Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Character

From sweaty Nixon to gentleman gambler, Philip Baker Hall is a name you don't recognize, and an actor you won't forget.

By Charles Taylor

Published November 16, 1998 6:42PM (EST)

You've seen Philip Baker Hall even if you don't know you have. That's his
essence as an actor, a particularly American brand of anonymity. Hall has
the look of small-time businessmen, traveling salesmen, insurance agents,
civil servants who've been in their jobs so long they've become part of the
furniture. In his off-the-rack suits and neatly swept-back gray hair, he's
the essence of conventional respectability. The lines on his forehead and
the bags under his eyes, so big they might be steamer trunks, betray a
weariness that's settled in to stay, the mark of a life destined to be
lived among the second-rate. Hall could be every middle-aged man you've
ever seen who's taken too many meals at Denny's or Big Boy, who's slept in
too many identical motel rooms on too many fruitless business trips. John
Cheever once described his type as the men who eat alone in Polynesian
restaurants and order the New York sirloin.

And yet Hall never quite achieves anonymity. Perhaps it's the way his round
eyes appear to be memorizing every detail of every person he deals with, or
the way he seems to be standing back from himself, carefully monitoring his
behavior. Somehow, there's too much mental processing going on deep beneath
his surface for Hall ever to seem completely readable. He's equally suited
to playing the IRS official who gives Ione Skye hard-headed, sensible
advice in "Say Anything ..." or Floyd Gondolli, the mob-connected porn
mogul in "Boogie Nights," who shows up at a New Year's Eve party with a
group of slightly ragged-looking street kids and introduces them as the
stars of tomorrow.

Anonymity, the fear of it and the desire for it are the respective subjects
of his two best roles, Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's "Secret Honor" and
Sydney, the Las Vegas gambler, in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Hard Eight." In
Anderson's film, Hall gets more out of the role than at first appears to be
there; in Altman's he drags us deeper into the twisted soul of Richard
Nixon than we'd ever dreamed of (or feared) going.

"Secret Honor," written by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone, started out as
a one-man stage show -- starring Hall -- at the Los Angeles Actor's
Theater. Altman made his 1984 film while he was a visiting professor at the
University of Michigan, using students from his class to augment his
production team. In the film, which takes place entirely in Nixon's
wood-paneled San Clemente study, the disgraced former president,
surrounded by portraits of Kissinger, Eisenhower and his beloved mother,
reveals to us "the truth" behind Watergate, the path of "secret honor" he
chose to save the country from fascism. It's the conceit of the playwrights
that Nixon's entire political career was stage-managed by the shadowy
Committee of 100, a group of obscenely rich businessmen who used Nixon as a
puppet to increase their wealth and power. Watergate, in the play's scheme,
was devised by Nixon himself in order to get himself ousted from the
presidency and thus save the country from the Committee's master plan: a
third term in which to prolong the Vietnam War, thus earning huge kickbacks
from military aid to Saigon.

What keeps "Secret Honor" from being conspiracy theory nonsense is that
Freed and Stone's Watergate revisionism also works perfectly as a product
of Nixon's paranoia. This could be the self-justification of the Checkers
speech, the invasion of Cambodia, the Saturday Night Massacre -- a delusion
on an appalling grand scale. Sweating and disheveled, drunk and ranting as
he attempts to convince us that he destroyed himself in order to save
America, Hall's Nixon is an obscene caricature of a public figure who was
obscene to begin with. Wandering his study in a red velvet smoking jacket,
swilling Chivas, he's unable to finish a sentence, let alone a thought.
Shame fights it out with vehemence as he vows revenge on his enemies,
kneels before his mother's portrait, collapses into fits of wheezing
laughter or subsides into sudden teary interludes of reflection. All of
Nixon seems here, the maudlin self-pitier of his farewell to the White
House staff ("My mother was a saint") and the foul-mouthed schemer of the
tapes. As we watch this Nixon he watches himself -- on a bank of security
monitors whose blurry gray images start to merge in your head with all the
images of the public Nixon until it seems that we're seeing the madman that
always seemed to lurk beneath his Uriah Heep visage.

Hall can become Nixon as a more famous actor (like Anthony Hopkins)
can't because he brings so few associations to the role. The power of
Hall's performance (and it's one of the most stunning pieces of screen
acting of the last 30 years) is how it begins to suck you into Nixon's view
of himself as a Horatio Alger gone wrong. Hall brings out both the hatred
that was always present in Nixon's descriptions of his humble origins and
the defensiveness those origins always provoked in him. None of this keeps
Hall's Nixon from being desperately funny. "Secret Honor" is perhaps the
most scurrilous movie portrait of any public figure ever, manna for Nixon
haters, and yet it manages a disgusted sympathy. And that perhaps is its
final proof of the twisted, insidious political genius of its subject --
that Dick Nixon can trick you into contemplating sympathy for someone as
contemptible as himself.

Sydney, the hero of "Hard Eight," craves the fate that petrifies Nixon: to live among the shadows, unnoticed. And yet he can't help but be noticed. He's too much of a gentleman. How could his unassuming decency and formality -- as when he tells a cocktail waitress that she doesn't have to flirt with him in order to earn a tip -- not call attention to itself in the midst of Las Vegas' showy vulgarity? And yet his kindness may hide a lurking threat. "Never ignore a man's courtesy," he says sternly at the movie's beginning, and we're caught off-guard, not knowing if we're hearing the hurt of spurned generosity or the coldness of someone who stores up every slight.

We find out. But despite Anderson's revelation of Sydney's motives, Hall still seems to be creating a new archetype in the role: the ordinary enigma. Every line in Hall's face, every sleepless night you can read in his eyes, suggests that Sydney has paid for every bit of knowledge he's picked up over the years, that knowing exactly who he is (and what he's capable of) has exacted a price. Yet, it's not hard to believe that he's still decent enough to want to impart some of his knowledge and help John (John C. Reilly, with his mashed face and trusting, hangdog stare), a young drifter who, when Sydney first encounters him, has been trying to win at blackjack to pay for his mother's funeral. That empathy extends to Gwyneth Paltrow, exuding a spacy forlornness as Clementine, the waitress and sometime-hooker John impulsively marries.

"Hard Eight" is a film noir, though what makes it one of the most accomplished debuts in recent American movies is that Anderson aims higher than the bloody flashiness that draws most young filmmakers to the genre. His long takes and extended scenes give his cast time to explore their characters, and they're all terrific. But this is Hall's movie, and in the end it all comes down to Sydney's line, "Never ignore a man's courtesy," which, in the course of "Hard Eight," functions as solid advice, a threat, a plea and an elegy for all the unnoticed men that Philip Baker Hall has made it his business to notice.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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