With his 1997 film Boogie Nights, then-27-year-old director Paul Thomas Anderson took his place on the list of Hollywood wunderkinds. A brash, ensemble-driven epic made as a tribute to the Los Angeles porn industry of the 1970s, the film was both an exploration of the industry and the '70s version of the American dream. Combining sharp humor, indelible poignancy, and painstaking detail, Boogie Nights was hailed by one critic as the first great film about the '70s to come out since the '70s. The wide acclaim surrounding it -- as well as Anderson's Best Screenplay Oscar nomination -- put Anderson at the forefront of young American filmmakers, establishing him as one of the most exciting talents to come along in years.
The son of voice actor Ernie Anderson, he was born in Studio City, California, on January 1, 1970. Growing up in the Valley, where the porn industry thrived during the '70s, Anderson became obsessed with porn movies at a young age. He had a greater fascination with the medium than he did with school; by all accounts a poor student, he was kicked out of the sixth grade for bad behavior. Always interested in becoming a filmmaker, Anderson made his first movie in high school, a 30-minute mockumentary entitled Dirk Diggler. Inspired by an article he had read on porn star John Holmes, Anderson's short -- about a porn star and his 13-inch penis -- would later become the inspiration for Boogie Nights.
After a brief stint as an English major at Emerson College and an even shorter stint at the New York University Film School, Anderson began his career as a production assistant on various TV movies, videos, and game shows in Los Angeles and New York. In 1992, he made Cigarettes & Coffee, a short with five vignettes set in a diner. After it was screened at the 1993 Sundance Festival, Hollywood came calling, and Anderson made his first full-length feature, Sydney -- retitled Hard Eight. Released in 1996, the making of the film -- a crime drama set in the world of gambling and prostitution -- proved disastrous for the director, who was fired by the film's production company and not allowed to release his own version of the movie until it had been selected for competition at Cannes. Hard Eight ultimately earned a fair number of positive notices, but went virtually unheard of by audiences.
During the troubling production of Hard Eight in 1995, Anderson began writing Boogie Nights as a way to retain a hold on his sanity. The great success that surrounded the film's release all but ensured that the writer/director would be spared the kind of problems that had marred his previous effort. The recipient of numerous honors, including three Oscar and two Golden Globe nominations, Boogie Nights was widely hailed as one of the best films of the year, if not the decade.
Anderson remained mum on what he would do next, but in 1999 he resurfaced with Magnolia. Like Boogie Nights, it was an ensemble film of epic length, and featured performances by such Anderson regulars as Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, William H. Macy, and Julianne Moore. Centered around themes of love, death, abandonment, and familial estrangement, it served up a lavish helping of the sort of sweeping narrative, visual flair, and off-kilter insight that Anderson had made his trademark. Critics responded in kind, once again praising Anderson's touch with actors, particularly his ability to evince a full-fledged supporting performance from the usually-plastic Tom Cruise. Though it turned up on a slew of 10-best lists and secured Oscar nods for Cruise, Aimee Mann's original song "Save Me", and Anderson's screenplay, Magnolia's three-hour-and-twenty-minute running time scared off audiences, and the film failed to break even Boogie Nights' $25 million tally.
Scaling back his worldview somewhat, Anderson spent part of the next year honing his comic skills in the most unlikely of places: on NBC's venerable sketch show Saturday Night Live. Tagging along for an episode that featured then-girlfriend Fiona Apple as musical guest, Anderson was tapped for his writing talents as well as for a couple of pre-filmed mock-documentary segments. The comedy bug took hold, and it wasn't long before the auteur would team up with SNL alum Adam Sandler for a high-concept, low-budget (by Sandler standards, at least) romantic comedy. An off-kilter fusion of '50s Technicolor musical, extortion thriller, and the real-life tale of one man's pudding compulsion, Punch-Drunk Love premiered at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, nabbing its creator a tie for the Best Director prize (shared with the legendary South Korean filmmaker Im Kwon-Taek). Though its fall release in the States was accompanied by ecstatic reviews and careful marketing, Punch-Drunk failed to connect with audiences -- who were perhaps expecting a conventional Sandler comedy -- and petered out at the box office after a promising limited-release run.
Allegedly suffering from some burnout after the lack of response to Punch Drunk Love, Anderson took a job assisting one of his idols, Robert Altman, while he directed what would turn out to be his final film, A Prairie Home Companion. This process reinvigoratd him to some degree and Anderson returned to screens in 2007 with There Will Be Blood, a loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair's novel Oil. The story of an oilman (Daniel Day-Lewis) whose misanthropy and desire for success costs him his humanity opened to thunderous critical praise and was one of the two films to dominate the year end critics and industry awards. Anderson was cited for numerous writing and directing awards including Oscar nominations for each of those categories.
With the exception of welcoming his third child with significant other Maya Rudolph in 2011, Anderson kept a low-profile for a few years. However, rumors continued to swirl about his next project. Though there was talk of Robert Downey Jr. joining him for an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, word came early in 2012 that The Master, a religious drama supposedly modeled in part on Scientology, would hit screens in October of that year starring his regular collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman as a cult leader.
~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi