Seattle Times, Written By James Hartl
March 3rd, 1997
In Robert Altman's Secret Honor (1984), Philip Baker Hall did a dazzling impersonation of Richard Nixon that dwarfs Anthony Hopkins' recent caricature in Oliver Stone's Nixon.
More than a decade later, he's getting his second shot at a big movie role in Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight, an enigmatic four-character film noir that opened in theaters Friday. Hall plays a veteran Reno gambler named Sydney who adopts John (John C. Reilly), a down-and-out young stranger, for no apparent reason. Gwyneth Paltrow is Clementine, a cocktail waitress who marries John, and Samuel L. Jackson is Jimmy, a crook who complicates their lives.
When he first saw Altman's film on television, Anderson was a music-video production assistant and dabbler in short films. He bought the video of the movie and decided he had to work with Hall.
"I thought, 'This is a brilliant performance,' then for the next 10 years I saw him crop up in roles that weren't good enough for him,'' said Anderson by phone from a California editing room.
"He's one of the great undiscovered actors. The kinds of parts he plays tend to go to Gene Hackman or Robert Duvall. A lot of those kinds of actors are seriously underused, and no one knows they're out there."
Coincidentally, Hall and Anderson ended up working on a PBS special where Anderson was fetching coffee: ``I told him, pretty point blank, `You are a great actor. I want to write some parts for you.'''
Anderson gave him his script for a short, Cigarettes and Coffee. Hall agreed to appear in it, the short played the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, and Hall and Anderson ended up working on a Sundance workshop project that became Hard Eight.
Anderson recycled ideas from the short, "things I thought I could do better in a feature,'' he said. "The way I write and the way Philip talks, it has a weird kind of tone to it, and there are those kinds of similarities between the two films. The way he speaks is so specific."
Did he understand from the beginning why Sydney helps John? The audience is left in the dark through most of the film, wondering why an older man would casually befriend a stranger. "I think that I did," said Anderson. "You don't know until three-quarters of the way through the movie, which is not what you're supposed to do."
Reilly and Hall improvised on the roles at Sundance and the improvisations became part of Anderson's script.
"It started as a blueprint for the actors to mess around with," he said. "By the time they were done with it, a lot of the mysteries were cleared up."
The movie was shot almost two years ago, before Paltrow made Emma and before Jackson did A Time to Kill. All the actors except Jackson, who was cast later, waited a couple of years for the money to come through. Despite her increasingly busy schedule, Paltrow stuck with it, shooting one day on Seven then working on Hard Eight, then going back to Seven.
"I think she really responded to the character, certainly not to my body of work," said Anderson. "It was really the script."
Both Paltrow and Reilly play none-too-bright characters, yet they take care not to play to the Dumb and Dumber audience.
"It's great when actors can play characters who aren't so smart and they don't make a gag of it, don't condescend," said Anderson. "Stupidity can be funny and real. It doesn't have to be jokey and fake."
Reno-set B-movies such as Five Against the House and Born to Kill were partly responsible for the setting.
"And Sydney wouldn't be caught dead in Vegas, which is a ridiculous town," said Anderson. "They actually have standing, working old buildings in Reno. In Vegas, history doesn't have a chance to breathe. They tear things down before they're five years old."
Hall and Anderson's third collaboration, Boogie Nights, is a three-hour Nashville-style epic about the porn industry, co-starring Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore and Don Cheadle as porn stars, and Burt Reynolds and current Oscar nominee William H. Macy (Fargo) as the producers of their films. It's scheduled to battle the studio summer blockbusters beginning May 23.
"I wanted to take a really human approach to people who make these movies, and to the moral consequences of the things that happen," he said. "At times it can be like watching a porno movie - sometimes funny, sometimes very disturbing, then funny again. It's based on a lot of people's lives and stories."
Hall plays a mystery figure who "comes into the world of porno filmmakers and gives them the news that video is the wave of the future. It takes place in 1977-84. Gangsters were involved in that transition from film to videotape, and his character represents that." As usual, Anderson wrote the part with Hall in mind.
"Philip has a couple of really wonderful scenes, doing those Philip Baker Hall monologues he's so good at. Sometimes it's so clear when a director is in love with an actor."