As a woman without much money or power, I confess to more than mild curiousity about what happens when rich and powerful men gather in the Bohemian Grove and do whatever it is they do. In an era when tabloid scribes scavenge celebrity dust bins in search of gossip, the Bohemian Grove remains a secret. No one crawls on his or her stomach with precious cameras & recording devices to violate the inviolate. I mention this because a fictional Richard Milhous Nixon in "Secret Honor" describes what he had to do to a fictional Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller in the Bohemian Grove on the way to the White House.
Nowadays, government secrets are as accessible as ants at a picnic, but I suspect that the secrets of the Bohemian Grove are meant for a lifetime beyond my own. Despite my admiration for director Robert Altman, I wouldn't have rented "Secret Honor" to learn more about the aforementioned fictional R.M.N. I rented it because I watched Philip Baker Hall play Sydney in "Hard Eight" and I wanted to see more of Hall's work. Sydney is a man with a secret, but he knows where he's been, what he's done and who he is. The fictional R.M.N. doesn't. It is not only his loss, but ours as well.
Throughout the course of "Secret Honor," we observe the regret that R.M.N. feels when he has tried to curry favor with someone who can't stand him. He admires, respects, even likes the people who subsequently became his personal & political enemies. Hall's approach to the role is an extension of what anyone who lived during all or part of R.M.N.'s lifetime (1913-94) could not fail to observe. He always looked like the kid an authority figure might force you to hang out with. You'd be whispering with your friends & then..."SSSHHH! There's Dick Nixon again. I'll tell you more LATER!" A big fake smile would appear in his eyes and on his mouth, but not on the rest of his face. That's how you could tell his smile wasn't real. He gave the impression of being an underdog, and, if you were dumb enough to believe that impression, he took fierce advantage of you. He seemed to count on his fingers the times that he was wrong, but his elaborate rationales showed that he never ever BELIEVED he was wrong.
Hall captures all this and more: the choked impulses, the fury that lashes out in jagged fragments of incoherence, the reverence for his mother, his awe for the beauty of Helen Gahagan Douglas (whom he still attacked in his campaign like a savage pit bull), the venom he felt for the charm & elegance of Alger Hiss (& the pragmatism with which he made use of Whittaker Chambers). There's only one man onscreen in "Secret Honor," but it feels like much more. Philip Baker Hall paints this fictional Richard Milhous Nixon in broad, furious strokes, creating a fictional portrait that may be truer to life than any 900 page tome with footnotes. Filmed with the (lucky!) students at the University of Michigan.
© 2008 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 9/10/08
USA - 1985