Phantom Thread is a low-key quality drama about the stresses of the artistic temperament starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a 1950s genius dress designer. It’s a Paul Thomas Anderson movie so of course it’s a sumptuous aesthetic experience. Anderson, along with Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, is one of the last directors to work on traditional film stock rather than digital. If you recall the beautiful late 1940s department store Anderson conjured up in Anderson’s The Master for Joaquin Phoenix to briefly work in as child photographer, this movie is all like that:
Phantom Thread did well in the Oscar nominations with six: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director (Paul Thomas Anderson), Best Supporting Actress (Lesley Manville as DDL’s sister who manages his house of couture and fires his mistresses for him when he bores of them), Best Score (Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead), and Best Costumes (Mark Bridges). Megan Ellison, zillionaire Larry Ellison’s daughter, produced, and her name on a project has rapidly become a pretty good indicator of upscale quality. (Her brother David produces more commercial sci-fi movies like the Star Trek series and World War Z.)
Day-Lewis as an actor is kind of like Stanley Kubrick as a director, taking years between movies but then delivering something astonishing. He’s famous for method acting commitments that sound like parody — e.g., wearing nothing but deerskin clothes and carrying his flintlock musket everywhere offset for months while making Last of the Mohicans. It’s natural to assume he must be a jerk to take his acting so seriously, but by most accounts he is a superbly considerate gentleman. The strains of preparing for his roles apparently wear him down (he took a couple of years off from stardom to apprentice with a master cobbler in Florence), so he’s announced he’s retiring after this movie.
Day-Lewis, age 60, the only man to win three Best Actor Oscars, probably won’t win a fourth for Phantom Thread. Most observers assume Gary Oldman will win for playing Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Oldman, 59, hasn’t gotten his due from the Academy Awards (this is only his second nomination even though Oldman, like Day-Lewis, has been doing memorable lead roles since the mid-1980s), while Day-Lewis has one of the highest Oscar batting averages of all time considering how few movies he makes. (Phantom Thread is his first since Lincoln five years ago.)
Further, Phantom Thread’s Reynolds Woodcock doesn’t offer Day-Lewis a showy role like Daniel Plainview in PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood or Bill the Butcher in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York in which Day-Lewis was so imposing he wound up intimidating the normally formidable Leonardo DiCaprio. The character is written as a heterosexual fashion designer who is neither very masculine nor flamboyantly effeminate.
So, sentiment this time around seems to be in favor of rectifying Oldman’s lack of Oscar appreciation. On the other hand, Oscar voters seem to like Phantom Thread more than audiences have so far (I thought it was rather funny but it didn’t get many laughs at the Laemmle in North Hollywood and viewers exited in an at best bemused mood), so you never know.
Phantom Thread continues PT Anderson’s odd knack for making fictionalized biopics that are less sensational than their real life subjects. There Will Be Blood left out several of the more lurid events of Los Angeles oilman Edward Doheny’s life, including the Teapot Dome scandal and the Greystone murder-suicide that inspired Raymond Chandler’s detective fiction. The Master presented Scientology cult leader L. Ron Hubbard as a bit of a blowhard, but still kind of a reasonable guy fulfilling a societal need for talk therapy, especially for military veterans suffering PTSD.
Phantom Thread is more or less inspired by the Anglo-American dress designer Charles James, who was a huge deal in the 1950s although I had not heard of him until reading about this movie. (He sold his name in so many convoluted ventures that his children have had a hard time settling all the various legal claims to make use of it.)
In the movie, the designer goes through moderate manic-depressive cycles, but his mania mostly manifests as working long hours sketching designs and being cutting toward people who want his precious time or are making too much distracting noise buttering their toast. He has his sister to keep him on track and, despite all his ups and downs, he lives a rather orderly existence.
A friend remembers James tipping a taxi driver with a $100 bill—he thought it was a single. James continually paid employees with postdated checks, wrote rubber ones at restaurants. And his books were a disaster. “He had all sorts of accountants coming in and trying to straighten things out,” says Jeanne Bultman, who did some bookkeeping for James. “Nobody was successful, because he’d tear the whole thing apart.” It wasn’t that James hated ledgers and numbers— he loved them. “It was detail, you see,” continues Bultman, “detail the same way that his gowns were detailed, and it could always be better.” …
Also in 1954, a surprise announcement: James, at 48, married Nancy Lee Gregory. It was like something out of Noël Coward. James had been having a very public fling with a man named Keith Cuerdon, a stage designer who lived on Fire Island with a wife named Nancy. What happened next depends on who tells the story: (1) Nancy took up Charles to punish her husband; (2) Charles stole away Nancy, who happened to be rich. These are outside interpretations. Those close to the couple say it was a true marriage, if a strange one. “She looked like a refined version, a quiet version, of him,” remembers Miles White. …
Stories abound of James’s inability to deal with even the smallest setbacks. He threatened to release a jar of moths in the salon of a furrier who fired him for nondelivery. He actually did empty a jar of cockroaches on the front desk of the Delmonico Hotel—a stunt to justify not paying his rent. … he would sell the same dress to three women, creating chaos, or borrow a dress from one client to lend to another. And downtown, manufacturers were helpless before his high-handed demands, his offhand delivery of designs, and his constant financial shortfalls. He was renegotiating debt, merging and remerging his finances with new companies in a kind of shell game that, according to Coleman, would make “ownership of his name an unresolvable question.” That name which meant so much! Nancy’s money allowed James to keep creating (all of 36 garments in 1954)—and to sue, sue, sue the thieves on Seventh Avenue.
“He loved accounting books and lawsuits,” remembers Scaasi. “Anything that had to do with finance and drama and the drama of business. Because he was a great orator and it gave him a chance to spout whatever he believed in.” And so James sued clients (Paulette Goddard, who hadn’t paid for a pantsuit), editors (Sally Kirkland at Life, for writing fashion captions he didn’t like), even institutions (he slapped a suit on the Brooklyn Museum, loving home to hundreds of James creations, because he suddenly wanted his clothes back). …
This sounds pretty entertaining, but nothing like this is in the movie.
Another problem with Phantom Thread is Paul Thomas Anderson’s usual trouble with coming up with a good plot. Anderson is a great director at both cinematography and in working with actors, and he’s pretty good at writing dialogue. But, like Spike Lee, he’s just not good at coming up with compelling scenarios. Why did Daniel Plainview want to kill Paul Dano’s preacher?
This story, about the designer’s latest girlfriend’s increasingly desperate attempts to hold his attention, after taking awhile to get going, actually develops some momentum as it starts to resemble a Hitchcock suspense movie. But then it resolves with a twist that leaves you shaking your head.
Still, despite its flaws, Phantom Thread sticks in your head, as shown by the length at which I’ve rambled on about it. As a movie about making beautiful things, it benefits from having two superb artists devote themselves to it.
Wokeness score: Zero. The only racial diversity in it is represented by the House of Woodcock’s richest client, a Barbara Hutton-type poor little rich girl, marrying, imprudently, a Dominican playboy modeled upon Porfirio Rubirosa.
Clickbait critics might decide that Phantom Thread straightwashes fashion designers. Anderson and Day-Lewis are heterosexual family men with seven kids between them.