As we approach the Academy Awards on March 4, conventional wisdom and conversation will most likely focus on Oscar front-runners like The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. So in our recurring column Make the Case, The Ringer will focus on the less heralded—but possibly more deserving—Oscar nominees.
Martin Scorsese had to wait until he was 64 years old before one of his films was awarded Best Picture. The Departed was released nearly 40 years after his first film, 1967’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door, and earned four Oscars, including Best Director to go along with the big prize. Forty years is a long spell. For Scorsese, it was too long to wait, insofar as it can be too long to receive a prize. Scorsese’s eighth film, 1980’s Raging Bull, was nominated for Best Picture, and that seemed like an appropriate moment to recognize one of his masterworks. It lost to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. The same could be said a decade later, when Goodfellas was beaten out by Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. Redford and Costner’s films feel like relics of a bygone moment, like fossils sinking deeper into the sands of time. Raging Bull and Goodfellas remain titanic achievements, as relevant today as at any other time since they were released—they are taught and emulated to this day. They’re forever.
Scorsese’s long wait is emblematic of a different time as well. When Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight won Best Picture last year, it felt seismic, a redefinition of adages and conventional wisdom. We no longer have to wait to certify our masterpieces and their makers. This year, there are a pair of young, gifted, first-time filmmakers—Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig—competing for the kind of early-career recognition that Jenkins received last year. But it is another director who shares in Scorsese’s plight—a more conventional upstart, trapped between an era in which waiting your turn was a rite of passage and this remarkable moment in which filmmakers of color and women are able to emerge in ways that seemed impossible a generation ago. As usual, Paul Thomas Anderson is a man out of time. Whether Anderson is Scorsese in 1981—Phantom Thread is his eighth feature-length film, just like Raging Bull—or in 1991, when it was clear even then that the New York director had made his enduring masterpiece at 48 years old, the parallels are coincidental but unmistakable. This year, Paul Thomas Anderson turns 48 years old. When he attends the Academy Awards for the fifth time in 20 years next week it will not be unreasonable to wonder, Is PTA destined to be the next Marty?
There is no birthright for an Oscar and no decent way to recognize great art. But there are vanishingly few people left in Hollywood who would say that Paul Thomas Anderson is less than a master. Phantom Thread is a significantly different work for him than his previous movies—more restrained, more elegant, set outside his native California, and characterized most deeply not by one of his Great (Bad) Men, but by the woman who neutralizes one of them.
Daniel Day-Lewis is nominated for his performance as the crank-genius man-baby Reynolds Woodcock, but Phantom Thread is enlivened and exists because of Alma Elson. Alma, the waitress who is swept up into a life of high fashion and low foraging by the couturier Woodcock, is played by the Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps. She’s a revelation, like discovering a $100 bill in the inside pocket of a new coat. Somehow, Krieps is not nominated. Together, she and Day-Lewis make the year’s best two-hander, a tête-à-tête between warring impulses—one seeking control, the other desperately in search of relief. If the film were graded only on their showdowns and emotional reconciliations, it would be one of the great, twisted romances of our time.
But there is so much more in Anderson’s film—the textured, dazzling designs of Mark Bridges’s costumes; the music-box-from-hell twinkle of Jonny Greenwood’s score; the gentle sneer of Lesley Manville’s supporting performance as Cyril Woodcock, our “old so-and-so.” Anderson’s story—co-conceived with, though uncredited to Day-Lewis—is a concise, tragicomic gothic romance, like Hitchcock’s Rebecca after a glass of sherry and a plate of spoiling mushrooms. Anderson acted as the film’s cinematographer, and he shoots his movie with the palette of a slightly muted, civilized English townhouse—the whites are closer to bone and the blacks are peeling at the edges. When colors pop—like Woodcock’s mauve socks pulled above the calf, or the satin lavender showpiece in which Alma is photographed, or the conservative, candy-cane-red dress she wears on their first date—they flood the frame. They are sensory illusions—explosive but spectral.
The same could be said for the darts in the screenplay. It is a masterclass in memorability, with phrasing so precise and word-smart as to seem instantly aphoristic. There are at least two dozen phrases from the movie that I find myself uttering at dinner or in meetings or at any old time in which it might be inappropriate. Their utility and oddity are equal and endless. Try one of them next time you’re seeking a clever comeback: “I simply don’t have time for confrontations.” “I think that you are only acting strong.” “A house that doesn’t change is a dead house.” “You’re making me extremely hungry.” “It’s like you just rode a horse across the room.” “You have the ideal shape.” “I don’t like to hear it because it hurts my ears.” “If it’s my life you don’t agree with, then you don’t have to share it. Why don’t you fuck off back to where you came from?” “You can shut right up.” “Perhaps I’m looking for trouble.” “Whatever you do, do it carefully.” “Fucking chic!” “Kiss me my girl, before I’m sick.”
Phantom Thread was the pleasant surprise of the Oscar nominations, garnering six when no more than two were expected. But it is missing some key nods to make its chances for a Best Picture win seem at all plausible. That the film received no nominations in editing or writing means it would be the first in 69 years to win without recognition in those categories. The absence of Anderson’s script in the Original Screenplay race is one of the Academy’s more unfortunate omissions this year, especially given that it is a space where Anderson—a two-time nominee who fits the profile of previous “out-there” winners like Spike Jonze, Diablo Cody, and Paddy Chayefsky—would actually have a chance to take home a prize.
But more than acknowledging Anderson’s ingenious writing, the transformative power of Daniel Day-Lewis’s reported final performance, or the emergence of a profound new talent in Krieps, a win for Phantom Thread would be a win for weird. This might seem obtuse in the year of The Shape of Water’s fish-sex prestige, Get Out’s socially-conscious horror, and the profane line-crossing of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But Phantom Thread is genuinely strange, unnervingly particular about the way couples fight. The story was infamously inspired by a moment in which Anderson fell ill and while bedridden and helpless, was deemed more lovable by his wife, Maya Rudolph. It’s a cute origin story, perfect for a podcast Q&A, but it also deftly hints at what drives the insecurities in relationships, and perhaps even what partners need to calm down and respect one another. If that is a dose of chanterelle-laced Munchausen syndrome by proxy, so be it. “What precisely is the nature of my game?” Woodcock taunts Alma during a dinner-table showdown that is as strafing as any scene in Dunkirk. Or is it hilarious? With each viewing of the movie—and I am up to six—I toggle between ghoulish laughter and the heart-clutching recognition of sincere melodrama. More plainly, Phantom Thread is so damn funny and so damn sad. It fills the room. It’s a movie you can use.
Phantom Thread will not win Best Picture. Furthermore, it will be among the least-seen nominees in the category’s recent history, the kind of film I argued has prospered while more commercial fare has vanished from many Oscar telecasts in the past decade. But we have to make exceptions to our rules, and know when to bend them. Phantom Thread’s win would not just be a case for a master in his prime, or an unusual but universal piece of work—it’d be great theater worthy of the stage. The Oscars needs that, and Paul Thomas Anderson needs an Oscar, at least before he’s 64. As Reynolds Woodcock says, “I feel as if I’ve been looking for you for a very long time.”