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Awards Latest: “The Master” Isn’t “American” Enough for Oscar Glory

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It’s valid to suggest that Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” is the most trenchant American drama of the decade so far – and quite possibly the best since Anderson’s 2007 “There Will Be Blood.” There’s a strong likelihood, however, that when the Oscar nominations are announced at 8am EST tomorrow, neither the film nor the director will be nominated.

On January 2, the Producers Guild of America omitted “The Master” from the list of 10 films nominated for its Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures/Darryl F. Zanuck Award. Yesterday, the Directors Guild nominated the following five names for its Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film: Ben Affleck (“Argo”), Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty”), Tom Hooper (“Les Misérables”), Ang Lee (“Life of Pi”), and Steven Spielberg (“Lincoln”).

Along with P.T. Anderson, the DGA overlooked fellow candidates Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”), David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook”), Quentin Tarantino (“Django Unchained”), and Michael Haneke (“Amour”). With one exception, the DGA’s list mirrors the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s choices for the Golden Globe for Best Direction – Motion Picture. Instead of Hooper, the HFPA nominated Tarantino. Even if Hooper and Tarantino are nominated by the Academy, neither will win the Best Director Oscar on February 24; their movies climb different peaks of waywardness.

The austere Austrian pedagogue-provocateur Haneke remains an Oscar outsider, though “Amour”’s momentum – on Saturday, it won the National Society of Film Critics awards for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Actress (Emmanuelle Riva) – could make him a surprise Oscar nominee. The Academy’s voters sometimes spring such unexpected nominations, though “Amour” is more likely to win the Best Foreign Language award.

“The Master” (which scored three less points than “Amour” to finish second in the National Society vote) has obviously underperformed awards-wise since winning the Silver Lion for directing at Venice last September. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association did vote Anderson Best Director and “The Master” second to “Amour” as Best Picture; it struck out with the New York Critics, who favored Bigelow and “Zero Dark Thirty.”

The reasons for Anderson and “The Master”’s poor showing are not obscure. Altmanesque in its objectivity, the masterful mise-en-scène is reposeful, not demonstrative in the Hollywood tradition; the mood is disturbing in its quiescence; and the acting – by Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and others – unsettling in its strangeness. The virtuosic Phoenix might be channeling Marlon Brando and Hoffman Orson Welles, while Adams is Hollywood’s most sinister Lady Macbeth-alike since Laura Linney’s in “Mystic River.”

“Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” the other two U.S. films from 2012 likely to endure, are not only stylistically familiar, in contrast to Anderson’s, but offer the comfort and inspiration of great American deeds: nothing is more Oscar-friendly than overcoming enormous odds in the quest for justice. “The Master” – like “Citizen Kane,” “Chinatown,” and “There Will Be Blood” – is altogether non-American, a metaphorically complex examination of corrupt and corrupting power with an anguished loser of a protagonist in Phoenix’s Freddie Quell.

Hoffman’s cult leader (whether or not he bears a true imprint of L. Ron Hubbard) lacks the economic sway of Welles’s yellow press baron Charles Foster Kane and “Chinatown”’s robber baron Noah Cross (John Huston), but he is no less of a plausible monster. Hoffman could, of course, win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but I suspect, sadly, that the Academy’s voters will flinch at honoring the writer-director who breathed life into his black soul.

Image: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams in “The Master” / Courtesy The Weinstein Company

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