Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Alternate Best Actor 1997: Philip Baker Hall in Hard Eight

Philip Baker Hall did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Sydney in Hard Eight.

Hard Eight is a rather interesting debut feature of Paul Thomas Anderson about a seasoned gambler who takes a young man, John (John C. Reilly) under his wing.

The prolific character Philip Baker Hall plays the lead role of Sydney an older man who seemingly takes a random man in front of a cafe and proceeds to offer to show him how to be a successful gambler. Philip Baker Hall is reliable in any role that he is given no matter how small they may be. He also though is quite capable as a lead, as he proved his one-man show style portrayal of Nixon in Secret Honor. This time he once again gets a chance to lead a film, although this time its not a solo venture. Philip Baker Hall has such a unique screen presence and in turn he makes Sydney a fascinating character from the moment he asks John if he would like a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Sydney sudden and rather extreme charity to this man seems a bit extreme to say the least Hall does a particularly great job of making you feel comfortable with Sydney despite his straightforward manner. The straightforward attitude that Hall portrays is not exactly how you may expect though.

Hall plays the part with such a delicate complexity and it is fascinating to watch him play the part in a somewhat atypical fashion, yet actually completely naturalistic. Hall disarms you with this sense of warmth that he brings to the part. It's such an unusual charm that Hall infuses to the part. It never is overwhelming but makes Hall manages to use it so calmly to make Sydney so likable, and a completely magnetic character. What Hall does exceptionally well though is that he does not let the warmth define the character or even be an obvious factor. It's something you can feel, but Hall never just simply states with his performance. Hall very nicely leaves a question mark behind the man while he is encouraging John, you can't quite tell what he is up to at this point in the film. Hall allows you to think that perhaps Sydney is just helping John because he is a nice guy or it could be more. Hall never gives you too much or too little leaving Sydney such an interesting enigma of a man.

Hall is great at monologue an exposition, after all he did carry Secret Honor which was just one very long monologue, and ability with it comes into play while he tells John the ropes about how to successfully play the house and win. Hall whole delivery is pitch perfect as it shows this knowledge as almost innate in Sydney as he has obviously spent a considerable time in this sort of life, knowing exactly what to expect. Sydney is in fact kind of a good version of George C. Scott's Burt in The Hustler. Both are well dressed men who take another man under their wing with some manipulation involved, except Sydney seems to be doing for the good of John as a person. The idea of such a man seems almost impossible to believe but Hall makes you believe it as there is such an honesty in Sydney's sage like attitude. Hall brings even more than perhaps what was written though as he does always suggest that there is even more to this relationship, and not what is eventually revealed by the plot of the film.

There is something else that Hall seems to suggest in his performance and what that is, is an underlying sadness about Sydney. He's not weeping or even openly depressed or anything but Hall suggests quite carefully that Sydney is deep down a lonely man who believes by helping others they might treat him with a kindness, which is merely being his friend. Although a later revelation indicates that his decision to help John was not as random as it initially appears, his attempt to alleviate loneliness still seems to be a strong part of it, evidenced by the way he treats a waitress in a casino Clementine (Gweneth Paltrow). Hall again brings this constant sort of empathy that is always felt around Sydney as he treats everyone, who deserves it, with respect. Hall exudes this in a fascinating way because you never see any desperation on Sydney's sleeve, yet nevertheless in his own particularly subtle way Hall still allows you to see that Sydney is reaching out in his own way for some sort of happiness through helping others.

Sydney relationship with John is soon proven to be far from perfect though when he is called in by John to help deal with a blackmail situation that Clementine has come up with while John has chosen to go along with it. Hall is terrific in this scene because he plays it just so realistically. Although Sydney obviously has been a great guy to John up to this point he obviously will not allow himself go to jail by getting involved with a truly harebrained scheme that could only possibly end badly. Hall's great because he just very bluntly shows Sydney ever so slightly loses his cool, and just his survival instincts come into play. Hall knows exactly how to play the scene though because he never loses our empathy in fact he is by far still the most easy to sympathize character in the scene. Hall just wonderfully does not beat around the bush and it's so great to see him so honestly play the scene as he plays Sydney's reaction to be what many people's reaction would be when thrown into such a ludicrous position.

Due to the fact that he is given a minute to think, and that the two manage to plead with him properly Sydney ends up helping them by simply getting them out of the room and on their way. Sydney still has to deal with one more obstacle though and that is a crude friend of John's Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) who intends to extort Sydney due to Jimmy knowing about Sydney's past. It turns out that Sydney was once a mobster related with plenty of criminal activities including murder. When this revelation is revealed all I thought was yes that makes since. Hall properly left it open to Sydney's true "identity" so to speak, but when the revelation is made you can see that Hall completely makes it understandable. Sydney is in fact a mobster who is trying to make amends of a sort, and try to have a good life despite obviously living a bad one. The history of the man can be seen in the style in which Hall approaches the part, and even in that certain distance he has within his warmth, like it is the leftover coldness needed for a mobster capable of killing.

Jimmy's blackmail basically forces Sydney's hand and Hall brings both the new and old Sydney together in a brilliant set of scenes for him. The first being the old Sydney as he goes about confronting Jimmy. Hall is effectively jarring in this scene as he brings out the killer in Sydney without his cold method in handling Jimmy. Hall in this scene shows both Sydney as he treats a man he has no respect for as well as probably the way Sydney once operated back in the old days. Before this though we get the new Sydney in his attempt at reforming himself as he calls John, who's gone on the a run of sorts with Clementine, and simply tells John that he loves him like a son. This whole scene could have not worked at all in that it could have seemed silly or too cheesy for the rest of the film. It's an incredibly poignant scene because of Hall's performance in the scene. He does not gush or break down in anyway, that would be all wrong for Sydney, yet he still reveals these strong emotions in Sydney probably through the character's very personal manner toward life.

This is a great performance by Philip Baker Hall which kinda makes the film. Paul Thomas Anderson's direction is already very assured, even though its his first film, but the script for the film actually is far from perfection. It's attempts to make it have film noir plot of sorts are not exactly extraordinary, and easily could have sunk the film. The minor twists and turns are not exactly amazing but they all work because of Philip Baker Hall. A lesser actor very well may have left too much on the surface with Sydney, as not a whole lot is said, leaving the character a little hollow, but that is never the case with Philip Baker Hall's portrayal. He realizes the character so truthfully that you always believe in Sydney as a person allowing the film to be such a fascinating character study while with less assured hands it could have just been a second rate thriller. I would not have minded if the film had continued, and we simply followed Sydney some more because Hall's gives such a vivid portrait of this one of a kind character.


luke higham said...

Please review Ray Winstone next.

Anonymous said...

@Luke: I thought he's doing Pacino? Or are you referring to a bonus round? If so the more the merrier :D

luke higham said...

Anonymous: Louis has on occasion, changed his mind on a performance from his initial line-ups and switch it with one that was infinitely better E.g. Adam Sandler for Punch Drunk Love instead of Edward Norton in 25th Hour or Ben Cross & Ian Charleson in Chariots of Fire instead of William Hurt in Body Heat.

Both of these reviews were posted last from their respective lineups, so I have a bit of doubt, that Pacino will be reviewed after all, so if that's the case then, Winstone's the perfect replacement, with thoughts on Pacino's performance within the post.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen him yet, but you certainly made me want to see it! Great review! Can I ask your ratings and thoughts on:
-Julie Christie in Away From Her
-Isabelle Adjani in The Story of Adele H.
-Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven
-Nicole Kidman in To Die For
-Dianne Wiest in her two winning performances

Michael McCarthy said...

Pacino will definitely have a review, because his was requested. So far, that's never been the case for performances Louis sort of skipped. Anyway, Pacino absolutely deserves a review.

luke higham said...

Michael: I have no problems with Pacino being reviewed, but a part of me really wants Winstone to be reviewed for his terrific portrayal of an abusive husband in Nil by Mouth. For Pacino, I'm much more interested, for a review in Scarface.

Kevin said...

Louis, what are your ratings and thoughts on Reilly, Paltrow and Jackson in the film?

Anonymous said...

Can I have your ratings and thoughts on Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, Seven and The Royal Tenenbaums? (I know that she is a 4.5 for TRT but I'd still like to know your thoughts)

luke higham said...

Louis: Have you seen Guardians of the Galaxy, if so, what are your ratings & thoughts on the cast.

Louis Morgan said...

Luke: Since I have not watched Nil By Mouth yet Winstone actually seems perfect for the bonus rounds.

Moore - 4(I do like this performance but I don't love as much as most. The main reason is because there isn't really an honest transition in her performance from the false happy, slightly over the top, version of her character, and the more realistic vulnerable version. I think she handles both sides quite well particularly the emotional side, but they are a little too separate in the scheme of her performance)

Wiest - Bullets - 4(She gives a fairly over the top performance as the hammy actress she plays. It is not exactly a subtle work, but it really shouldn't be. She's just suppose to be entertaining and she succeeds in being so)

Wiest - Hannah - 5(Easily my favorite performance in the film as she gives a very moving portrayal of her character's desperation and is very effective in portraying the various steps of the character's life)


Reilly - 4(I think I probably prefer him as a dramatic actor opposed to a comedic one. I really like just how much genuine enthusiasm her brings to the part no matter what the situation whether it is greatly benefiting from Sydney's advice or even when he is doing some really stupid things by not listening to Sydney)

Paltrow - 4(A two sided performance by her that works quite well. On one side she manages to be very charming as the perky waitress then on the other side she manages to be so realistically foolish when she is moonlighting as a prostitute)

Jackson - 4(Some very solid work from Jackson. Jackson knows how to bring menace without much effort, and that certainly helps here. What he does so exceptionally well though is the way he brings the menace her in a fairly casual fashion as he plays Jimmy as just mostly a normal guy who decides to be thug only to make some quick cash)


Shakespeare in Love - 3(I think she does give a charming enough performance, and I don't hate her win. There's nothing astonishing about her work her but it works perfectly fine for the film although not in an extraordinary fashion as I've never found her chemistry with Fiennes to be that great)

Seven - 3(A solid enough performance in a relatively simple role. She certainly serves her purpose even though that certainly becomes particularly thankless by the end)

The Royal Tenenbaums - (Her performance is such a great fit for Wes Anderson's style. Her portrayal of the "great artist" works in a way it almost should not. She manages to have a genuine allure in her performance and at times you almost see the woman that Luke Wilson's Richie sees. At others though Paltrow cleverly subverts that by showing her character as somewhat shallow mostly depressed woman, she also does this all while bringing some nice dead pan humor. Really thinking about her performance more might cause me to upgrade her score)

luke higham said...

Louis: Thanks for saving Winstone for the bonus rounds.

Anonymous said...

Louis, I know you probably haven't re-watched it in a while, but could I have your ranking of strongest-weakest segments of Cloud Atlas, as well as brief thoughts on each?

Also, what actors would you like to have seen in replacement of those less adequate? I recall you saying Gary Oldman for Hanks which would've been great, although he would've knocked Hugo Weaving's roles out of the ballpark as well. Personally I felt they were all in need of a change of actor besides Whishaw, D'Arcy, Sturgess, Doona Bae, Broadbent, David and Sarandon.

Matt Mustin said...

I think Gary Oldman could've done the whole thing.

Anonymous said...

And actually, anyone else give their thoughts if they'd like? Since you're all pretty validated film conisseurs (I spelt that wrong, I know) in my book :D

Anonymous said...

@Matt: That'd be something to watch. Sort of like James Whitmore in "Give 'Em Hell Harry", watching Oldman prance around the stage in different constumes, makeup, guises...

luke higham said...

Louis: For 06' Lead can you leave out Cillian Murphy's Performance in The Wind That Shakes The Barley to the Bonus Rounds as well, considering that alongside Dicaprio, Muhe, Bale & Watanabe, the last slot will most likely go to James McAvoy in The Last King of Scotland or Clive Owen in Children of Men.

Anonymous said...

Can I have your ratings and thoughts on:
-Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in The Color of the Money
-Agnes Moorehead in Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte
-Estelle Parsons in Bonnie & Clyde
-Katharine Ross in The Graduate
-Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist
-Wendy Hiller and Susannah York in A Man for All Seasons

Louis Morgan said...


1. Neo Seoul - (A very strong lead through Doona Bae's performance and effectively creates this sort of Dystopia with not a lot of time. Has some magnificent visuals and set pieces while having the needed emotional weight brought through the central character/performance)

2. Cambridge/Edinburgh - (Again it is helped by having such a strong lead in the form of Whishaw. It's perhaps the most modest of all the stories and in turn perhaps the most moving as it tells its tragic story of man simple but effectively)

3. London - (The set of scenes which are the comic relief for the rest of film. That's all they really need to be and they certainly work in that regard. The story manages to be entertaining and funny lightening things up a bit while somehow managing not to compromise the much more serious stories at hand)

4. San Francisco - (Honestly this one just works as a, technically by the numbers, thriller of this sort. As a stand alone it may have not but woven through the rest of the film it manages to stay consistently compelling even if the fate of Weaving's assassin is a tad on the silly side)

5. Pacific Islands - (I like Sturgess as the young hero sort of role, but this story never quite comes to life as well as the others. I still like it just fine for the most part but it never creates the same impact. It's not helped that I find Hanks particularly over the top as Dr. Goose, and the makeup on Doona Bae in the last scene is far too distracting)

6. Big Isle - (I suppose I should not that I don't really dislike any of the stories as I found the film successful as a whole. Big Isle contains some great moments in it, such as Zachary watching the massacre and the whole climb to the observatory. The problem is the "true true" language never comes off as entirely natural and I think they could have spent a little longer on coming up with the design of Weaving's devil, who easily could have been an extremely effective presence if his look had been a tad less silly)

Oldman could have played all the roles by Hanks, Weaving and Grant and I would have been fine with it. If one wants to mix it up a bit though maybe Cillian Murphy in Weaving's roles and David Thewlis in Grant's.

luke higham said...

Louis: Ratings & Thoughts on Laurence Olivier in Fire Over England and Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind & A Streetcar Named Desire.

luke higham said...

Louis: Lastly, When's the review up.

Louis Morgan said...

Mastrantonio - 2(Found her character, along with Cruise's, consistently obnoxious. Maybe something could have been done about it but Mastrantonio portrays the character in such a cold way that it does nothing to alleviate the weakness in the writing)

Moorehead - 3.5(I liked her in this just fine but really there is not much of character. It's just Moorehead showing her most standard type of screen presence and personality. Thankfully Moorehead is quite good in that regard although it never is able to make her role any less simple)

Parsons - 4(She is as the real Blanche described her "a screaming horse's ass." but that is quite obviously in the conception of the character rather than from Parsons performance. I thought Parson, while being quite extreme in her method, still managed to make her Blanche a realistic portrayal of weak woman who is not at all cut out for her husband's life)

Ross - 3.5 (Ross gives a charming and likable enough performance. She suits her role perfectly well but I just don't think she gets to do all that much past that)

Burstyn - (She brings enough charisma in her early scenes but this really is a reactionary performance. As reactionary performance Burstyn is extremely effective in simply giving a straight forward and heart wrenching portrayal of a mother who is torn about by this unexplainable thing that is happening to her daughter)

Hiller - 4(Hiller is excellent in bringing some sly life to period parts and her performance works incredibly well in that regard. What I love though is the way Hiller actually alludes, through a performance, something that is not explained in the film. She shows a certain distance from York but a closeness with Scofield properly alluding to the fact that her character is not Moore's first wife)

York - 4(Somewhat surprising that York was not nominated given that she has the larger role. York does well to be an endearing and straight forward in a film with too many double dealers. You see through portrayal what her character has learned from her father as York carries that same type of honesty in her performance that defines Scofield's work)


Olivier - 3.5(It's interesting to see Olivier in an Errol Flynn role. Although I won't say it's his most assured performance by any means, he's pretty charming in his role and knows how to handle an action scene)

Leigh - Gone With The Wind - 5(Perfection from scene one. She carries this epic without question through the entirety of its running time. It's such a charming and lovely performance yet Leigh never makes Scarlett one dimensional. On top of that she is so utterly convincing as the manipulative monster of sorts, yet still she never let's that be simplistic either giving an powerful depiction of the loss and desperation of a survivor)

Streetcar - (Again an outstanding performance by Leigh and its particularly interesting as Blanche is almost where Scarlett could have ended up when her beauty started to fade. Leigh gives such an effective facade of the delicate belle with her high tastes yet always alludes to the mental instability of Blanche. Her slow decay is incredible and leads to a truly powerful portrayal of the character's mental condition)