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Secret Honor

22 Mar

Secret Honor –– directed by Robert Altman. One Man Show. Richard Nixon already nuts goes nuts justifying himself. 90 minutes 2005

★★★★★

In a bravura performance Philip Baker Hall gives a rendition so varied, witty, unaccountable, rash that one wonders from start to finish how anything so miraculous could be taking place before one’s very eyes. It’s sort of the Grand Canyon of acting, or maybe Pinnacles, or maybe it is simply beyond compare.

So the fun of it is now, to see what might be wrong with it.

It is actually the record of a stage piece Hall performed in Las Angeles, Ann Arbor, and eventually New York.  And the first thing to note is that the performance is a mite too big for the camera, which is to say that the reality a theatre audience supplies to a piece played in front of its many-eyed multitude, the camera itself asks to suit up differently into its tiny aperture of a lens.

It is not that the stage reality is false, but that in a camera, acting must be supplied in a different way for the audience to complete it — because the movie audience completes acting in a different way than it completes acting on a stage. Here you will see the rubric of stage acting in full panoply, which always sacrifices a degree of reality for the living audience itself to supply, for every stage actor knows that the theatre audience has its own job in telling the story and in competing the character’s reality.

But the camera cannot supply reality. The camera is not human and cannot complete a performance. So the actor must back up and supply it all. With film the audience is not multiple but instead always the audience of one, the camera lens –– and filtered through its tiny glass hole to the audience of one in the parlor or the many-eyed audience in the picture palace, if the actor’s reality cannot be registered as details of breath of which not one is sacrificed, the performance will not register at all –– or shall look monstrous or actorish or bad.

Garbo understood this. Garbo understood that what the camera was seeing was what was happening inside her lower back, and rising up inside her spine and out. It did not matter what her part was or her costume was or her lines were. What Garbo offered was the inner physical location of her ironic soul, not metaphorically but as an actual physical locale in her. And this could be experienced by anyone who saw her, and went on seeing her, despite the falsity of her vehicles.

It is not that the movie actor must play things smaller for the camera lens; not at all; the performer can be very large in his performance. It is rather that movie acting calls upon a different area of the actor’s instrument. Indeed, sometimes the stage performance itself uses the movie-acting set of strings, and when the stage performance is filmed, there is no difference whatever between the two.

In the case of Philip Baker Hall, we have stagecraft acting at its most remarkable. It is not virtuosoism for its own sake, nor is it self-indulgent even once. It is still astonishing. It is flabbergastering. I cannot imagine how he achieved it. But it has not been recast for the more lurid lens of the camera. So one watches it from a distance which one would never be able to sustain watching it in a theatre, without rushing up the aisle and out and calling the cops. In a theatre it would be so strong a performance one must engage with it or die. Hall describes the fact that some theatre audiences would start to sigh when Nixon sighed, pant when he panted, inhaled deeply when that is what Nixon did. Oh, believe me, as a performance it is huge, but its hugeness is not the hugeness of the screen. One sits back in wonder and amazement, a stance one never could have achieved watching this as a live performance in a theatre.

Hall makes no attempt to look like Nixon, except for the always all-important matter of the hair and something hunched at the back of his collar, but one never doubts for a moment that this is Nixon. Nixon who is a madman thinking it is president of the United States, the madness consisting of the fact that that is exactly what he is. He strives to be, he agonizes to imagine that he is the thing he actually is. Nothing could be screwier. Or more disgraceful. We get the whole story in hiatuses. The blurts of a creature who cannot finish a sentence. The manipulator manipulated. And now trying to manipulate himself but only finding a puppet on too many strings as subject. He is pitiful — so pitiful you can’t pity him.

Philip Baker Hall is not a small actor, in the same sense that Edward G. Robinson was not. His personal presence is wide and deep, his voice is singular, rich, meaningful. His face is a conquest of the actors’ needs. He was born to act. If he were cast as a small man, as a nebbish or a creep, he would be a nebbish and a creep, but the work would still be huge. You can prove this to yourself. For in Secret Honor that is exactly how he has been cast. Nixon in the Checkers speech was a little boy begging. And this is Nixon begging to be heard, still begging, begging to be heard by a history which by its hearing him he hopes to revise. This is Nixon at his most disgusting and therefore most real. And therefore almost most forgivable.

Nixon himself was a very bad actor. People voted for him because of that. Kennedy was a very good actor. People voted for him because of that. The only difference between them is that what Nixon actually was was visible behind his atrocious performances before us: a scrambling rat, and with Kennedy his inner drama is completely screened. All of this Philip Baker Hall captures in his capable fist and releases before us with astonishing skill. If you want to see him entirely different in an entirely different role, see him In Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film Hard Eight, which he plays power incarnate, opposite Gwyneth Paltrow and John C. Reilly. In Robert Altman’s Secret Honor he plays power disincarnate. Power deconstructing itself all over the floor. Power trying not to discover that it never existed.

The Special Features are quite fine. Hall gives a long interview. Nixon newsreels show us the poor man – always in flagrante of course –– and Altman himself does the commentary.

The only thing that doesn’t work in Secret Honor is Altman’s use of the video monitors as cutaways from the performance, for it never tells a story or lands as a plus to the character, and besides no cut-aways were needed. Who wants to take one’s eyes off of such a piece of work as Hall with such generous genius provides us?

Otherwise the film is a model of how to capture a stage performance, particularly a one-man show, in a cinematic way such as to erase quite completely its stage locale with an audience watching, and supplant it with a setting so probable and unquestionable that a camera in motion in it can bring before us, without demur and with full distinction, a priceless piece acting art.

 

 

 

 
 
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