The year 2022 is beginning to feel reminiscent of 2016. Not just for looming political turns towards the right and therefore bad, but also for a staggering amount of beloved celebrities and artists leaving us this year, particularly in the world of movies. Since January we’ve lost the following: Peter Bogdanovich, Sidney Poitier, Monica Vitti and Ray Liotta among many others. The latest addition to this alarming number of tragically deceased celebrities is character actor Philip Baker Hall. At the age of 90 it probably shouldn’t come as a shock, but the news of his death still made me sad to say the least. I remember the first time I took notice of him on film was his tiny role in Argo. Since then I started to notice him popping up in various other Hollywood films such as Rush Hour, Zodiac, The Truman Show, The Insider and Midnight Run, and every time he showed up I was happy because something Hall always brought to his roles (possibly due to his age when he started to appear seriously in films) was a sense of genuine authority. It is most likely he will be remembered the strongest for his numerous collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson in films such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia and for his turn as Officer Bookman in a particularly memorable episode of Seinfeld. But one of his earliest film roles, and possibly his first starring role, is one that should not be neglected at the expense of his more mainstream and more accessible work. I am referring to his turn as President Richard Nixon in Robert Altman’s 1984 film Secret Honor.
A film adaptation of the play of the same name by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone (which also starred Hall), Secret Honor details Richard Nixon some time after he resigned office in 1974 as he’s speaking into a recorder, seemingly bracing himself for the inevitable trial awaiting him. As he talks into the recorder, he begins to ramble and lose himself in his own trains of thought that cover most aspects of Nixon’s life: his brothers dying from tuberculosis, his close relationship to his mother, his contempt for the Kennedy brothers for seemingly stealing his win in the 1960 election, his distaste for the Eastern establishment and finally how his government collapsed in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
It is important to note that the film begins with the following disclaimer: “This film is not a work of history or a historical recreation. It is a work of fiction, using as a fictional character, a real person, President Richard M. Nixon – in an attempt to understand.” This little bit of information makes the audience aware right from the start that what they’re about to see won’t be a conventional biopic concerned merely with sticking to historical facts (though plenty of facts remain). Altman, a fierce Nixon critic, was much more interested, it seems, with Nixon’s mind and the fragility of his mental state, especially in those dark days of his post-presidency. It’s a good fit for the eccentric Altman, as he was always drawn to the more off-beat and unusual material compared to most of his contemporaries in Hollywood.
And Altman lives up to his reputation as a true actor’s director in Secret Honor. Altman allowed Hall complete freedom in developing his stage directions and geography for the seven day shoot, after which Altman and his cinematographer Pierre Mignot would work out a way to adapt the cinematography and camerawork to Hall’s performance. And boy, what a performance. In a performance as energetic as anything in a Safdie brothers film, Hall brings us a full range of emotions from calm to upset, pitiful to pathetic, joyous to sad in such a short yet natural space of time it should be viewed as one of the best performances of the 1980s. There are moments even where Hall starts out on a whole other topic in the middle of a sentence, and often his sentences are incomplete and long-winded. Stuff that people do all the time in real life that one so rarely sees portrayed in historical films that it becomes especially refreshing to see Hall do such good work on that here. As Roger Ebert put it, Hall’s work here is a proper performance of someone acting like a real person rather than an impression.
There were a few times where I felt Secret Honor would make a solid double bill alongside Oliver Stone’s mammoth biopic Nixon from 1995, with Anthony Hopkins portraying the disgraced president. Although neither Hall nor Hopkins share any physical resemblance to the historical Nixon they somehow get his personality and mannerisms right without succumbing to mere impressions. Both films concentrate on his paranoid and fragile state of mind and examine how this is what destroyed him in the end. Both films also make bold statements and accusations aimed at the American political elite (in Secret Honor Nixon mentions Henry Kissinger supplying the Shah of Iran with “young boys” on his visits to New York). Additionally, the scores for both Secret Honor and Nixon (supplied by George Burt and John Williams respectively) sound very similar with both scores centering on lowkey piano-driven mood pieces.
Secret Honor is a lowkey film in scale and length, but despite that it becomes a film of great achievement. Robert Altman delivers yet another knockout of a film, and Philip Baker Hall delivers one of his strongest performances as a disgraced man ripping his soul out for all of us to see and remain fascinated by.