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.





Swimming To Cambodia

17 May

Swimming To Cambodia — directed by Jonathan Demme.  Docudrama. Spalding Grey performs his monologue about his experiences in Bangkok as a movie actor filming The Killing Fields. 82 minutes. Color. 1987.


There sits Spalding Grey in his usual plaid workshirt and jeans with a glass of water and a 5 & 10 spiral notebook and delivers his remarkable take on his life and mind. He is quite beautiful, and the director keeps close up on him, even though he is delivering it, supposedly, in the small space of New York’s Performing Garage. Actually the film is more than a record of a well-rehearsed performance piece, for it includes lighting effects and process shots not offered when one saw it in person. But that’s all right. Also all right are The Killing Fields clips themselves. It’s not a gag-driven monologue, although it is always humorous and sometimes even funny. It is, rather, a crazy education imparted professorially, for he maintains himself seated, dignified in all his indignity and indignation, behind the lecture barrier of the little table. We are being taught something. We all need this restraint placed upon someone who is after all tearing out his hair. For what is interesting is Grey’s fine madness. Which consists of what drives him nuts about himself and the world he inhabits, in this case the international political zoo of the 70s, when Nixon personally put America to a secret war against the Khmer Rouge in Northern Cambodia. Grey is involved in the massacre, and he is also involved in living, concurrent with it, the voluptuous life of a Hollywood production expense account, which also takes him to the wild and pristine beaches of the Indian Ocean, where he swims unto death. Why should we be interested in this? Because Grey is not a moron and is not pretending to a popular simplicity. He is a middle class, middle aged guy whose neuroses are such that they lead him, as neuroses often do, to the truth. He is a responsive actor and he is a telling mimic. And he is willing, for some reason, to experience, before our eyes, excruciation. One is aware, as he does this, that he does this every night, night after night, for an audience to which he would suggest his own resemblance. This is also part of his madness. For it includes our madness in going to see him, night after night, and as we watch we are aware of our own intrusive continued presence at this witty crucifixion. A college graduate. Yes. Literate. Yes. With good diction. Yes. And sane with insanity. If that troubles you, stay away. If it does not trouble you, then you can stand being troubled by his trouble. Just as you can stand being troubled by that of Garrison Keillor, who has the power to entertain you in just the same vein, you see.


The Rules Of The Game: Pirandello

13 Apr

The Rules Of The Game : Pirandello– Directed by Stephen Porter – Tragedy. A married woman prefers to live like a kept woman, and the consequences are dire. 87 minutes Color 1975.

* * * * *

The Nobel Prize winning Luigi Pirandello is my favorite playwright. And the reason for that is that his dramas hinge on the machinery of the human psyche and how its truth forces inner roles into becoming outer roles. Here we have a frivolous and capricious woman, a love-tease and a sex-tease, who can’t abide her husband and so lives away from him. She has a courter, well played by David Dukes, who may or may not be her lover, but who is devoted to his fascination with her, as is her husband, the lover’s close friend. One evening a trio of drunk playboys barges into her apartment thinking it is a bordello and molests her until her maid rouses the neighbors (among whom you will find Glenn Close). She then decides, as a dirty trick to play on him, that her husband must avenge her. What are the forces afield inside these individuals? What is really there? What makes all these plot developments inevitable? Why is the servant sure that his master will have breakfast at 7:30; is he a fool? Joan Van Ark misplays the wife as actressy, which throws the menge-a-trois-blanc into the realm of a shrug: how could anyone be attracted to this phony? But John McMartin plays the husband superbly. Mildred Dunnock once said to me that McMartin was an actor who played everything the same way. Which meant that he had a trick vocal lever he always pulled. Certain actors have such a lever: Sandy Dennis, for instance, Gloria Graham: they are always the same because they mechanize their voices. McMartin does not pull his usual lever here, and his remarkable voice and technique hold him in good stead. So as not to be confused with Jean Renoir’s film masterwork The Rules Of The Game, this translation might better have been titled The Rules Of Play. Still, beautifully directed by Stephen Porter and costumed by Nancy Potts, it’s a blessing to have rare, star, stage productions, such as this, preserved.



The Merry Wives Of Windsor

01 Mar

The Merry Wives Of Windsor – Directed by David Hugh Jones – Low Oomedy. A fat old reprobate tries to seduce two wealthy wives. 120 minutes Color 1982

* * * * *

Here we have one of the greatest recordings of a Shakespeare play ever set down. And yet it is of one of WS’s thorniest scripts. Like Henry V it is tortured with a melange of voices in Latin, French, Welsh, and German, making the script monstrously hard to parse! But it wasn’t written to be read, but to be acted, and WS understood the rubric of acting like no one else, so that in the bodies of the actors it comes alive here, understandable here, priceless here. The sixteen shifts of mood in one character’s speech on the page are gibberish, but in the craft of the great Elizabeth Spriggs as Mistress Quickly, we have a masterpiece of human truth and humor, a performance of genius. Each minor character here is enacted, embodied, played to full measure. They are characters with no history, for their history lives in the exact present entirely. The piece is a proving ground for its players, led by Judy Davis’ Mistress Ford and Ben Kingsley as her frenetically jealous hubby Frank Ford. Prunella Scales’ performance as Mistress Page gets lost and monotonized behind its regionalism, but its energy is right on the money. Richard Griffiths we have recently seen in The History Boys plays Falstaff. Now this was made 25 years ago, so our actors are in their twenties (i.e. Alan Bennett) , and perhaps Griffiths is too young for the part in the sense that he wants merriment. TMMOW is a play, unlike Henry IV 1 & 2. In those plays Falstaff is driven by a lust for zest; here he is driven by a lust for money through lust, and it’s not that he is just too old and too fat, which he is, he is also just too ridiculous to score. This complicates the part, and Griffiths makes him a little more downbeat than one wants him to be. A little less of an unmoored balloon. A little less of a roguish liar. Still, when he thinks he has finally achieved the bosom of Mistress Ford, and utters the jubilant line, “Let the sky rain potatoes!” we are in a world of comedy unparalleled. The odd attic setting and the inn and the house of Ford and Caius and all the costumes and wigs and make-up are fabulous. If you love Shakespeare or want to learn to love Shakespeare, dive in.



Dame Edna’s Christmas

21 Feb

Dame Edna’s Christmas – Filmed Stage/TV comedy. The Great Lady Of Australia levels her variety show at the holidays. 110 minutes color 1987

* * * * *

Our always gracious Dowager of Devastation cascades her condescension from Australian Heights (which are perhaps not very high) onto the masochistic pates of us lesser beings, and we, her subjects laugh in the aisles with gratitude. Fast on the draw, she makes mincemeat of one and all for Christmas, in a combination of egregious sentimentality (Possums, gladioli!) and facial expressions that would make the Boulder Dam giggle. She ranks with Milton Berle as one of the greatest cross-dressers in show business history. The writhings of her upper lip alone will reduce one to the carpet. If you think this is supposed to have anything to do with Christmas, spare yourselves the delusion. On the one hand she spurns bathroom humor with prissy disgust and on the other commits every double-entendre she can locate. Her essential send-up is Celebrity. What we offer to it, what it is reduced to, the lies that lie behind it, and the tripe it really is. God bless Dame Edna on this and all subsequent Christmases from today until the end of Auntie Domine!  To all, a good night.



The Journey Of The FIfth Horse

28 Jan

The Journey Of The Fifth Horse – directed by Larry Arrick – Drama. The diary of a timorous lover falls into the hands of a small-minded bureaucrat. 120 minutes, black and white, 1966.

* * * * *

There are some actors who are before us because of what they are, and there are some actors who are before us because of what they do. Dustin Hoffman is an example of the latter. As an actor he is a technocrat. What he does is perhaps not without daring, but it is not the same sort of daring that a circus performer undergoes, which takes courage, but rather the sort of sniffing daring of a rat coming out of wainscoting after dark. He seems to be without heart and without humor. He seems to be before us to show off. And what he is showing off is his craft, which he would call his art, but which is not. Sometimes it works. Rainmaker and Tootsie were times it did not work. But this is one of the times it works like crazy. As a cold, calculating, loveless, egomaniacal, self-centered fussbudget obsessive he is perfectly cast. The play by Ronald Ribman comes from Turgenev’s Diary of a Superficial Man in which the factotum of a publisher, Hoffman, reads and responds to the journal of a heartbroken man. The man is played by Michael Tolan who does yeoman service in the role; Tolan is a handsome man who plays a shy man who has never loved or been loved before. It’s hard to understand his devotion, however, for the actress who plays her gives a performance as bland a piece of white bread with the crust cut off. But never mind: this record of an NET record of an off-Broadway production exists because of the performance of the then-unknown Hoffman: his picking lice off his little bald spot, the cormorant-like forward crick of his neck, his virtuosoism with the locks on his door, his monotonous persistent chuckle, the mechanical washing of his hands, the beetle-like whine of his voice, the default position of his nastiness create a Dickensian monstrosity more closely allied in style, and correctly, with European or Japanese acting traditions and methods. Fascinating if you like to watch the iceman at work. He won the Obie for this, and deserved it.



Story Theater

04 Dec

Story Theatre – directed by Paul Sills – a theater documentary of comedies of folk and fairy tales played out by grown-up actors.

90 minutes color 1969

* * * * *

This piece was a fill-in during a union strike at Yale. Paul Sills was then developing a form of theatre in which folk tales and short stories would be partly enacted and partly told. It was worked up quickly and it is presented with high professional finesse. I actually saw it in New Haven at the Yale Theatre, and it was a lot of fun. Mildred Dunnock is a master of her craft. It was once said of her that she knew so much about acting that it had become innocent again. She plays a wiley teenager, Clever Gretchen, and of course she is in her 70s when she does this. In any case her physical touch on the part is entrancing – light, deft, completely malicious, crafty, real. Interviews with the cast interlace the stories, and what Mildred Dunnock has to say about how to play a witch is worth millions to any actor called upon to play anything. A fascinating creature, who got sexier as she got older – as both Warren Beatty and Marlon Brando said of her. This is a  good clean light film suitable for the whole family.


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