By John H. Foote
9. MAGNOLIA (1999)
How often does a director really dare in his filmmaking? How often have you sat in a theatre and thought: this is astonishing, I have never before experienced something like this.
Those were my thoughts as I watched Magnolia for the first time at a press screening. The film galvanized me in a way few films ever have. Brilliant, troubling, blazing in its originality I had seen something truly monumental.
One of the most blazingly original films of the decade, Magnolia was a daring, provocative film made just two years after Boogie Nights (1997) announced Paul Thomas Anderson as one of the most exciting new filmmakers of our time. The film is specifically about a group of people seeking, but being loved is the primary theme. In a way the characters are all connected by the television industry, either relatives, family members of people working within that strange business. Meeting them in quick introductions they are as follows: Jimmy Gator (Phillip Baker Hall), a game show host dying of cancer harboring terrible secrets involving his daughter from his past; Rose Gator (Melinda Dillon), Jimmy’s wife who expects the worst; quiz kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), in love with a bar tender who does not know he is alive; Jim (John C. Reilly), an earnest well meaning cop who at first glance is attracted to Jimmy Gator’s cocaine addicted daughter Claudia (Melora Waters), who like her father hides the opposite end of his secret; the dying Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a TV producer, his trophy wife Linda (Julianne Moore), ashamed of cheating on him throughout their marriage; his son Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise) who holds misogynistic seek and destroy seminars on how to get women into bed and is estranged (by choice) from his father; Phil (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the compassionate nurse caring for Earl in his last days; Stanley (Jeremy Black), a brilliant contestant on Jimmy’s show and his self-centered father Rick (Michael Bowen), who sees the boy as a stepping stone in his own acting career; and Thurston (Henry Gibson), a fey bar customer hellbent on ruining Donny Smith’s chances with his bartender crush.
The narrative winds through the film like a tapestry, the characters connected in various ways by the TV work of dying Earl Partridge. There is a lot of pain, specifically that of fathers and sons. The stories move in and out of one another, some interconnecting, others on their own, the narrative contains such beautiful, exquisite performances you are buoyed along on the journey and go along with some of the wildest happenings in movie history, but pay attention to everything, the background of the bar, inside homes, every single shot could contain clues to what the film is trying to say. Is it self-indulgent from Anderson? Of course it is, but in a good way because he is actually trying to say something with his film.
Beyond the writing and direction, the greatest strengths of the film are the performances, perfect to the character.
As the biggest star in the film, a great deal of attention landed on Tom Cruise for his foul-mouthed sex therapist, training men in Search and Destroy dating methods which promise to get then laid. Let’s begin a description of the stunning narrative with Cruise and his character Frank Mackey.
A jittery, over hyped up, over sexed fast talking man, we see him in action of the stage, ramping the men up, using their testosterone for them and against them finally, breaking for lunch and a pre-arranged interview with a pretty young black woman who has done her homework. She carefully lulls Frank into a false sense of security and trust with her (dangerous with journalists) and then drops the bomb. Mackey dangerously guards his past, wanting no one to break through and know who he is and what his life has been. She is in fact about to drop the bomb and blow his past wide open, as Frank is the son of the dying Earl Partridge, hates his father for abandoning he and his mother when she was dying of cancer, and is now exposed. He sits, quaking with fury, and when asked why he is saying nothing he answers with barely contained toxic fury, “I am sitting here, quietly judging you.” During the interview Phil, the nurse, pays a call to Frank to let him know his father is dying and asking for him. Linda arrives home and is enraged Phil has called Frank and so racked with the grief of losing this good and decent man while she was off performing oral sex on a myriad of men, she cannot possibly stay. She tells Phil, bewildered, what to say and leaves Frank with his father, where he sits by Earl’s bedside, shaking with rage, and grief and love finally exploding at his father. In a word, Cruise, Moore and Hoffman are extraordinary and do together some of the finest work of their careers.
Meanwhile Jim the cop has fallen hard for Claudia, knowing she has a drug problem but sensing the good person underneath and are both truly wanting to give it a chance. Jim likes her, and Claudia likes him but wants to save him from hurt dating her. They go on a date after bantering back and forth in the morning and have a bizarre date in which they finally kiss one another and somethin very beautiful seems to begin. But Jimmy Gator shows up to try and make amends with the daughter he molested and she wants nothing to do with him. At home, Jimmy’s wife has figured out what he has done, and disgusted with him, tells him she loves him but is going to their daughter because she needs her more. After the night’s shooting of the quiz show, Jimmy returns to a confrontation with his wife, and is left alone in their massive home.
The game show produces yet another father-son quandary as the father, Rick, seems to be using his son’s prowess in the game to try and further his acting career. He does not help his son load his bags of books, he does not ask questions about the child’s well-being, he tells him to go out there and win and he will but him anything he wants. Anything. The boy is brilliant, but lonely, and breaks when not permitted to go to the bathroom during the show. He urinates live on TV and his teammates on the show notice. The father and son quarrel, with the boy left only to say in the morning to his Dad, “You need to be nicer to be” and hope for the best.
While driving home from his date with Claudia, Rick notices Donnie breaking into his place of employment, or rather trying to put back the thousands of dollars he has just stolen for braces he thinks he needs for his teeth. As Rick pulls over to capture him, it begins raining frogs, huge damaging bull frogs that smash into the cars, hammer the stress and plant life, relentlessly pouring frogs for several minutes as though some crazy Biblical moment. And again with the braces, which Donnie does not need, but will now after smashing his teeth falling off a ladder.
In the restaurant/bar where his paramour resides, we come to see the younger man does not even know Donnie is alive. A caustic, fey older man sees what is happening and makes fun of Donnie over it, having great fun. This is Laugh In star Henry Gibson, who acted for Altman a few years before.
In a cast filled with great actors, how is that that each and every one of that are brilliant? There is not a flawed performance within the entire film, every single actor is perfection, taking risks in their work, risks that each makes work. Each of the actors seems to have couple of scenes that showcase their exceptional talents and all of them take part in a singalong scene that is not as I have explained, but a group of very troubled people who happen to be listening to the same song on the radio.
Julianne Moore has two breakdowns in the film, each astounding in their subtle power. She confesses to Earl’s layer her cheating, that she has performed oral sex on countless men without his knowledge and wants nothing from him. She wants her name taken out of the will. From here she goes to get his pain medication at a local drug store and is made to feel like a junkie when they question the amount of pain medication she has requested. Both ashamed and enraged. Moore pulls it off, breaking the hearts of anyone watching the film. Truly shattering.
Cruise is every ounce her equal especially when beside his dying father who needs the forgiveness of his son. Having lived years hating his father, finally face to face with him, seeing how vulnerable the old man is, Frank cannot pretend he hates him when in fact he loves him, it is his father. He shakes at the bedside, holding his father’s hand and bursts into horrible, racked sobs of shame, of rage, or guilt, and of deep sadness. Cruise might never be greater and more intense than he is in this remarkable supporting role. With his seething performance Tom Cruise went farther than he ever had as an actor before, tapping into the raging soul of a son feeling unloved by his father, and having spent years wasted hating him, discovers his father loved him after all. If the actor had retired after this film, he would forever be considered a great actor.
Reilly and Walters do a delicate dance around each other on their date and connect and they too can feel the connection. She knows that he will stand by her through anything, even the upcoming abuse charges she and her mother will file against dying Jimmy Gator, who will likely kill himself before things can ever get to trial. Walters deserved an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her work which sadly did not come.
Macy is heartbreaking as Donnie Smith, a middle-aged gay man who just wants to love, and has so much to give he is near overflowing with the possibility of it. For all his brains he makes so many bad decisions we can barely believe he was once Quiz Kid Donny Smith, but he is left with a glimmer of hope at the end of the film.
Michael Bowens and Jeremy Black have difficult roles as father and son, and he is such a complete shit I defy anyone to like the man. We watch him use and abuse his son by using him, all the while wondering when does someone say something to him? He is almost indifferent to the child until the child speaks up, hopefully bringing some sense to his horrific father.
Phillip Baker Hall is superb as Jimmy Gator, who has abused his daughter and the ghost that aunt him now are merciless, as they should be. Ruined by her father, Claudia is a true mess, but might just be saved by the love of a good cop, and her mother, while Jimmy is damned, unforgiven.
As Phil, the kind and truly decent nurse, Hoffman is as always superb. Mistakenly he calls Frank, upsetting Moore to no end, but knowing his heart was speaking, she forgives him and at that moment realizes she must leave, because she never loved Earl enough to call his son. It did not occur to her to do so. Quietly perfect, Hoffman again showed why he was among the finest actors in America in 1999.
Superbly directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson, with this film he became “it”, the greatest new director in movies. Bold, daring, taking extraordinary chances, he risked his career with this and it paid off. Critics loved the film, and word of mouth helped audiences find it eventually, though often on video and DVD. Again, with his camera in near constant motion, and a cast to die for playing characters all connected in some manner, he feels like Altman merged with Scorsese and Lumet. Watching Magnolia in 1999, I was excited, excited for the films genius and the future of American cinema, because its name was Paul Thomas Anderson.
Where again was the ever-fickle Academy? I count 10 nominations the film should have received, but just three came the way of Magnolia. While Tom Cruise seemed a sure thing, he lost to Michael Caine for his work in The Cider House Rules (1999) a fine performance but hardly as groundbreaking as what cruise gave us. The Academy clearly was not prepared for Magnolia.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.