In praise of Philip Baker Hall’s performance as Richard Nixon

Robert Altman’s Secret Honor contains the single greatest portrayal of the disgraced former US President.

Words

Taylor Burns

Forget Anthony Hopkins’ career-best work in Oliver Stone’s Nixon; Frank Langella’s to-a-tee turn in Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon; Kevin Spacey’s upcoming portrayal of the titular president in Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon – Philip Baker Hall’s volcanic, amphetaminic performance as the disgraced former POTUS in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor remains the one to beat.

Made at the University of Michigan in 1984 (where Altman was teaching film) while the director was in the middle of his Hollywood exile period; making the kinds of small, low-budget productions (Streamers, Fool for Love) that wouldn’t receive their due until much later, Secret Honor sees a drunk, recently resigned Nixon holed up in his office, dishevelled and with only a bottle of Chivas Regal, a tape recorder and a loaded pistol for company.

Based on Donald Freed and Arnold M Stone’s play of the same name (subtitled ‘The Last Testament of Richard M Nixon’), Secret Honor deviates only slightly from its source, retaining Freed and Stone as screenwriters as well the play’s lead – and indeed only actor – for the role of the heavily fictionalised 37th president. Hall, a first-rate character actor best known these days for his work with Paul Thomas Anderson, was a virtual unknown before his career-making turn here, entering production with a full but largely forgettable filmography comprised mainly of TV movies and the odd episode of shows like Quincy ME or Cagney & Lacey. If he was a relative unknown going in, then coming out he was the actor who’d just delivered the precedent-setting Nixon performance, a tour de force by which all others should be judged.

There were Nixon portrayals before Hall’s, of course, but his remains the truest; not because he necessarily looks and sounds like Nixon (like Hopkins, he hits only the general visual beats) but because he locates the underlying melancholy of the man. So often Nixon – aka “Tricky Dicky”, aka “Slick Rick” – is played either for laughs (see Dan Hedaya in Dick), or for something conversely sinister (see Robert Wiseden in Watchmen), and while these dualities are certainly apt, it remains that there is more to the Nixon mythos than any amount of dick-nosed rubber prosthetics might have you believe. Hall and Secret Honor get that. Indeed, this might be the most sympathetic Nixon film ever made, and while that sympathy only goes so far (a staunch leftie like Altman would never have allowed his film to be misconstrued as pro-Nixon), it ultimately treads a little lighter on Nixon’s soul than many of its succeeding counterparts.

At the centre of all this is Hall’s stunning turn – a raging, delightfully profane, mile-a-minute monologue; a fast and frantic soliloquy delivered by an increasingly drunk, increasingly paranoid, increasingly pathetic Nixon; puncturing his sorrow with brief, schizophrenic flashes of ego and hubris, scything his right arm up into the air constantly like a boxer trying to land an uppercut. Only now the punch has lost its power, and at the end all that’s left is a man convinced that he’s brought himself some time.

That conviction doesn’t last. For every punch – for every trademark finger-wag that Hall so skilfully employs – there is a resignation, as when Nixon admits that all he wanted to do was follow in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln, whose daunting portrait hangs high over Nixon’s wall, along with Washington’s, Eisenhower’s, and Kissinger’s – the latter of whom is accused of being a “whoremaster” who sold young boys to the Shah of Iran – lending the scene a historical pressure the weight of which grows progressively heavier.

This singular portrayal of Richard Nixon has been referred to as many things – Nixon as Lear, Nixon as Macbeth, which he quotes extensively – but it might actually be closer to Nixon as Edgar Allan Poe in ‘The Raven’, with one man slowly descending into madness as he rattles around his chamber, convinced there’s somebody knocking at his door. Hall as Nixon is many things: when he blows childish raspberries he’s a drunk, flatulent uncle in a comedy-of-manners; when he struggles with his office’s technology (a tape-recorder and four TV monitors) he’s the punchline in a deft satire; when he bounces around his office, head on a swivel, he’s a drug-addled fat cat doing coke-bumps at his desk. But more than anything he is the personification of Nixon’s paranoia, a clucking maniac forced to flock the nest.

Chekhov’s Gun states, in a roundabout way, that any gun shown in the first act must be fired in the third. Not so in Secret Honor, where the subversive nature of the film holds, ensuring that Nixon contemplates but never actually attempts suicide-by-pistol. Instead, with Hall’s hair wet with sweat, with his great eyes floating on immense bags, which by now resemble deep coastal shelves, we get Nixon rising to his feet, shooting his arm in the air, shouting valedictory cries of “Fuck ’em!” as we hear distant voices chant an ironic mantra of ‘Four More Years’ in the background.

The spruce-blue TV screens cut to static, our final image of Nixon that of a statue, a relic, a man whom history was ready to leave behind as a pariah. In a way Secret Honor has been left behind too, as a product of Altman’s own time as a recluse. But Hall’s performance, once seen, can never be forgotten; it lingers long after the sinister hiss of the television static has ceased.

Published 21 Jun 2016

Tags: Donald Trump Richard Nixon US Election US President

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