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In Secret Honor, Philip Baker Hall Plays Nixon As a Wounded Animal

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Portraying Richard Nixon onscreen can be a risky endeavor. The 37th president remains a deeply compelling character — rife with contradictions and defined by a rise and fall of Shakespearean proportions. But he’s too easily parodied, from his folksy yet sinister manner of speaking and (honestly impressive) widow’s peak to the obvious insecurities lurking just beneath his performative slickness. A thin line separates a successful dramatic portrayal of Nixon from an SNL caricature, so it makes sense when movies and TV shows about Watergate avoid portraying him altogether. That approach dates at least as far back as All the President’s Men (1976), which keeps the former president and his cronies offscreen to make the central conspiracy feel even more vast and menacing.

For reasons understood only by the algorithm, this year marks the release of not one but two Watergate-centric shows: Starz’s Gaslit and HBO’s forthcoming White House Plumbers. The scandal is trendy again, though both shows follow the tradition of decentering Nixon himself, with Gaslit focusing instead on Martha Mitchell and Plumbers highlighting the would-be masterminds behind the break-in at the Watergate building, E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. A wave of new Watergate content is always welcome, but what if you want to spend a little time holed up with old Milhous himself and perhaps watch him drunkenly shout insults at a framed portrait of Henry Kissinger?

Look no further than Secret Honor, Robert Altman’s 1984 film starring the late, great Philip Baker Hall as the former president, which serves as both the definitive onscreen portrayal of Nixon and a monument to Hall’s explosive range as an actor. Adapted from a play by Donald Freed and Arnold Stone, the 90-minute movie finds a disgraced Nixon alone in his study with a bottle of Chivas Regal and a loaded pistol, surrounded by portraits of figures ranging from Abraham Lincoln to the aforementioned Kissinger. A title card introduces the movie as a “political myth” before Nixon launches into a monologue that blends fact and fiction, ranting into a tape recorder about everything from his impoverished childhood to the haters who wronged him. As he cycles through the various facets of his personality, Nixon mounts a defense of his actions, claiming he was the puppet of a shadowy cabal of power brokers. He calls Watergate the “tip of the iceberg” and claims to have defended America from a far more insidious conspiracy. As Nixon details this invented history, the movie attempts to get at deeper truths of how the former president viewed himself and to arrive at a portrait that Altman called “truthful, not factual.”

While Secret Honor plays with themes Altman revisited in other projects (the corruptible nature of institutions and the blurring of lines between entertainment and politics), the movie remains a bit of a curio in his filmography and likely wouldn’t exist at all if he hadn’t found himself in the midst of a career slump in the early ’80s. Cast out of Hollywood after the twin failures of Popeye and HealtH in 1980, Altman turned to theater for inspiration and eventually saw Hall in a Los Angeles production of Secret Honor directed by Robert Harders. After directing a run of the play himself Off Broadway (also starring Hall), Altman pieced together the resources necessary for a film adaptation. Stripped of the studio budgets he once commanded, he opted to shoot the film at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he was a visiting professor and could secure both cheap, nonunion student labor and a building to shoot in. After shortening the play and assembling some of his usual collaborators (including cinematographer Pierre Mignot and his own son, production designer Stephen Altman), the director left the heavy lifting up to Hall, who had already fine-tuned his performance onstage.

“I normally weigh about 160 pounds; during the Nixon thing, I went down to 127,” Hall later said of the strenuous production process. Over the course of the seven-day shoot, Altman made the actor do take after take of 15-minute stretches of his monologue, and the exhaustion shows in the performance. Hall’s Nixon is a wounded animal — difficult not to pity even as he lashes out in every direction. Notably, Hall (who died earlier this week at the age of 90) doesn’t look much like Nixon in the movie, nor does he try too hard to approximate the Voice, but the performance works because he maneuvers so believably through the character’s contradictory qualities, loudly boasting of his accomplishments before digressing into uncomfortable sidebars on his sexual insecurities. Hall seems manically intent on making every line sing, and he succeeds even when asked to bellow, “They did not call me ‘Iron Butt’ in law school for nothing!”

For a low-budget adaptation of a one-man play that was filmed at a university, Secret Honor has had, in some ways, an outsize impact. For one, it deepened a young Paul Thomas Anderson’s appreciation for Hall, who eventually did some of his best work in Anderson movies like Hard Eight and Magnolia. And while Altman’s career didn’t fully bounce back until The Player (1992), Secret Honor did help him get some revenge on his haters, according to an anecdote he tells in his director’s commentary. When The Player came out, Altman says, he noticed a review in the New York Observer that chastised him for making a satire so critical of the Hollywood studio system that had made him successful. The writer, he noticed, was David Kissinger, Henry’s son. Altman wrote him a letter, apologizing that he didn’t like the movie and suggesting that he check out an earlier work of his: Secret Honor.

Streaming on the Criterion Channel
In Secret Honor, Philip Baker Hall Plays a Manic Nixon