•Actor: Joaquin Phoenix
•Character: Freddie Quell
•Film: The Master
By the time Joaquin Phoenix worked with Paul Thomas Anderson, he had already established himself as an impressive talent and had two Oscar nominations behind him for Gladiator and Walk The Line. As good as these performances are, though, they don’t come close to his work as Freddie Quell in Anderson’s sublime but divisive The Master.
Freddie is a violent, inarticulate loner and emotionally damaged World War II veteran who has a raging labido and a talent for brewing moonshine. Both his oversexed behaviour and alcoholism ultimately define his character and Phoenix captures his untamed animalism with unnerving precision. It’s a wild and extraordinary transformation from Phoenix who channels such an intensity that he makes you feel uncomfortable just watching him. – (Alongside the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, the interrogation scene is proof of Phoenix’s ability and can be read and viewed in my Classic Scenes collection here).
Freddie Quell is a man who’s crawling in his own skin and gives the impression that he harbours dark secrets in his struggle with post-traumatic stress and his adjustment to a post-war society. His body language alone is very expressive as he stoops, contorts and grimaces throughout every interaction.
In order to achieve the effect of clenching his mouth and talking out of one side, Phoenix had his dentist attach metal plates to his teeth with rubber bands to hold them shut. He eventually removed the rubber bands, though, as they weren’t strong enough but the metal plates – complete with screws that slightly cut up the inside of his cheek – were enough of a constant reminder that it allowed him to play this aspect of the character. Phoenix also dropped to 127 pounds to achieve an emaciated appearance which further adds to the inner struggle of Freddie.
It’s a raw and visceral performance that Phoenix entirely disappears into and it’s not only a worthy addition to my Polished Performances but it’s one of the very best screen performances I’ve ever witnessed.
Oscars? – Phoenix received his third Oscar nomination for this but he was up against very strong opposition in critics’ favourite Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln. Day-Lewis prevailed in the end but Phoenix didn’t do his chances any favours when he described the Oscar campaign as “utter bullshit” which he wanted no part of. That aside, his performance still strongly resonates.
(To see my other choice performances head back here)