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The Masters: 30 Best Paul Thomas Anderson Actors

From ‘Hard Eight’ to ‘Inherent Vice,’ we’ve ranked the MVPs of PTA’s movies.

From 'Hard Eight' to 'Inherent Vice,' we've ranked the MVPs of PTA's movies.

Whether or not you’re a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, one thing is certain — the man can direct actors. Over his seven features to date, no other American director (with the possible exception of Robert Altman, his idol) has helped inspire more great performances per capita to film. Sometimes, he’s working with actors who are no-brainer choices for roles: think Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, or Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. Other times, these great performances come from the most unlikely places: think of Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love, or Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights. Or, hell, even Tom Cruise in Magnolia.

Anderson’s latest — the impossibly dense, surreal, and very funny Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice — continues the trend. Like the book, the film follows the perpetually high hippie-cum-private-eye Larry “Doc” Sportello attempting to uncover a vague conspiracy involving a vanished ex-girlfriend, a kidnapped millionaire, Asian drug runners, evil dentists, powerful land-owners, corrupt cops, surf-musician stoners and a host of other warped Me-Decade denizens. And as with the rest of the writer-director’s back catalog, each of the movie’s performances feels like a mini tour de force.

As Inherent Vice is scheduled to hit theaters this Friday, we decided to look back over his body of work and select the 30 top performers in his films. Drink somebody else’s milkshake, skirt past that plague of frogs and dig in.

30. Joanna Newsom

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Newsom isn’t an actor; she’s a singer and a harpist, as well as a key player in the “freak folk” movement of the early 2000s. Her voice is the first we hear in Inherent Vice: She narrates the film as Sortilege, one of Doc Sportello’s sidekicks. It’s kind of a brilliant choice, as Newsom’s wistful tones lend a kind of warm, hazy reflectiveness to Thomas Pynchon’s serpentine, very male prose. Despite being a very faithful adaptation. what seems to interest Anderson more than the novel’s plot twists is its elegiac tone, a half-remembered vision of a time and place that may or may not have existed. And Newsom’s lilting, gentle voice helps lend this absurdist, cerebral tale both a sense of real human emotion and palpable loss.

29. Martin Short

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Short doesn’t do all that much in Inherent Vice – except play a sexed-up, coked-up, insanely corrupt dentist. But this human whirlwind brings such a joyous comedic energy to the part that we had to include him here. Also, his funny performance hints at Anderson’s strategy for this adaptation — incorporate a lot of physical humour to balance out all the talking. (Not for nothing has the director mentioned The Naked Gun’s Zucker brothers as being a big influence on the film.) In that regard, Short is one of his most effective weapons here.

28. Ricky Jay

Magician and erstwhile actor Ricky Jay plays Kurt Longjohn, the calm, quiet professional manning Jack Horner’s camera, in Anderson’s ambitious porn industry epic Boogie Nights. In a film that traces the rollercoaster-like emotional travails of a wide variety of people in the skin-flick business, he seems to be the lone voice of reason. Jay doesn’t get a lot of lines, but his natural, matter-of-fact delivery means that whatever he does say is memorable. Maybe that’s also why Anderson picked Jay to narrate the crazy, ultra-caffeinated early scenes of Magnolia – his relaxing voice offsets the utter nuttiness of what’s on display.

27. April Grace

She’s not one of the better-known actors in the PTA Universe, but as Gwenovier, the journalist whose interview with Frank T. J. Mackey begins to resemble a cross between a therapy session and an inquisition, Grace brings remarkable poise and calm to what initially seems like a throwaway part. It’s a subtly riveting turn in a film stocked to the gills with Capital-A Acting.

26. Owen Wilson

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Inherent Vice’s surf rocker-turned-informant Coy Harlingen is presumed dead — yet somehow this this casualty of the counterculture pops up in nearly every other place Joaquin Phoenix’s hapless private eye wanders into. Wilson puts his laid-back, familiar persona to good use, but unlike a lot of his other spacey characters, he also evokes feelings of real tenderness. After some time on the run and in the shadows, he wants to get back to his wife and child. Doc’s ability to reunite Coy with his family becomes one of the few tasks that Doc successfully pulls off, a minor victory against the private interests and police-state shenanigans that, in Vice’s portrayal of the early Seventies, are taking over the country.

25. Benicio del Toro

As Vice’s dim maritime lawyer, del Toro makes for an interesting straight man to Joaquin Phoenix’s private dick. It’s not a big part for an actor like this – this man has an Oscar, after all — but the duo make for a good double act, as they try to untangle the byzantine nature of the movie’s central conspiracy. Not unlike other borderline-incoherent noirs (see The Big Sleep), Anderson’s film never quite figures out all the details of the conspiracy that’s being uncovered, so the film lives or dies by how much we enjoy individual chapters. And del Toro adds a sense of amiably addled fun to every scene he’s in.

24. Samuel L. Jackson

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Jackson has been such a prolific actor and racked up so many memorable roles over the past 20 years that nobody usually mentions his performance as Jimmy, the smalltime hood who exerts a rather negative influence on John C. Reilly, in Anderson’s 1996 debut feature Hard Eight. But the air of casual menace he conveys in the part is compelling, and his back-and-forth with Philip Baker Hall’s character towards the end of the film, when he reveals the elderly gambler’s dark secret, is deeply suspenseful.

23. Gwyneth Paltrow

As the beautiful cocktail-waitress/prostitute who falls for John C. Reilly’s impressionable gambler in Hard Eight, Paltrow gave what remains one of her best performances. Wounded, yet obstinate, she helps drive the film’s narrative in subtle ways as soon as she shows up; although she was still in the relatively early phase of her career, Paltrow’s work here (alone with her turns in Flesh and Bone and Seven) was a sign that she was a major talent. An Oscar, a few more high-profile romances and a stratospheric level of celebrity would soon follow, but her turn in Anderson’s first film will always be an important part of her highlight reel.

22. Paul Dano

Dano’s stylized performance as the ambitious young preacher Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood didn’t sit well with everybody; some critics found him too broad in the part. But how can anyone be too broad in a movie that also features Daniel Day-Lewis gloriously chewing up scenery left and right? Rather, Dano’s loudly, outwardly earnest character makes an ideal foil for Day-Lewis’ loudly cynical protagonist. These are not just two men, they are two historical forces – capitalism and the clergy – colluding and colliding over the course of a film that, not unlike Inherent Vice, is all about the corrupting nature of power and money.

21. Melora Walters

Walters played a beautiful, somewhat airheaded porn star in Boogie Nights, but her best part came as the promiscuous, emotionally wounded junkie Claudia Gator in Magnolia. You’d think that such a broken character would be mired in pathos, but Walters gives a surprisingly tough performance here: Her self-loathing manifests as aggressiveness rather than mopeyness. It’s a smart choice, and helps make the character — who, in her broad strokes, could have become nothing but a cliché — far more interesting.

20. Heather Graham

As Rollergirl, Graham gave one of several iconic performances in Boogie Nights. It’s a deceptively complex role: She’s seen as a fun-loving, ready-to-get-naked-at-a-moment’s-notice sex object in the film’s earlier scenes. As the story proceeds, however, the porn star on wheels becomes an increasingly sadder figure: The scene where she and Julianne Moore’s Amber Waves sit in a bedroom doing lines of coke and becoming increasingly more agitated is one for the ages. (“Are you my mom? I’ll ask you if you’re my mom, and you say ‘Yes,’ okay?”) And later, when she brutalises a college student who tries to get rough with her in the back of a limo, we see an entirely new side of the character. Not surprisingly, this movie helped make Graham a star.

19. Luis Guzman

Whether he’s playing a budding nightclub impresario in Boogie Nights, a mouthy game show contestant in Magnolia, or Adam Sandler’s right-hand man in Punch Drunk Love, Guzman has provided invaluable support for Anderson over the course of several films. He’s always hilarious, he’s always fascinating, and you always want to know more about his characters. Here’s hoping Anderson will one day develop a story that gives Guzman a meaty, leading role: This enormously talented actor deserves it.

18. Thomas Jane

As Todd Parker, Boogie Nights’ mustachioed, up-and-coming adult-movie stud who leads Dirk Diggler further down the path of addiction and criminality, Jane is pure charisma. While the film follows most of the main characters through the Seventies, Todd is a creature spontaneously birthed by the Eighties – all verve and confidence and flash. The actor usually tends to play quieter characters in his other films; that he can be so electrifying, quick, and loud in this part speaks to his impressive range.

17. Emily Watson

As Adam Sandler’s object of desire in Punch Drunk Love, Watson got to play a rare romantic lead. (No, we are not counting her role in Breaking the Waves as a romantic lead.) But this isn’t just a stock girlfriend part: Her character, while marginally more confident than Sandler’s, is nervous and emotionally bruised in her own ways. There’s an elemental attraction going on between them: He’s bizarre and larger-than-life, whereas she’s quietly grounded, shy but perceptive and caring. These two are meant for each other, and Watson is the heart and soul of this most unlikely love story.

16. Josh Brolin

As Bigfoot, the Dirty Harry-like cop who proves to be an unwelcome foil for our hero in Inherent Vice, Brolin is an unnerving blend of menace and hilarity. Yes, he’s an aggressive beast who’s fond of trampling the law, but he also gets some of the film’s funniest lines (“Molto pan-a-cake-u!”). Bigfoot isn’t just a character; he’s a force of nature, consuming Japanese pancakes, frozen chocolate-covered bananas, scotch, bags of weed, you name it. In Vice’s vision of Nixon’s America, he comes to embody the cross-section between law and order at all costs and our need for unbridled consumption. The fact that Brolin can pull off a character with such heavy symbolic import and still make him curiously touching is nothing short of a miracle.

15. Don Cheadle

As Buck Swope, the porn actor with dreams of opening a stereo store, Don Cheadle was one of the (many) standouts of Boogie Nights. Constantly changing his outfits with the times but never quite fitting in, Buck is a guy we genuinely feel protective about. Witness the film’s incredibly tense donut-shop scene, where he orders a bunch of donuts late at night even as we sense that something horrible is about to happen. (It does, but with a totally unexpected result.) That’s not just a testament to Anderson’s writing and directing; it’s a testament to Cheadle’s savvy performance.

14. Mark Wahlberg

Despite several notable film appearances, Wahlberg was still known mainly as the rapper and pantless Calvin Klein posterboy Marky Mark when he starred as the divinely endowed Dirk Diggler in Anderson’s breakthrough epic Boogie Nights. This performance changed all that. Over the course of the film, he goes from impressionable, troubled young man to earnest celebrity, grandiose superstar to jaded cokehead — and finally, to repentant, determined veteran. He pretty nails every single beat. Despite the fact he’s frequently unclothed here, no one would confuse him for an underwear model after this.

13. William H. Macy

Macy’s characters are among the biggest sympathetic sad sacks in Anderson’s world of dysfunctional families and mixed-up Angelenos, which is saying a lot. In Boogie Nights, he’s Little Bill, whose torment over his wife’s open infidelities eventually lead to tragedy at a New Year’s party. In Magnolia, he’s the grown-up “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith, a drunken has-been obsessed with a hunky bartender. Macy has made playing slightly pathetic Everymen his forte (see also: the Coen Brothers’ Fargo), but he brings an added weirdness to these parts. Something wonderfully surreal is awakened in this actor whenever he works with Anderson.

12. Burt Reynolds

Reynolds got his best role in decades — and arguably of his entire career — as Boogie Nights’ resident porno auteur Jack Horner. His typically laid-back energy serves him well when playing the Cecil B. DeMille of the triple-X set, but Anderson also taps into a very corny, paternal quality in the actor for this film. Horner is the guy around whom most of the other characters congregate, yet he almost always remains confident, clean, comforting, soft-spoken. That just serves to make his eventual break with Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler character that much more frustrating and tragic.

11. Katherine Waterston

Waterston doesn’t have that big a part in Inherent Vice: She’s AWOL for most of the movie. But as Doc Sportello’s former lover Shasta, she has to do a deceptive amount of heavy lifting, and hers is the true breakout performance of the film.. Her first appearance is tender, yet haunted, suggesting something is wrong; when her character initially disappears, the memory of that early scene persists. When Doc later sees her in a flashback to a better time, she’s vibrant, beautiful – the very picture of the innocent, first-flush of love. When she reappears near the end, however, we sense that something has changed – that this beautiful woman has seen and done things that we can’t quite imagine. The actress then delivers an impossibly seductive monologue – about how invisible and powerless she felt in her rich businessman boyfriend’s presence — that’s one of the most unsettling scenes Anderson has ever shot.

10. Amy Adams

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As Lancaster Dodd’s quietly manipulative wife, Amy Adams is the secret, beating heart of The Master. Anderson’s film is driven by the weird dynamic between Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his protégé Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) – the former is confident, cuddly, and always has an answer for everything, while the latter is angry, angular, and always lost. But Adams’ character discreetly fuels these contrasts, and towards the end, we wonder if she might have been the behind-the-scenes power behind Dodd after all. A subtle character likes that requires a very subtle performer, and Adams transfixes in the role.

9. Alfred Molina

Molina has only had relatively minor parts in Anderson’s films, but his one big scene in Boogie Nights — as Rahad, the coked-up, half-naked, gun-waving, richer-than-god lunatic who helps precipitate Dirk Diggler’s third act bottoming-out (and subsequent moment of clarity) — is unforgettable. Flamboyant, psychotic, fun, and terrifying, Rahad isn’t just a crazy dude with a gun; he seems to embody the very unpredictability of fate itself. And you’ll never think of Jessie’s Girl the same way again.

8. Adam Sandler

Here’s what’s so great about Sandler’s performance in Punch Drunk Love: It asks him to stretch to an almost superhuman degree, even as it fits into his usual character profile. Barry Egan feels like the collective residue of Sandler’s other, more popular comedy parts. He’s mired in uncertainty and self-loathing — almost clinically so — and his cringe-worthy shyness is offset by a terrifying, destructive rage. These are all hallmarks of the usual, goofball Sandler type, but director and actor weave it all together beautifully; for all of Barry’s weirdness, he comes across as a living, breathing person. And what a marvelous, endlessly complex performance (and movie), the kind where you see something new in it every time you watch it.

7. Julianne Moore

As the adult-movie veteran Amber Waves in Boogie Nights, Moore is the very picture of compassion. Her character has to play den mother to the retinue of younger actors who congregate around her partner Jack Horner, even as she deals with her own screwed-up life. Moore brings out Amber’s fragility, but she never strays into overt pity; this is a character who always thinks of others first, to a fault. In Magnolia, she has a much harder edge – she plays the younger wife of a dying Jason Robards, and her suicidal insecurity and shame manifest themselves as a frantic, nervous stand-offishness. It’s amazing to think that the same actress played both parts. But that’s Julianne Moore for you.

6. John C. Reilly

This character actor’s first lead role was in Anderson’s debut drama Hard Eight, playing a down-on-his-luck gambler; when Anderson moved on to his next film, he used the actor in an entirely different way. In Boogie Nights, Reilly was the cocksure Reed Rothchild — goofy porno actor, erstwhile magician, coked-up comic relief and adorably loyal sidekick to young superstar Dirk Diggler. Then, in Magnolia, he wound up as good-hearted, devout, lovesick cop, in the film’s one storyline that suggested there might still be hope for humanity. No matter the part, Reilly seems to bring real warmth to these characters; we want him to be okay in these dark, dangerous worlds that Anderson spins around him.

5. Tom Cruise

If you think about it, Tom Cruise had been yelling “Respect the cock!” for years via his driven, alpha-male performances. It just took Paul Thomas Anderson to make him actually say it. As Magnolia’s preening, foul-mouthed, misogynistic self-help guru Frank T.J. Mackey, Cruise gave what might have been one of his most unlikely performances. Though grotesque, Mackey feels like an extreme, twisted variation on Cruise’s leading man roles, and the actor brings his typical energy, vitality, and single-mindedness to the part. But by playing everything up to such a degree, Cruise turns his regular persona into something genuinely poisonous and terrifying. It’s a stand-out performance for the actor. And now that his career is no longer what it used to be, the star should seriously consider re-teaming with Anderson; something wonderful might happen again.

4. Philip Baker Hall

Already a treasure of American acting, Hall shone as the other lead of Anderson’s debut feature Hard Eight. The role was a delicate balancing act: A character with mysterious motivations whose backstory remains firmly hidden until the film’s very end. Hall also put in an appearance in Boogie Nights as the profit-hungry money man who pushes Jack Horner towards video and cheaper, less “artistic” productions. And then comes his commanding performance in Magnolia, as a philandering, abusive, long-time game show host dying of cancer. Hall’s Jimmy Gator is one of the most extreme characters in a film full of extremes: A soft-spoken, broken-down monster; a “carefree” celebrity suffering an on-air meltdown; a person who has done horrific things yet still somehow manages to elicit our sympathy. It’s a magnificent performance.

3. Joaquin Phoenix

Phoenix has been at the centre of two Anderson films so far, and has delivered two of the strangest leading man performances ever committed to film. In The Master, he was broken-down WWII vet Freddie Quell, full of inchoate longing and unable to connect – an all-American fuck-up who found a home in the bosom of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s bizarre, all-consuming cult. In Inherent Vice, however, he’s a loser of a different kind – a tripped-out, lovesick, paranoid private eye who, investigating his ex-girlfriend’s disappearance, stumbles upon what might be a terrifying, yet vague, conspiracy. But the character is more than just a funky, Pynchonesque collection of tics. Rather, he’s a figure who is at the constant mercy of his impulses – he can’t resist any offer of sex or drugs. There’s a universality to both these performances that suggest that Phoenix is portraying not just a very specific character, but also a whole category of messed-up American male.

2. Daniel Day-Lewis

Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning turn as ruthless wildcatter Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s epic about the oil rush in turn of the century California, has already become iconic, complete with its own catchphrases (“I drink your milkshake!”). It’s a remarkably broad performance — animalistic in the film’s first act, silver-tongued and scheming in later scenes, and downright monstrous in the shattering finale – that somehow never overwhelms the narrative. But there’s subtlety in there, too. This is a man who, for all his cutthroat determination, understands the horrifying cost of doing business. Has he consciously buried his humanity, or did he never actually have any? Day-Lewis leaves sly little hints of tenderness in there, suggesting that Plainview might be a far more damaged, tragic figure than we could possibly imagine.

1. Philip Seymour Hoffman

Hoffman’s greatness was never more evident than when he was acting for Anderson; he appeared in five of the director’s films, more than any other actor. What’s more, his range in these films is astonishing: The cocky good old boy who briefly takes on Philip Baker Hall at the craps table in Hard Eight; the repressed, pathetic sound man in Boogie Nights; the shy, kindhearted nurse in Magnolia; the hair-trigger furniture salesman/pimp/con-man in Punch Drunk Love. But Hoffman’s final performance for Anderson was undeniably his greatest: As the vaguely L. Ron Hubbard-like cult leader Lancaster Dodd in The Master, he had to be avuncular, narcissistic, grandiose, paranoid, comforting, and domineering, sometimes all at once. He not only nailed all of these — he gave the character a humanity that tied all these elements together. If The Master is a film about the rootlessness of Homo Americanus after WWII, Hoffman’s Dodd represents both the wolf that lays wait for lost souls and a lost soul himself. It’s a terribly poignant performance, now made even sadder by the knowledge that this monumental actor will never again get to collaborate with his cinematic soul mate.