One of the first times I saw a performance by Philip Baker Hall – the beloved actor who died at the enviable age of 90 on Sunday – was when the season three episode first aired. of Seinfeld, called “The Library”. The plot, very briefly, involves Jerry discovering that he owes a large debt to the New York Public Library for a book he failed to return in the 1970s. Hall plays Mr. Bookman, the policeman from the library, which interrogates Jerry and treats his work as if he were Joe Friday solving murders and other such serious crimes. I doubt many who know this revered TV show would disagree with me when I say that Hall’s work in this episode is arguably the funniest guest appearance in its nine seasons. . You can see Seinfeld trying to hold back his laughter when Hall turns to him and says, “You think this is all a big joke, don’t you? or puts his finger in Jerry’s face and says, “Well, let me tell you something.” , funny boy!” and “Well, I’ve got a flash for you, joy boy!” I could quote his lines all day, but those lines wouldn’t work half as well if Hall winked an times, played him as anything other than straight forward. Hall’s Mr. Bookman is a masterpiece of comedic acting.” Before Bookman, my agent was like, ‘Well, they really liked your work, they really like, but they don’t think you’re cut out for it,'” Hall said in an interview with the audiovisual club. “After Bookman, no doors were closed to me in the industry.”
Which is interesting, because outside of a few well-known performances, I don’t believe Hall was normally considered an actor who specialized, even occasionally, in comedy. But in fact he did. Hall began his film career in 1970, but didn’t get a real break until 1984, when he appeared as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman’s adaptation of the Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone play. . secret honor. It was during Altman’s years in the desert, after HEALTH and popeye tanked, and before The player gave it new life. The film begins with Hall’s Nixon laying a loaded gun on his desk and ends with him shouting “Fuck ’em!” in the camera. Between these images is a one-man show, with Hall recording Nixon’s infamous tapes into a microphone (the text is not a transcript, but rather a fictional print). It’s a raging, stuttering, wildly paranoid performance, with such sweaty energy, almost from the start, that looking at Hall, you might wonder if either of you can handle this for 90 minutes. Because it’s really just Hall onscreen, no other actors are involved. But Hall is utterly fascinating: funny, empathetic to the tragedy of man, and tireless. Tireless, but exhausted. As the film ends, as crazy as his Nixon gets, Hall imbues this mania with a hidden fatigue that makes it seem like after shouting obscenities at us, he could very well sleep for two days straight.
In his review of secret honor (from which only quotes are available online), Pauline Kael, not going past either the first or the last time, described Hall’s performance as “a feat of acting by a man who is probably not a great actor” . She would be wrong many times over the years to come, as Hall’s talents were increasingly sought after by filmmakers who knew a good thing when they saw her. Although it would be some time before he landed another leading role, Hall continued to star consistently and memorably in films such as three hours high (1987) and midnight race (1988), in which he plays a lawyer unable to quell the violent instincts of his mob boss client. Like most working actors, Hall’s roles regularly alternated between television and film, until 1993 when things changed significantly for him.
That year, Paul Thomas Anderson directed a short film titled Cigarettes & Coffee, which starred Philip Baker Hall as an aging and veteran Reno player named Sydney. This film caused a bit of a stir and was accepted at Sundance, which led Anderson to extend it to his first feature, titled hard eight (1996). The film is about Sydney, who seems, at first, to randomly meet John (John C. Reilly), who recently lost almost all of his money in casinos. John wanted to earn money to bury his mother, and Sydney, as a gambler who knows the ropes, offers to at least help him survive for a while. The plot eventually turns into a kind of noir about guilt and redemption, with Sydney’s sadly dark past involving a sweet, but desperate and brash prostitute named Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), whom John falls in love with and makes very bad decisions, starring, and Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), a low-level con man who discovers Sydney’s secrets and threatens to expose them to John.
Nowadays, hard eight is widely considered the least of Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmographies, which, given that it includes films like there will be blood, The master, and so on, I suppose is as objectively true as such estimates can get. But that’s not to say it’s not terribly engrossing, and it certainly doesn’t mean Philip Baker Hall’s Sydney is anything short of a stellar work. In the comments track on the hard eight DVD, Anderson, not coincidentally an Altman sidekick, calls Hall his “favorite actor in the whole world” and “the great American actor.” Anderson also says that apart from secret honor and a few other roles, he believed most of the work Hall did was below him. Well, Anderson gave Hall a worthy role. I remember when I saw the movie, I wanted my dad to watch it. Our tastes didn’t always match, but I had a feeling about this one, and after looking at it, my dad said, “I kept thinking, ‘Who is this guy?’ “That is, Sydney, and only Hall could make the mystery of that character so naturalistic and compelling.
There is, I suppose, an irony in the fact that Anderson was first drawn to Hall by the actor’s flamboyant performance in secret honorbecause his performance in hard eight is so calm, so discreet, everything is under the surface and behind his eyes. As good as Hall’s co-stars are, next to him they seem to be giving performances. Hall is just Sydney. Probably my favorite scene in the whole movie is when the almost terminally naive John introduces Jimmy to Sydney at a casino in Reno. Sydney is sitting alone when the two introduce themselves. Sydney immediately dislikes the brash, arrogant, and rude Jimmy, mostly because Jimmy says something lustful to a waitress. After Sydney calmly asks Jimmy to keep such comments to himself, Jimmy protests that the waitresses like this kind of talk, and Sydney says, “I just don’t want that coming from my table.” More than any other moment, this line establishes who Sydney is, a playful old school gentleman, perhaps from myth, and Hall’s delivery, with his unique rasp and Basset Hound eyes, somehow adds a hint of threat, a threat, which seals the antagonism between him and Jimmy, and an antagonism which will eventually explode.
hard eight was noticed, but not as much as Anderson’s follow-up, boogie nights (1997), which features Hall in a small role as a pornographer who does not put on the airs of the pornographers who are central to the story. He has some very memorable lines in his brief screen time, let’s just say. Then came Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), in which Hall, part of a large and sprawling ensemble, plays Jimmy Gator, a quizmaster whose vile crimes against his daughter (Melora Walters), as well as his endemic, almost medicinal alcoholism (“I got a lot of booze to do”), combine to make it slowly dissolve over the epic 188-minute run. Hall plays a hateful man, but he plays him as a man who hates himself more than anyone, a man who is silently trying to erase his mind, his memory, and if he dies, then he dies. I don’t know if this performance could be described as empathetic, exactly, but it’s definitely haunting. Hall moves through the final stages of the film like a shadow.
Hall did not work with Anderson again after that. Who knows why. It probably had more to do with the planning or lack of a suitable Hall part than anything else. Regardless, Hall continued to work, both in television and film. He’s in an episode of Calm your enthusiasmfor example, and in David Fincher Zodiac he plays a handwriting expert who is of no help to the homicide detectives trying to find the notorious serial killer. He really never quit, from 1970 to 2020. I hope he quit because he realized he deserved a break. He had done enough. Being one of the great American actors must be exhausting.