The Stars Come Out in P.T. Anderson’s “Magnolia”
Moviedom's most adventurous director churns out another cinematic mind-
trip—with a little help from Hollywood's finest.
By Bruce Kluger
caper, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
barreled onto movies screens across the
country, instantly staking its claim in film
history as the granddaddy of the all-star
Boasting a cast of nearly two dozen big-name
luminaries—from Spencer Tracy to the Three
Stooges—the film set the standard by which
Hollywood casting directors would measure
their ability for years to come.
Throughout the Seventies, the industry
continued to roll out marquee-heavy fare—
becoming a thing of the past. With actor salaries skyrocketing, and the low-budget
independent films becoming the rage, movie makers are learning that name
recognition is not necessarily the sole ingredient to box office success.
proven track records and enormous respect within the industry—seem to be able to
assemble small armies of distinguished thespians to headline their big-screen
So explain the phenomenon of Paul Thomas Anderson, a rookie writer-director
who, with just two films to his credit, managed to recruit a handsome lineup of
above-the-title talent for his latest film, Magnolia, which opens this Friday.
Anderson, whose abbreviated appellation now reads “P.T. Anderson” (does he
envision himself Barnum, or the next coming of D.W. Griffith?), exploded onto the
scene in 1997 with his frantic spin through the Seventies porn industry, Boogie
Nights. Critical acclaim, a hefty box office haul and a handful of Oscar nominations
for the film instantly catapulted Anderson to the top-shelf, displacing former
Hollywood wunderkind Quentin Tarantino.
For winners in the movie business, the payoff is the sudden clout that comes with
being in demand. For a director in particular, that translates into the luxury of being
able to cherry-pick a cast of screen notables for subsequent projects—which
Anderson has done with aplomb.
Appearing in Magnolia are an ensemble of critically and commercially celebrated
artists including, among others, Tom Cruise, Jason Robards, Julianne Moore,
William H. Macy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Melinda Dillon.
“I have my dream cast and crew and couldn’t be happier,” Anderson gushed to
reporters after signing and sealing the casting deals for Magnolia in 1998. And he
had good reason. At the time, the most recent star to join to movie’s hit parade was
also the industry’s biggest—Tom Cruise, who had been wowed by Boogie Nights
and met with Anderson while filming Eyes Wide Shut in London. The two men hit it
off, and Anderson walked away with a deal: he would write a role specifically for
Cruise (the character is a greasy TV sex-advice peddler), and the actor would
happily bring it to life for the camera.
How much did Cruise trust Anderson to deliver the goods? The answer is in the
numbers. Magnolia was budgeted at $30 million; Cruise gets around $20 million per
film. Clearly taking a pay cut, the superstar was sending a signal to Anderson—and
to Hollywood in general—that sometimes an actor takes on a project based on the
art, and not just the economics (though Cruise is reported to be participating in the
film’s back-end revenues).
Like Boogie Nights, Anderson’s Magnolia script is heavy on character-
development, weaving together nine personal tales—of loss, forgiveness, hope and
renewal—through a series of events that occur over 24 hours in Southern
California. Reminiscent of Altman’s Short Cuts, the screenplay relies heavily on
emotional intimacy, which is precisely what appealed most to Magnolia's
“I was taken aback by the script because it is so honest about the human
condition,” says Oscar-winner Jason Robards, who plays a cancer patient coming
to grips with his disappointing legacy in the final moments of his life. “It had a
novelistic approach that I found fascinating. There were no star parts. Every
character was equal.”
For Julianne Moore, Magnolia was an opportunity to play a woman “who is
hysterical throughout half the movie.” An Oscar-nominee for her portrayal of a coke-
snorting porn goddess in Boogie Nights, Moore appears in Magnolia as Robards’
young wife, Linda, who married for money and now finds herself enslaved to
Robards’ illness. “The challenge was to be really truthful and very emotional, with
big gestures,” Moore explains, “yet somehow stayed rooted in reality. I wanted to
make the character human.”
Another Boogie Nights alum returning to Anderson’s antic make-believe world is
William H. Macy, whose career took off in 1996, with his Oscar-nominated turn in
the Coen Brothers’ black comedy Fargo. Although his character in Magnolia—a
former child quiz game whiz who now runs a failing electronics store—promised
Macy the kind of eccentric character study for which he’s best known, it was clearly
the prospect of working with Anderson again that drew Macy to the project.
“I think Paul came out of the womb a great director,” says Macy. “The guy thinks
cinematically. He has an indefatigable knowledge of the mechanics of it all, and his
sets are vibrant and fun.”
If P.T. Anderson has become the flavor-of-the-month among Hollywood directors,
Philip Seymour Hoffman currently boasts that honor in the industry’s acting flanks.
Also a Boogie Nights veteran (he was the porn set gofer with the crush on
superstud Dirk Diggler), Hoffman went on to appear in Happiness and opposite
Robin Williams in Patch Adams, and earlier this month stole the show—and
reviews—from co-star Robert DeNiro as the singing drag queen in Joel Schumacher’
With his nuanced and tempered performance in Magnolia—as an at-home nurse
trying to reunite Robards with his estranged son (Cruise)—Hoffman is grateful for
another opportunity to take on a meaty role, and another chance to work with
“I appreciated that Paul was asking for something completely different from me,” he
says, “and that this film is also completely different. In the end, that’s the stuff you
really want to be a part of.”