'The Master' and Scientology: What's the Controversy?

If early word from the Venice Film Festival is any indication, "There Will Be Blood" writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson may have another Oscar season slam-dunk on his hands with "The Master," his latest intense epic. Overshadowing all these good vibes, however, is the specter of The Church of Scientology and the firestorm of controversy the film is igniting.

Why? What's all the fuss about? Yes, the movie depicts Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd as an L. Ron Hubbard-esque fraudulent svengali and founder of a 1950's religious movement called The Cause, but why would that be so incendiary in this day and age?

Short of Disney making an animated musical about pedophile priests, it's hard to imagine any film causing a stir the way "The Master" had even before a single frame of film was shot. As far back as Summer 2010, we were reporting that Universal Pictures supposedly dropped Anderson's project over prickly parallels to Scientology, and industry conspiracy (read: gossip) pegged the Weinstein Company's agreement to distribute the film as a key reason Church-friendly actor Will Smith bailed on starring in the studio's "Django Unchained."

Now that "The Master" has been completed, its release is anticipated as a cinematic Molotov cocktail aimed directly at Scientologists, but is that the case?

The MasterPerhaps in order to tame the lion before it got out of its cage, Anderson previewed the film in March for Church poster boy Tom Cruise, whose performance in Anderson's "Magnolia" snagged Cruise an Oscar nomination. According to The Wrap and other sources, Cruise took issue with several aspects of "The Master," particularly portrayals of The Cause as a cult, as well as a scene in which actor Jesse Plemons, playing a member of Dodd's inner circle, intones to Joaquin Phoenix that their fearless leader is merely "making all this up as he goes along." Despite Cruise's Thetan levels running high and Church officials reportedly "hitting the roof" over the scenes, Anderson has not removed anything and, in fact, the line appears verbatim in the trailer… along with that pesky c-word.

"We are still friends. I showed [Cruise] the film, and the rest is between us," Anderson told Huffington Post in Venice. "I really don't know a whole hell of a lot about Scientology, particularly now, but I do know a lot about the beginning of the movement and it inspired me to use it as a backdrop for these characters."

Of course, the movie takes place in 1950, the year Scientology's bestselling bible "Dianetics" came out, and Dodd's wife, like Hubbard's, is named Mary Sue (played by Amy Adams). Surely, star Hoffman would have to cop to biting off a little piece of L. Ron Hubbard licorice when crafting this cult leader, but he danced around the question while talking to The Wall Street Journal.

"The idea that L. Ron Hubbard and that movement was the basis for some story in the film is accurate," says Hoffman, "but it’s really not a film about that, so it isn’t accurate enough for me to play L. Ron Hubbard. And so I didn’t. I steered clear of anything having to do with 'The L. Ron Hubbard Story' because it’s too specific and the film wasn’t going to support that, so I thought it would be confusing."

Ultimately, Anderson's film will have to speak for itself, and early Venice reviews indicate that he's conducted his freakish orchestra of human frailty and manipulation with admirable aplomb. No matter how much the cast and crew avoid the topic, though, this story has the spirit of L. Ron Hubbard inhabiting it like Patrick Swayze in Whoopi Goldberg a la "Ghost."

Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere called the film "absolutely vivid, penetrating, world-class film-making," and Tweeted that "'The Master' is about the proverbial search, yes, but you'd also better believe it's based on Scientology, Scientology and SCIENTOLOGY."

Oliver Lyttelton at The Playlist reviewed "The Master" from Venice, and gave it a strong B,  remarking that "It sometimes feels that it's two films — a study of addiction and the traumas of war, and a story of a man who’s created his own religion — thrust together without ever quite gelling." Meanwhile, Todd McCarthy at The Hollywood Reporter drew comparisons to "intense and riveting 'recording' sessions" where Dodd interrogates Freddie to Scientology's auditing process, calling the scenes "terrifically effective, both for the visceral impact of the exchanges and their revelatory nature."

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"As for the Scientology angle," McCarthy writes, "certain aspects of The Cause invite ready comparison to L. Ron Hubbard and his creation: The processing sequences, the constant moving around and living on a boat, the guru's prolific writing, the midcentury time frame, the allusions to time travel and so on. Still, much of this could apply to other self-help/New Age agendas as well, and if Anderson had really wanted to mine the early days of Scientology, he could have had a much juicier film, what with all the sexual shenanigans, legal scrapes, boldface lies and exaggerations that are part of the organization's past. If anything, Scientology gets off easy here."

Of course, Scientology is a famously litigious organization with ties to many towers of power in Hollywood, so it's no duh that Anderson or Hoffman would go out of their way to avoid directly bitch-slapping them in the press. Premiere Magazine ran an expose in the early '90s which detailed several alleged incidents, including various organized threats levied against director Tom Mankiewicz and producer Richard Donner by Church members over a one-line jab against Scientology in their John Candy comedy "Delirious." (After Mankiewicz's home was broken into, he removed the scene.) Time Magazine ran a highly critical cover story about the organization in 1991, which resulted in The Church filing lawsuits against them, seven people who spoke to Time and eventually Reader's Digest for reprinting it.

BowfingerWe're in a different climate now, though, with public awareness of the secretive organization far more widespread, especially because the Internet has made it easier for former Church members to spread information about their experiences. (Tom Cruise's wonderfully wacky leaked recruitment videos on YouTube haven't helped.) Its prominence in pop culture has led to a variety of satires, too, which have managed to escape the Church's long legal arm, like the Off-Broadway musical "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant" and the famous "South Park" episode which took a very unsubtle hammer to organization.

Probably the closest thing to a full-blown cinematic broadside against the "Dianetics" clan was Steve Martin's brilliant 1999 vehicle "Bowfinger," which depicted Eddie Murphy enrolled in a celebrity-obsessed new age cult called Mindhead, with Terence Stamp as his charismatic guru. Despite nearly every review of the film labeling it a Scientology spoof, screenwriter Martin was careful to tiptoe around it while talking to New York Daily News, "I view it as a pastiche of things I've seen come and go through the years. Scientology gets a lot of credit or blame right now, because they're the hottest one."

This has admittedly not been a good time for Scientologists, what with the whole TomKat marriage implosion and former Church members like Academy Award-winner Paul Haggis speaking out against its psychological and physical abuse towards members. Even "Vanity Fair" has joined in, with its cover story about Nazanin Boniadi, allegedly Cruise's former girlfriend.

Could "The Master" become yet another nail in the coffin of their public image… or was couch jumping and "Battlefield Earth" enough?