Described in its opening credits as a "political myth," 1984's Secret Honor brings a legendary bit of American theater to the screen: Philip Baker Hall's tour de force turn as President Richard Nixon, originally staged for the Los Angeles Actors' Theatre, here filmed by Robert Altman as part of a filmmaking class he was then teaching at the University of Michigan. Although Altman is known as a director likely to stray from a script, his film version is faithful to the Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone play, and Hall reportedly reprises closely the performance he developed with the play's director, Robert Harders. (Altman bills Harders as "associate director.") If the project sounds unlikely, a reminder may be needed that Altman developed a few more plays for the screen around that time, such as Streamers and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. And for those who have come to associate Altman with well-populated films, a surprise: Secret Honor boasts a cast of exactly one.
It's a great cast just the same. Today we see Philip Baker Hall everywhere - his filmography for the past two years includes eight titles - but in 1984 he was largely known for his TV work and, for a lucky few, Secret Honor. His performance, obviously, is central to the film's success, and it's a doozie. But a quick look at the material will help to show why.
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