Show caption Philip Baker Hall in Secret Honor, in which he gave one of the best portrayals of Richard Nixon. Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy Film Philip Baker Hall: a character actor of strength, gravitas and lugubrious good humour The death of the actor, 90, leaves behind a career filled with indelible moments, from Seinfeld to Magnolia to Boogie Nights Peter Bradshaw @PeterBradshaw1 Mon 13 Jun 2022 20.08 BST Share on Facebook
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“Maybe we can live without libraries, people like you and me. Maybe. Sure. We’re too old to change the world. But what about that kid sitting down, opening a book right now in a branch of the local library, and finding drawings of pee-pees and wee-wees in The Cat in the Hat and The Five Chinese Brothers? Doesn’t he deserve better? Look, if you think this is about overdue fines and missing books, you’d better think again. This is about that kid’s right to read a book without getting his mind warped. Or maybe that turns you on, Seinfeld. Maybe that’s how you get your kicks, you and your good-time buddies. Well, I’ve got a flash for you, joy boy – party time is over!”
The tough, gravelly voice, the bags under his eyes, the air of hard-won authority, the battle-hardened wisdom, under which is a crucified fatherly disdain for lax youth, a passionate resentment at those who have not submitted to discipline as he has done … but also a sense that he might yet help a younger person who was properly deserving. This was a character actor whose natural power and gravitas gave weight and sinew to hundreds of movies, and he performed big, even starring roles for heavy-hitter directors. But it was Philip Baker Hall’s destiny to come suddenly into focus in 1991, and even achieve a kind of pop-culture stardom – a meme before there were memes – with one brilliantly funny cameo on Seinfeld as the terrifying Mr Bookman, who comes around to Jerry’s apartment to investigate a library book missing since 1971. It’s a brilliant speech because it is entirely serious – like something by Aaron Sorkin – and Baker delivers it with absolute conviction. Suddenly, the movie world realised how brilliant Hall was: a low-key American classic.
He had actually given one of the best – or the best – screen portrayal of President Richard Nixon, starring in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor in 1984, based on the Donald Freed stage-play, delivering a bravura Nixonian aria of resentment, paranoia, shrill self-congratulation and martyred triumphalism. Of all the movie Nixons there have been, Hall’s face came closest to the legendary jowly glower.
But it was Paul Thomas Anderson (Altman’s great student) who repeatedly gave Hall the great and memorable movie roles of his career, particularly in that downbeat cult classic which was Anderson’s feature debut and the movie that conversations about Hall, and about gambling in movies, always returns: Hard Eight, from 1996. He is an impossibly wise, worldly Vegas gambler, who is also self-contained and discreet in the way of veteran gambling survivors. He takes pity on the pathetic and penniless figure of John C Reilly, who has lost all money the tables, and Hall schools him in the way of betting, beating the odds, getting comped at the big casino hotels. But his interest in this young man – his poignant need to pass on wisdom to someone – is to end in calamity. The movie wouldn’t work without the raw roughage of Hall in its dramatic diet: he makes it a classic.
In Anderson’s west coast porn drama Boogie Nights, from 1997, Hall is the movie-theatre impresario who wants to make a deal with Burt Reynolds’ florid adult-movie magnate, but insults him by saying he wants to cut costs by using videotape instead of film, and also by bullishly trying to sideline him in his own business. Here, Hall shows how he can bring something other than dignified authority to his hardbitten address to the camera: he is a cynic and a hustler, with something tragic in the mix: he is too old to be hustling like this.
Hall in Magnolia, almost radioactive with spiritual horror. Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy
The most purely painful role of Hall’s career was arguably Magnolia in 1999, Paul Thomas Anderson’s disquieting and biblically apocalyptic ensemble creation of human despair. The movie is perhaps upstaged by Tom Cruise playing the obnoxious seduction specialist and incel motivator – but Cruise has to work hard to take it from Hall, who is almost radioactive with spiritual horror playing Jimmy, a children’s TV game show host whose troubled grownup daughter believes that he abused her. Boozy, bleary, pathetic Jimmy can’t remember if this is true or not. It is an extraordinary performance that looks over into the abyss.
Elsewhere, Hall is the implacable face of authority – notably as the grizzled private detective in The Talented Mr Ripley, the sort of role he effectively satirised in Seinfeld, though only by playing it straight. He made a wonderful impression in the delicate, low-key drama Islander in which he was, as he was in Hard Eight, a kind of mentor figure – the older, wiser fisherman in a small Maine coastal town, who befriends the troubled, ex-con lead, played by Thomas Hildreth.
Philip Baker Hall could be the voice of conscience, the voice of wisdom, the voice of authority and the voice of disillusion and compromise with the forces at work in a wicked world. In all these things, he gave the movies that he appeared in strength and meaning.