In honoring Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Phantom Thread,’ the academy shows there’s more to greatness than relevance
Los Angeles Times film critics Kenneth Turan and Justin Chang discuss the 2018 Academy Award nominations they were glad to see and where they felt the Academy fell short.
Sorry, everyone. Those loud noises you heard around 5:30 this morning were almost certainly my shouts of delight and surprise at learning that “Phantom Thread” — generally perceived to be an awards-season also-ran — had received an unexpected but richly deserved haul of six Academy Award nominations.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1950s London chamber drama was expected to receive at least three of those six, for Jonny Greenwood’s score, Mark Bridges’ costumes and Daniel Day-Lewis’ lead performance as a petulantly exacting couturier named Reynolds Woodcock.
Far fewer industry observers were predicting the film to factor into the highly competitive races for best picture, director and supporting actress, where Lesley Manville received a nomination for her magnificently icy turn as Woodcock’s sister and business partner.
There were reasons to be skeptical, especially in a year in which “relevance” and “diversity” have become necessary if inevitably overused watchwords. “The Shape of Water,” “Lady Bird” and “Get Out,” all of which did expectedly well in the nominations, made significant strides for greater inclusiveness, in terms of the stories they told and the filmmakers they employed. “Call Me by Your Name” gracefully ushered the gay love story closer to the mainstream, while “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” showily engaged the zeitgeist as a thriller about sexual assault and race relations in small-town America.
Including “Phantom Thread” on his 2017 top-10 list, the New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote, “There are movies that satisfy the hunger for relevance, the need to see the urgent issues of the day reflected on screen.” Anderson’s film, he noted, “is emphatically and sublimely not one of them.” It is, on the contrary, a ravishing connoisseur’s object — a film that rehabilitates stories, themes and images from the golden age of Hollywood melodrama, all in service of a perverse meditation on obsession, duplicity, power and the inherent vice of heterosexual relations.
I suppose you could read some darkly feminist subtext into Vicky Krieps’ bravura performance as a young muse and paramour seizing control over Woodcock and her own destiny, but to do so would be to force Anderson’s splendidly slippery creation into a generic mold that it instinctively rebels against. In an era when the rallying cry of #OscarsSoWhite has ceded the social-media spotlight to the #MeToo movement, “Phantom Thread’s” retreat into a bygone era of haute couture and mushroom omelets feels at once timeless and gloriously untimely.
There was another, more practical reason to assume that “Phantom Thread” might have missed its moment. The Focus Features release, which opened Christmas Day, was one of the year’s last major entries to screen for craft guilds and critics’ groups, giving it little time to court industry momentum and seep into the cultural consciousness. And as “The Post” and “All the Money in the World” can perhaps attest, it can be risky to arrive too late in the conversation, even for understandable, unforeseeable reasons.
Given director Ridley Scott’s miraculous last-minute tinkering, “All the Money in the World” can probably count itself victorious for scoring a lone nomination for Christopher Plummer’s supporting performance — a marvelous piece of screen acting that is being partly rewarded, no doubt, for the nearly unprecedented speed and urgency with which it came together.
The lackluster fate of “The Post,” a crackerjack newsroom thriller about the freedom of the press in the face of hostile government interference, is a more mysterious thing to contemplate. As evidenced by a well-timed Seth Meyers bit at the Golden Globes, a topical drama starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, and directed by Steven Spielberg, might have been expected to run the table.
WINNER: Gary Oldman -- performance by an actor in a leading role; makeup and hairstyling | NOMINATED: Cinematography; costume design; best picture; and production design.(Jack English / Focus Features via AP)
WINNER: Costume design | NOMINATED: Daniel Day-Lewis -- performance by an actor in a leading role; Lesley Manville -- performance by an actress in a supporting role; directing; original score; and best picture.(Laurie Sparham / Focus Features via AP)
Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” The film got four Oscar nominations: original score, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects.(John Wilson / Lucasfilm via AP)
But it came up empty-handed that night, was largely overlooked by the guilds and, in the end, scored only two Oscar nominations, for picture and lead actress (Streep) — major categories, to be sure, but far less than what 20th Century Fox must have been hoping for.
Was it simply too obvious a choice? Did academy voters resent the appearance of being courted with such an embarrassment of Oscar-bait riches? Did they not want to repeat themselves after giving best picture two years ago to “Spotlight,” a less flashy but quietly superior examination of the inner workings of the Fourth Estate? Or were there perhaps deeper, structural faults in “The Post,” a terrifically entertaining movie whose timeliness may have been both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness?
What’s bracing about Spielberg’s movie is its lack of self-importance; it moves too briskly and efficiently to linger on its own worthiness. But that worthiness looms over it all the same. In giving us a proto-feminist heroine in the form of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, striking a 1st Amendment blow against a corrupt presidential administration, “The Post” might have gambled a bit too boldly, reverse-engineering its own relevance rather than allowing it to arise organically from the material.
“Phantom Thread,” by contrast, arrived in December feeling like the very opposite of a rush job. Visually and musically exquisite, a luxuriant swirl of silk and crinoline, it’s the kind of movie that seduces you into a world as fully formed as the Manderley of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” (1940), one of its most significant influences.
For all Anderson’s fastidiousness as a stylist and his idiosyncrasies as a storyteller, he has made an audience picture through and through: a witty, subversive dark comedy that had the audience cackling repeatedly, and in all the right places, both times I saw it. Indeed, were I in a mood to quibble, I might have faulted the academy for not giving “Phantom Thread” its proper due in the original screenplay race, especially considering Anderson’s past writing nominations for “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “There Will Be Blood” and “Inherent Vice.”
Still, that strong track record, plus the seven Oscar-nominated performances he’s directed (including Day-Lewis’ winning turn in “There Will Be Blood”), suggests the industry has always held this filmmaker in high regard — for the intelligence and muscularity of his filmmaking, for his love for the traditions and myths of classic Hollywood cinema, and perhaps above all for his unswerving allegiance to his own vision.
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