Twisted Truth and Half the News: Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master Tries to Pretend It Has Naught to do with Scientology
Since the December 2009 announcement that Paul Thomas Anderson's next project would star Philip Seymour Hoffman and be called The Master, the movie world has been aflutter. Coming off the heels of There Will Be Blood, the accomplished director was purportedly taking on a touchy subject: Scientology. And we've all heard about Scientology, right? It's kind of like the mafia--everyone knows about it, but you don't talk. Those who do...well, you know.
Like an insidious white van tailing its latest escapee, Scientology's reach is powerful and far (so they say). We regular folk devour the sordid tales behind closed doors, but it was entirely unexpected to read that a prominent filmmaker was about to kick up the Scientolodust and blow it all over Hollywood and beyond. In 2001, Director Peter N. Alexander (never heard of him, have you?) had a similar idea; he made a film called The Profit which premiered at Cannes that year. Though Alexander also claimed his film wasn't about Scientology, the similarities proved too much for the religious group to swallow. In conjunction with an ongoing negligent homicide trial (Lisa McPherson), the church was able to stop further distribution of The Profit. So has Anderson has cleverly disguised his film as a more generic attack against cults, or is he just in the right position to be able to withstand whatever Scientology throws his way? Where Alexander had no other films under his belt nor big named backers, Anderson has a great reputation and the Weinsteins. He doesn't need controversy to sell a film. But rather than claim an outright inspiration, he plays coy and people involved with the film deny any outright Scientology association.
A few of the most obvious connections lie in early descriptions of The Master--an influential, charismatic man, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, starts a religion. One can hardly deny the physical similarities between the actor in character (Lancaster Dodd) and L. Ron Hubbard:
Hubbard and Dodd both married women named Mary Sue (Amy Adams).
Hubbard and Dodd both created a religion that requires its members to go through psychological processes; Scientologists work toward becoming "clear," while Dodd's followers' goal is "optimum." Scientology's Sea Org members must sign a billion year contract--Dodd's The Cause have to go for three billion years. Hubbard called Scientology naysayers "squirrels," as does one of Dodd's followers (referring to those who are against The Cause). Mary Sue Dodd speaks of attacking as the only way to defend The Cause; Scientology uses the same tactic. And in what seems a clear reference to Hubbard's creation, Dodd's son tells Freddie, "He's making up all this as he goes along. You don't see that?"
To be sure, The Master has another angle. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie, an ex-Navy alcoholic drifter who becomes Dodd's (temporary) disciple. Anderson was interested in exploring the "lost souls" who returned from World War II. But from its first rumblings, someone on the inside has always associated the film with Scientology. It has been a purposeful connection. Things like, "Anderson screened the film for his Magnolia star, Tom Cruise" and "Harvey Weinstein wants to screen the picture...to John Travolta" don't make their way into the media by accident. So why does the other hand keep trying to dissociate? As bold a filmmaker as he is, Anderson makes no comment himself--it seems silly for others to keep making the public denials. Let the people see the film and draw their own conclusions. If the similarities are as apparent as they have been reported, the disclaimers are foolish lies.
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