Thursday, July 12, 2012

In Character: Philip Baker Hall

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.

Five Essential Roles
Secret Honor (1984)
Richard Nixon
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)
Floyd Gondolli
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)
Don Hewitt
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)
Authoritative Old Guy
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
Magnolia (1999)
Jimmy Gator
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
In 50/50
Say Anything (1989)
The Truman Show (1998)
Psycho (1998)
Cradle Will Rock (1999)
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
The Contender (2000)
Dogville (2003)
Bruce Almighty (2003)
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2004-2009)
Zodiac (2007)
50/50 (2011)
Modern Family (2010-2012)

Previous installments of In Character include:
John Cazale
Patricia Clarkson
Cliff Curtis
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
William Fichtner
Brendan Gleeson
Bruce Greenwood
John Hawkes
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
William H. Macy
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
John C. Reilly
Sam Rockwell
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
David Strathairn
Danny Trejo
Shea Whigham
Ray Winstone
Jeffrey Wright

Listen to my podcast on Paul Thomas Anderson!


  1. One of my favorite character actors and certainly an essential in anything involving P.T. Anderson. I hope he gets a small thing in The Master or something substantial. The dude rocks, Sydney is still my favorite performance of his.

    1. He is perfect in Sydney, it's just so clear that the role was written and tailored specifically for him. A fantastic performance. I nearly called that my favorite but Jimmy Gator, man... had to do it.

      That'd be so cool if he got something in The Master.

  2. Wait...he was in Zodiac? Damn, I really need to re-watch that. (In my opinion, he stole every scene in 50/50.)

    1. He was definitely my favorite part of 50/50, no question. And in Zodiac he was the handwriting "expert" who said multiple times that Arthur Leigh Allen could not have been the killer. Small but really good role.

  3. I love the guy. Such a wonderful, talented actor. Though his performance in Magnolia didn't gut punch me as much as Jason Robards or Julianne Moore in that film, he is still damn good and the scene on the game show where he stammers and collapses is simply heartbreaking. There's one shot of him staring and regarding young Stanley Spector who is melting down so soon after he did, and the look in his eyes and on his old, weathered face as he says "I don't know, Stanley" absolutely knocks me cold.

    Hall is so good in any movie he's in. Hard Eight is another great choice, he has so many perfect moments there too. I hope P.T. Anderson casts him in another film soon because he's absolutely wonderful under P.T.A's guidance.

    I really need to see Secret Honour, too.

    It was a real treat seeing him in a couple of episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm (my favourite show still playing on TV) as Larry's disgruntled doctor. Comedy isn't exactly his forte but he does a great job on that show.

    1. I love that shot you mentioned of him in Magnolia. There he is, supporting himself by leaning against that older female contests, barely able to stand. Such flawless work there.

      I LOVED him in Curb. And yeah, I don't think humor is his thing, but he played that doctor so perfectly dry... it just worked. Glad to hear you're a PBH fan!

  4. Oh man, I love this guy. To me, he will always be the library detective Mr. Bookman from Seinfeld. One of my all-time favorite characters from that show. It was great to see him reappear in Curb Your Enthusiasm as well.

    Awesome spotlight, man!

    1. Thanks! He was so memorable in his brief turn on Seinfeld... really glad LD remembered him when casting those few Curb episodes. PBH is the man... he's been around forever and I certainly hope he doesn't leave anytime soon.

  5. You are right, he is exactly the type of actor who shows up twice/year in a movie, but completely steals it and shows the "A listers" what acting is all about. I love his Magnolia performance, especially the last scene of him, with his wife.

    1. Ah, that scene is just devastating, isn't it? Sitting there, with his shirt unbuttoned, drinking his bourbon. So so sad.

  6. he just popped up for a quick role in the newsroom last week.

  7. Alex, it's great to see Philip Baker Hall spotlighted. His presence is always welcome, even in more standard fare. The Insider and Magnolia are excellent parts, but I have to give the edge to Hard Eight. I loved seeing him in the lead role, and he created an interesting and complex guy.

    1. Thanks Dan! I was THIS CLOSE to calling Sydney his best role. Either way, he and PTA do great things together.

  8. You are spot on with him appearing out of nowhere - I'm watching 50/50 - bam! - he is there. I'm watching Modern Family and then again - bam - he is there. I really like that he puts his heart in each of those performances - there are so many actors who just want to cash in the paycheck but he actually delivers his best work.

    1. Ha, you're -bams- were too funny. That's a really good point about him never cashing in on a role; he really does put everything he has into whatever he's playing.

  9. Duuuude! I love this guy, he rox my sox.

    Magnolia and Insider are his meatiest, showiest roles, but yeah, he adds so much by doing so little in bit parts. That weary face of his makes him stand out so much.

    Every time I see him, though, he looks OLD. Then I see him again later, and he looks even older. How does he go from old to older in every film? Dude's gotta be 100 by now.

    Good work, man. Respect.

    1. Ha thanks man. And you are so right about him just looking old. You see him in Hard Eight and you're like, "Damn, dude is old." Then you see him in 50/50 and you're just wondering how he's still going. But thank god he still is. Dude rox indeed!

  10. One movie you probably haven't seen is a small Maine movie titled Islander. Hall sort of plays an Authoritative Old Guy in this film, too, but in this case he's a lobster boat owner who's trying to steer a younger man in the right direction. It's probably not one to watch just to see Hall in it, but it's a good movie.

    1. Nice, thanks for the recommendation, Chip. I haven't heard of Islander, but I'll definitely keep my eye out for it now.

  11. Not a The Talented Mr. Ripley fan?