Defending Your Life: Philip Baker Hall in Secret Honor

Defending Your Life: Philip Baker Hall in <em>Secret Honor</em>

If Richard Milhous Nixon, the thirty-sixth president, continues to inspire a morbid fascination in some of us, the reasons for this extend beyond the obviously exceptional aspects of his career—his reelection in 1972, one of the largest landslide victories in American political history; the ignoble, skulking exit from the White House; the drip of ghostly recordings from beyond the grave. In contrast to the Oval Office’s current occupant, so transparent in his appetites and governing drives, Nixon had furtive multitudes hidden within him, contradictions that can only partway be explained as base, two-faced hypocrisy.

This was a man who authorized the covert bombing of Cambodia, and whose headstone in Yorba Linda, California, reads, “The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.” Classmates at the Duke University School of Law remember Dick as a true liberal aghast at the abuses in the pre–Civil Rights south, while the tale of the tape has the president telling H. R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, “I have the greatest affection for them [black people], but I know they’re not going to make it for 500 years.” Given to splenetic profanity and savage slander, he styled himself publicly as a gentleman of refinement. On The Jack Paar Program in 1961, Nixon, an able ivory tickler, performs his own “Piano Concerto #1,” accompanied by “fifteen Democratic violinists.” At the Richard Nixon Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, a display shows the contents of the president’s office in Saddle River, New Jersey, presumably as they were at the time of his death in 1994, and I am haunted by the detail that he apparently left unfinished a biography of Gustave Flaubert by Henri Troyat.

A decade earlier, seeing via a Variety announcement that he was soon to be subject of a film by Robert Altman called Secret Honor, Nixon sent the filmmaker a telegraph, later paraphrased by the film’s lead actor, Philip Baker Hall: “Dear Mr. Altman, I’m a great fan of your films and I have always been. I particularly like M*A*S*H.” Per Hall, the telegraph contains a not-so-hidden message: “Nixon, in his way, would write a letter—like, ‘Don’t hurt me, I’m just a nice guy who likes you.’ That’s what we take to be the subtext. It’s a good demonstration of the kind of odd cleverness of Nixon’s life and career. He’s saying one thing and trying to get a different result.”

There were many Richard Nixons, and Hall’s manic interpretation shows at least a few dozen wrestling for control: the braggart, the underdog, the scrapper, the supplicant, the statesman, the momma’s boy. Hall, who would in years to follow become a much in-demand character actor for film and television, was fifty-three years old when Secret Honor had its first public screenings—almost twenty years younger than Nixon, but still very far from being a male ingenue with his baleful, hangdog expression; the low, doleful timbre of his voice; and the capacious bags beneath his eyes. He was born at the height of the Depression in 1931 in Toledo, Ohio, and raised in what he described as slum conditions in the north side of the city. As a child he performed a magic act around town, then toured Ohio and Michigan as a teenager with an Al Jolson routine. After attending the University of Toledo, he was drafted and stationed, serving as a translator, in Germany, where he married before returning to the Buckeye State to work as a high school teacher and radio announcer. He was thirty before he tried in earnest to make a career as an actor, first in New York, then in California. Years later he would recall an agent out west, apprising his prospects: “what I see is a middle-aged guy, not especially good-looking, short, over forty.”

An unlikely star, as Nixon imagined himself, Hall is quite literally the whole show here, addressing himself in monologue to a tape recorder and an unseen amanuensis named “Roberto” as he pours and downs glass after glass of Chivas Regal, becomes increasingly sozzled, and careens on an emotional bumper-car ride that snaps between self-pity, angry defiance, and grim hilarity. The film takes place entirely inside a study that has the character of a bunker—presumably this is Saddle River, where Nixon and Pat had set up residence by the middle 1980s, though only black shows through the windows, and the scene has something of the air of the besieged Führerbunker. (In fact, in 1984 Hall would also play Hitler in Los Angeles’s Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s production of Christopher Hampton’s The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H.) The president’s only companions are the oil paintings on the walls, depicting the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower, Woodrow Wilson, and a much-berated Henry Kissinger; a few framed memento photographs; and his own image, reproduced on a bank of four video monitors hooked up to a network of closed-circuit television cameras, including one in the room. It’s a portrait of a man alone, a mutt chasing his own tail, self-flagellating and self-aggrandizing. As cabin feverish quarantine viewing goes, you could do worse. 

The form of the monologue is that of a defense, presented to an invisible court and its presiding Your Honor, in the interest of gaining exoneration and rehabilitation. In the course of mounting his defense, Nixon falls repeatedly into rambling digressions, swept up into harangues or pulled down into teary reflection. In the jumble of words, fragments of Nixon’s personal and public history rush past, a fractured, a-chronological autobiography: the hardscrabble early years in Yorba Linda, the toll of tuberculosis on the family, the forming of the Orthogonian society at Whittier College, the hand-selection to run for a seat in California’s 12th congressional district, and then the political ups and downs. To these known facts Hall’s Nixon adds another layer, the president’s revelation of a conspiracy that, as he tells it, shadowed his political career from the outset, his defiance of which should leave him remembered by posterity not as a Dirty Trickster but as a martyr who’d delivered the Republic from the hands of both communist and fascist totalitarianism. 

Placed alongside the implausible facts of Nixon’s career, this feels almost credible. Should we interpret it as the shocking true revelation of a cabal of power brokers’ vast conspiracy, or as the elaborate self-justification of a guilt-ridden, shamed public figure looking to unload blame? If the latter, what cause has the president to keep up the charade away from the public eye, addressing only himself and the unseen Roberto? This question, though, presumes that a wholly private Nixon still exists. Altman and Hall’s president is a pure creature of the media, a persona called “Richard Nixon” created over the course of forty years. His national audience gone, Narcissus Nixon is left to address his own mediated image. After a lifetime’s campaigning, the mask has nearly become the face, and the president shifts jarringly between scotch-squiffed boyo and statesman. The opening titles label Secret Honor a “Political Myth,” but this could refer to any number of myths that thicken the air of the presidential redoubt as Nixon rambles on: the myth of the poor-boy-made-good-up-by-his-bootstraps, the myth of Peace with Honor, the myth of “the little people . . . Maggie and Jiggs,” the myth of the patriot who sacrificed all for his country. Nixon’s myths sustain him, and by now they bore him to tears. He can’t get through the Checkers speech without blowing a raspberry.

Secret Honor belongs to an ongoing examination in Altman’s work of the inextricable relationship in American culture between entertainment and politics, which runs through Henry Gibson’s performance of “200 Years” at the beginning of Nashville (1975) and into Altman’s other supreme accomplishment of the 1980s, the Garry Trudeau–written campaign trail miniseries mockumentary Tanner ’88 (1988), which in large part revolves around Pirandellian slippages between the private and public—or authentic and manufactured—personages of Michael Murphy’s presidential hopeful. “There’s no TV screen here,” Murphy’s Tanner is told at one point by a constituent disappointed that she’s receiving the prerehearsed, sound-bite treatment—the constituent none other than actress Rebecca De Mornay, playing herself, at a Hollywood poolside fundraiser.

Beginning its existence as a stage production, Secret Honor is in the fullest sense a work of political theater—or the theatricality of politicians. The tape recorder suggests Beckett’s Krapp, a loaded revolver on the president’s desk, Chekhov’s rifle, but the key reference is Shakespeare. The “Shakespearean” dimension of Nixon has been discussed to the point of cliché—the usual reference is to Richard III, while Jean-Luc Godard offered the president $500,000 to appear opposite Norman Mailer in his King Lear (1987). Secret Honor’s writers, Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone, however, give us a Nixon who imagines himself Hamlet, even having played the part in a high school theatrical. (“Dr. Birdsell, my dramatic coach in school, always said that I was the most melancholy Dane that he had ever directed.”) As with the Dane, it is never clear where this Nixon’s fantasies end and reality begins—as to if he’s but mad north-northwest, or all the way around the bend.

In Secret Honor Altman summons a creative compassion for Nixon, a man whom he despised politically, though admired perhaps in his barnacle-like tenacity, for Altman, like Nixon, had known tremendous successes and reversals. Like Nixon, Altman perceived himself as an outsider, having struggled to break into Hollywood from the precincts of Kansas City. Having once got in the door, he found himself on the fringes again, and Secret Honor was made in a period that might be considered his “wilderness years”—the term used to refer to Nixon’s time in private law practice following his defeats in the 1960 presidential election and the 1962 California gubernatorial race.

Altman was no longer commanding big budgets after the troubled production of Popeye and the drubbing of HealtH (both 1980). He’d sold his studio facility, Lion’s Gate, his home in Malibu Cove, and his BMW. “I feel my time has run out,” he told the New York Times in 1981. “Every studio wants Raiders of the Lost Ark. The movies I want to make are movies the studios don’t want.” Secret Honor belongs to a period when, cast out of Hollywood, Altman was looking toward the stage and television for renewed inspiration. In 1982 he made his New York stage directing debut with 2 by South, two one-acts by new playwright Frank South, and much of his work through the eighties was drawn from theatrical sources, including Sam Shepard and Christopher Durang.

Secret Honor had been written for the stage by Freed and Stone, first directed at the Los Angeles Theatre Center by Robert Harders—billed on the film as associate director—and starring Hall. Altman saw the production in LA and went backstage to propose first taking it to off-Broadway, where he directed its run at the Provincetown Playhouse, then shooting it as a film. The movie would eventually be made on the cheap at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Altman was a visiting professor, and where he was given a women’s dorm to function as a studio, and access to cheap student labor.

At first Hall turned down Secret Honor, intimidated by the thickets of text, but then had a decisive flash of insight into how to approach Nixon: “The thing is, the character’s got like six ideas going on all the time, and he can’t sort them out. He’s trying to say a number of things at the same time—many, if not all, that are contradictory.” For research he relied on reading Nixon’s memoirs, not wanting to be hemmed into an impersonation.

Years later he would remember the intimacy of the shoot: “They had a room for [Altman and myself] off the set. It had two single beds, side by side. They would send us off there when they were relighting. Bob and I spent a lot of time there in the semidarkness, talking about the next scene or talking about life in general. It was very helpful to that part of Secret Honor history. I remember the intimacy of it and the importance of it. One time, one of us was depressed about what had just been shot. There was maybe twenty-four inches between us. One of us reached out to console the other. We held hands. That was pretty unusual.” He recalled, also, the physical toll of the performance: “Altman would do a take. Then he’d say, ‘That’s good. Want to do it again?’ I’d say, ‘I’m pretty tired.’ He’d say, ‘OK, let’s do another one.’ And we did long takes: fifteen, eighteen minutes—which in movies are unbelievable. Then he’d say, ‘You want to do another? Let’s do another.’ I normally weigh about 160 pounds; during the Nixon thing I went down to 127.”

The ordeal shows in the final film—as much as his overtly political works, Secret Honor shares a great deal with Altman’s studies in fraying psyches in isolation, including That Cold Day in the Park (1969), Images (1972), and 3 Women (1977), the essential difference here being that the subject is male, with his own set of particularly masculine hang-ups: the needling insecurity of the runt who showed up to every football practice and barely played a single snap, the hunger for approval of the little boy, heard from in the recitation of a much-discussed elementary school assignment written by Nixon at age ten, in which he addresses himself to his mother as “Your good dog, Richard.”

Hall’s Nixon is a mangy stray, a yapping cur, though the wily, smooth, cerebral son of a bitch Nixon was still alive and well at the time of the film’s making—watch his 1988 Meet the Press appearance, deftly playing thrust-and-parry with John Chancellor, Tom Brokaw, and Chris Wallace, for evidence. But Hall’s Nixon is pure, unloosed spleen, amply lubricated with liquor. (Reports of Nixon’s intake vary; veteran tippler Jackie Gleason remembers the president drinking him under the table then walking off “as straight as a soldier,” while John A. Farrell’s recent Nixon bio quotes William Safire saying, “His voice would become slurred,” after two drinks, and that he would start to “reminisce . . . Open himself up”—a familiar image, indeed.) He soars to heights of megalomania, comparing himself to Chairman Mao and Charles de Gaulle, and sounding an awful lot like the Louis XIV of “L’état, c’est moi” when he announces “I am the system! Period!” He gutters into the self-abasement of the good dog, Richard, yapping for a treat. One moment his reminiscences put the presidency in the glow of an endless summer of unruffled confidence in his own serene majesty. (“I used to love to sit topside on the fantail of the Sequoia, down the Potomac back to the Navy Yard, sipping drinks with a friend and talking geopolitics.”) The next minute, he is and has only ever been a pawn in someone else’s game, hopelessly in the pocket of the fat cats since a fateful first night at Bohemian Grove. (In fact, Hall’s Nixon could be a poor cousin to John Huston’s Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s 1974 Chinatown.)

In the theatrical parlance, Hall holds the stage for the whole of Secret Honor, through the full length of which his torrent of presidential rambling continues, wheedling, haranguing, sentimental, salty, contradictory, incoherent—perhaps President Nixon encountered in Flaubert the phrase “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to.” His plea ends with a roar of defiance, and a feedback loop in the quartet of CCTV monitors, suddenly out of synch and unstuck from time—the hideaway with its surveillance cameras suggests Fritz Lang’s voyeuristic thriller The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), in which the supervillain of Lang’s prewar films persists through a viral resurrection. Nixon, in his hour of distress, appears to have taken shelter inside the cathode ray tube, flesh made image. There is a measure of immortality in this transformation, and in his tape-recorded afterlife, Nixon is with us still.

Depressive collapse is followed by manic rally, manic rally by depressive collapse. In a representative sequence, Nixon crumbles after whipping himself into a frenzy while railing against his favorite targets—“Rich Ivy League pricks,” the Kennedys in particular. There is never a long calm following the storm. No sooner has he delivered his payload of venom than the president is stirred up anew by the memory of the 1960 election and being outflanked on red-baiting Castro. This is enough to start another recriminatory head of steam, a stream of woulds, coulds, shoulds, then a hissed “Shit, nobody could’ve beaten Kennedy,” a miserable admission of his opponent’s status as a photogenic cocksman, everything Dick Nixon is not. (Philip Guston’s Nixon caricatures gave the president a priapic cock nose and scrotal jowls, while Hall’s Dick is goaded on by sexual insecurity.) From here it’s not far to a melancholic free-fall, as the president, fumbling to freshen his drink, recalls with a husky, choked voice the misfortunes of two Irish American families, the Kennedys and the Nixons, both families with multiple sons who died long before their time. And from the depths of this melancholy explodes a phlegmy laugh, a dissembling into hilarity, as the president recalls his surviving brother Donald selling Nixon Burgers from his drive-through in Whittier, and other costly gaffes. The sweeping, chopping gestures of the podium take on an aspect of vaudeville broadness. That Nixon’s life has been grand theater he has little doubt—but through the course of Secret Honor, he can’t seem to decide if it’s been a comedy or tragedy.

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