Philip Baker Hall is one of the great American character actors. A firm favourite of Larry David and Paul Thomas Anderson, he is probably best known for his portrayal of library cop Lt Bookman in Seinfeld. The actor moved from New York to Los Angeles in his mid-forties to try and make a career on the big and small screen having worked on the stage for years. In 1984, he played President Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's Secret Honor and delivered one of the most devastating performances in the history of the medium.
Secret Honor started life as a one-man show starring Hall, but Altman was so impressed that he immediately insisted upon directing the film version. The action takes place in Nixon's office at some point after his resignation. The shelves are lined with books and the presence of a four-screen video monitor, ostensibly for security, only serves to increase the sense of claustrophobia.
Nixon turns on his tape recorder and begins to talk. Ninety minutes later, he's finished talking. It is the drunken, desperate monologue of a man attempting to rewrite history and make peace with his mistakes. The portraits of former presidents, his mother and Henry Kissinger that line the walls seem to admonish him at every turn. It is worth noting that Aaron Sorkin, writing about Donald Trump just last week, asked: “What wouldn’t we give to trade this small fraction of a man for Richard Nixon right now?”
There is a sense in which Altman is also playing with his own image. He made the film as part of his filmmaking class at the University of Michigan with many students filling crew positions. The director was a man in exile, isolated and ruminating on former glories, much like the protagonist.
The most credit, however, must go to Hall, in the role that made his name. His Nixon is a pathetic figure but we cannot fail to empathise with his plight. In a bravura performance of startling intensity, he is neither tragic hero nor comic villain. Paul Thomas Anderson once told the actor this was his favourite movie of all time and it is well worth seeking out in light of last week’s events in America.Reuse content