In any given year, if you were to randomly stroll into a movie theater without knowing what you were seeing, there’s a damn fine chance Philip Baker Hall may grace the screen at some point during the film. Seriously, this guy has been in so much, it’s practically cruel to narrow his career down to just six essential roles. But narrow we shall.
Philip Baker Hall is the essential scene stealer. He pops up a handful of times each year, and steals scenes from A-listers without breaking a sweat. A few directors have been smart enough to cast Hall as the lead, and with his trademark red, sunken eyes, short stature and raspy, slurred speech, there’s simply no forgetting a Hall performance, no matter the amount of time he’s on.
Secret Honor (1984)
What do you need to pull off a movie that stars nothing more than a shamed President, a revolver and a bottle of Scotch? A solid script, sure. A skilled director, no doubt. But chiefly, you need an actor who is willing to go all in, which is exactly what Hall did for his first starring movie role.
Playing Tricky Dick in a way we haven’t seen before or since, Hall completely embodies one of America’s most infamous leaders in Robert Altman’s risky little drama. The truth is, during the course of this 90-minute film, Hall is ordered to effectively ride a roller coaster of character arcs. His Nixon is up and down, angry and remorseful, vengeful and tired – hell, you name it. It’s a powerhouse performance that is executed as impressively as it possibly could be. Up until this point, Hall was best known for bit roles in TV shows. Secret Honor got people’s attention in the best possible way. There’s nothing to not admire about this performance.
Hard Eight aka Sidney (1996)
Sadly, after Secret Honor, the roles didn’t flood in for Hall as they should have. He retained steady work in dozens of TV shows and films, but it wasn’t until an overly confident 25-year-old film geek approached Hall and told him he planned on making Hall a star, that Hall’s career really took off. When Paul Thomas Anderson told Hall he was writing a lead character specifically for him, the actor nodded politely and went about his day. Months later, he received the first draft for Sydney, and the rest is history.
Or is it? From the get-go, Sydney was plagued by struggles instituted from an overbearing Rysher Entertainment, who, among other things, demanded that Anderson change the title of his film to something more marketable. But, no matter the demeaning tug of war match Anderson had with the studio, Sydney contains one of Hall’s best performances to date.
Sydney is an aging hustler who comes across a struggling man (John C. Reilly) in a diner and decides to take him under his wing. What starts off as a surrogate father showing his new friend the ropes quickly turns into something far more layered and twisty. Best to keep details hidden, but believe me, Sydney is a fantastic directorial debut containing what many would arguably call the best role of Hall’s career.
Boogie Nights (1997)
Many are aware of the perfect shot that opens Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece, Boogie Nights. The camera starts high in the air, before gently being lowered to street level. Once on the ground, we enter a crowded nightclub and, in one breathtaking shot, are introduced to nearly every major character in the film. Nearly.
What is rarely talked about in Boogie Nights is the seamless introduction of Floyd Gondolli, a pornography producer heavily motivated by the thriftiness of shooting on videotape. As the 1970s come to a close, Gondolli enters Jack Horner’s house once, twice, three times. By cross dissolving four shots together (each passing one getting closer to Gondolli as he enters the house), Anderson let’s the audience know that the film as a new Big Swinging Dick. It’s a simple, wholly effective device that most filmmakers wouldn’t even think of imploring.
Gondolli is a small role, but there is something I find unspeakably amusing about watching Hall surrounded by young porn actors, telling Burt Reynolds: “I’m not a complicated man. I like cinema. In particular, I like to see fuckin’ on film. I enjoy simple pleasures like butter in my ass and lollipops in my mouth.”
Sure, Boogie Nights is chock full of showier performances than this one, but every time I watch it, I so look forward to Gondolli’s grand entrance.
The Insider (1999)
Playing he head of 60 Minutes in a film that chronicles, arguably, the most controversial broadcast 60 Minutes has ever aired is no small feat. On one side, Hall’s Don Hewitt is battling for first amendment rights, on the flip side, he’s going to bat for his network, who fears that airing a story about how cigarettes are indeed addictive may seriously hinder advertising sales.
The Insider is full of dynamic, fierce moments, and in one fantastic scene (which, for the record, is as fine as anything Michael Mann has ever put on the screen), Hall goes toe to toe in a battle of words with Al Pacino. Pacino’s Lowell Bergman accuses Hall of selling out and not fighting for the story. Hewitt argues that, without the business side of things, there is no means to tell the news. It’s an epic dispute filled with fantastic points and razor sharp lines of dialogue.
“You fucked us!” Hall barks at one point.
“No, you fucked you,” Pacino retorts.
Ghostbusters II/The Rock/Air Force One/Enemy of the State/Rules of Engagement/The Sum of All Fears (various years)
Okay, this is an admitted cheat, as I’m mentioning several movies here and not one specific role, but the point is that Philip Baker Hall has made a career out of popping up for a scene or two in heavy handed blockbusters, usually playing some important government operative who says but a sentence or two.
My favorite has got to be his one scene as a Chief Justice in The Rock. He and John Spencer argue in a dark hallway about the benefits and dangers of letting Sean Connery’s character join the troops on the mission to infiltrate Alcatraz.
“And if he hits the streets…” Spencer quietly muses.
“He’s not gonna ‘Hit the streets!’” Hall fires back. “He’s my age. I have to get up three times a night to take a piss!”
These kinds of roles are Hall’s bread and butter, for which we all reap the benefits.
The Best of the Best
This is the second consecutive In Character in which I assert that the subject’s best work is in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. But in watching what Hall does with his incredibly layered performance as Jimmy Gator, there’s simply no way I cannot call it his best.
In nearly every scene Hall has in Magnolia, he’s playing a different role. When we first (briefly) meet him, he’s banging a prostitute out in a crappy hotel room. Next time, he’s playing the confused, sympathetic father to his volcanic daughter, Claudia. When the popular game show host is on the air, he’s happy, charismatic, and completely on point. But alone, hidden behind those impossibly sunken eyes, Gator is a pathetic alcoholic withering away with cancer.
Two scenes in particular stand out for me here: one is Gator’s on-air meltdown, in which he fumbles over his words and gives away the answer to the question he’s just asked, and second is when his wife asks him why their daughter detests him so much. I won’t dare reveal how Hall responds to both situations, but I will safely say that both situations are rooted in a great sadness that only the most skillful actor could implore.
Every single actor in Magnolia does a remarkable job, making it impossible to pick a favorite, but Hall’s guilt ridden angst has never failed to leave me. Jimmy Gator is a tired, washed up, charming, all but dead old man, and Hall has simply never been better.
Other Notable Roles
Say Anything (1989)
The Truman Show (1998)
Cradle Will Rock (1999)
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
The Contender (2000)
Bruce Almighty (2003)
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2004-2009)
Modern Family (2010-2012)
William H. Macy
John C. Reilly