, we see her again, in one of the film’s most powerful scenes, falling apart at the seams in front of a prying pharmacist who will not stop making comments about the prescriptions she’s trying to get. With the frame tight around Moore’s face, we see the initial cracks start to appear as she essentially demands to be left to her drama in peace. Yes, it’s melodramatic, but it’s also incredibly effective.

Tom Cruise bagged himself the headlines, a career-highlight performance and an Oscar nomination for his role in Magnolia, but John C. Reilly is arguably even more impressive in the more subtle role of Officer Jim Kurring. The man who effortlessly tap dances between goofy comedies (Step Brothers, Walk Hard, Talladega Nights) and mainstream dramas (The Thin Red Line, Gangs of New York, We Need to Talk About Kevin) is another PTA regular who seems to find his best form when working with the director. Kurring is a new man in uniform, appearing somewhat out of his depth, like a child discovering his Dad’s old police uniform and deciding to cosplay for the day.

At times he appears hapless and desperate (when he loses his gun, for example), but at others he comes across as the most compassionate and relatable of all of Magnolia’s extensive cast of characters. And if the film is about anything, it’s about forgiveness, summed up nicely by Kurring’s line: “Sometimes people need a little help. Sometimes people need to be forgiven. And sometimes they need to go to jail.”

If any character can be summed up in a single quote, it’s William H. Macy’s Quiz Kid Donnie Smith. “I really do have love to give,” he exclaims, “I just don’t know where to put it.” The former child prodigy is a broken ball of regret, insecurity and frustrated emotion (like most of the characters in Magnolia), and drunkenly expresses his unrequited love for Brad the bartender in one scene, all whilst being heckled ruthlessly (and beautifully – “Gently, son… it’s a dangerous thing to confuse children with angels”) by a fellow drinker.

A former champion on quiz show What Do Kids Know?, Donnie’s prize money was stolen and spent by his parents, and he has recently been fired from his job. Pinning his hopes of finding love on getting corrective oral surgery, he hatches a plan to get back at his former boss by stealing the money he needs for the expensive procedure. There’s something endlessly tragic about the wunderkind that peaked in childhood, least of all having to spend the rest of your life knowing that your summit was reached so early on, and the rest has been a ceaseless downhill cascade into loneliness and pain. Macy is sublime, and his scenes are written with such pathos by Anderson who, remarkably, was only 28 when Magnolia was made.

I know I’ve used the phrase “career-best performance” with wanton abandon throughout this article, but if you’re in doubt of Anderson’s ability as an actor’s director, consider the fact that he got a special performance from Adam bloody Sandler. As Barry Egan, he’s the sole male amongst eight overbearing female siblings, and suffers from tremendous insecurity as a result. A life-changing event involving a harmonium and an incident with phone-sex line leads to a series of events that eventually bring Egan face-to-face with Dean Trumbell, also known as The Mattress Man.

As the film’s primary antagonist, Hoffman’s Trumbell is your archetypal king-in-his-own-mind. Part-mattress salesman, part-sex-line supervisor, his initial bluster turns to nerves when he realises Egan has travelled all the way from California to Utah to confront him. Hoffman’s slow realisation that he might be out of his depth is masterfully subtle and a joy to behold.

Luis Guzman is one of those ubiquitous actors that you might not be able to name immediately, but will have doubtlessly seen in at least half a dozen films. Another PTA regular (Boogie Nights, Magnolia and here, in Punch Drunk Love), he’s also appeared in the likes of Carlito’s Way, Traffic and Out of Sight, rarely in a leading role but always memorable. The same can be said of his performance as Lance, co-worker of Sandler’s Barry. There’s a baffled, joyous delight to his delivery that long sticks in the mind and, after multiple viewings, remains my favourite character from the film.

I don’t know if there’s a more underrated actor working today than Ciaran Hinds. In a film jam-packed with beautifully bombastic performances, his understated turn as Fletcher Hamilton, Daniel Plainview’s stoic right-hand-man in There Will Be Blood, is just perfect. Often seen but not heard, Hamilton lingers in scenes with a looming presence that’s as comforting as it is terrifying. And when he is called by Plainview to do the dirty work, he executes with a ruthless efficiency that makes me desperate to know more about his backstory.

Having only seen Amy Adams in sweeter-than-sweet roles before this (shout out Enchanted), it was captivating to see her turn as Peggy, the Lady Macbeth-esque figure behind spiritual leader/cult creator Lancaster Dodd in The Master. She’s the manifestation of post-World War II female individuality and grit – refusing to retreat into the background after the men had returned home.

She’s smart and ruthless, with a backbone of steel and the knowledge that it’s sometimes more powerful to be pulling the strings behind a man than conducting in front of him. The contrast between the public and private Peggy is captivating, and perhaps most noteable during one infamous scene where she jerks her husband off into a sink, demonstrating just how powerful her control over him is.

It’s fair to say that Inherent Vice split opinion upon its release in 2014. The impenetrable story of Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) and his drug-fuelled odyssey through 1970s Los Angeles in an attempt to find a former girlfriend left me feeling like I was trying to assemble a piece of furniture with no manual. Anderson had certainly built up enough credit to stop me going as far as saying it was bad, but I’d be lying if I said I understood what he was going for.

One character that did stand out, however, was Dr Rudy Blatnoyd, D.D.S. Perhaps it was the pre-teen version of my psyche that thrilled in seeing Ned Nederlander himself, Martin Short, on the big screen after what felt like a lengthy absence, but his sweaty, coked-up dentist Blatnoyd was an all-too-brief joy.  

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