An Essay on Secret Honor

by smARTfilms curator Tova Gannana



“Secret Honor” is a very unusual film. It is a one man monologue portrayal of drunken madness. It is an unusual film because first it was a play, because the director Robert Altman was known for making films with large ensemble casts who spoke over one another. He notoriously altered scripts, he liked to improvise, he was instinctual, not formulaic and he never made the same film twice. Of “Secret Honor” he said, “The success of the piece exceeded all my hopes, but even if it hadn’t, I believe it was a worthwhile project.” In 1983 Altman attended a preview of the play, “Secret Honor”, starring Philip Baker Hall in Los Angeles at the LATC theatre. It was written by Donald Freed, a political activist who researched the Kennedy Assassination, and Arnold M. Stone, an ex-government attorney. The play's original title was “The Last Tape (and Testament) of Richard M. Nixon”. Altman remembers he had to cross the stage to get to his seat it was that small of a space. The performance lasted for two and a half hours. “Generally one-man performances about famous presidents are tiresome to me,” Altman commented. This performance, however, was electrifying; Altman brought it to New York where it ran for a month at the Provincetown Theatre in the Village. Altman then brought Hall to the University of Michigan where he taught a course on the film production of “Secret Honor.”




With a crew of graduate students and professionals like cinematographer Pierre Mignot, “Secret Honor” was shot in a week. The days were long and they shot in the sequence of the script. Altman and Hall rested on twin beds in between filming, they sometimes held hands, they always talked about what had worked in the previous shooting and what they wanted to work on in the next. Altman took the smallness of the stage and recreated the claustrophobic feeling on his set. He sealed in his actor and his crew in his cinematic world for a week. In this way, they overtook the persona of Nixon. Nixon who had been the American President for five and a half years, whose paranoia was legendary. In 1960 he complained of his televised debates that the cameras gave him a 5 o’clock shadow, that next to Kennedy he looked like a gangster. In 1974 at his resignation, Nixon said, “Others may hate you. But those who hate you never win. Unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.” In “Secret Honor” Hall plays Nixon as he destroys himself. He talks into a microphone that he holds like a gun or a finger pointing. He is recording his last tape and testament. He speaks to “Roberto” and “Your Honor”. For two hours Hall portrays Nixon with, as Hall said “the inability to finish a thought in an ordinary way.” By not finishing his sentences, by having him speak to more than one audience, we hear what we really should have heard. Hall wanted to give the feeling that there wasn’t much time left for Nixon, that he had two hours to say everything he needed to say.




Altman’s main cinematic problem was that he needed to cut away from Hall and he needed another presence in the room with Hall. So he installed TV monitors and hung portraits of past presidents to whom Hall as Nixon could address his feelings of being betrayed. Altman’s son Stephen was the set designer and he transformed the university women's dormitory into a wolf den; rich in dark wood, red leather and green lamps. Here Hall paces, squats, drinks with abandon, lurches, starts, sputters and stops. Altman’s take on Nixon ultimately implicates the public “Nixon was a victim, but he was the right president for a total democracy, because the majority of the people in the US were like Nixon --they wanted him, and he represented their views. Then, when he got caught playing dirty, everyone was shocked because they had been betrayed.” Television was a tool Nixon used to broadcast a controlled and manipulated image. He was a made for TV president. He came into the living rooms of America radiant as a microwave. In “Secret Honor” Altman turns TV monitors into a two-way mirror, Nixon stares into his reflection, we see him seeing himself.



—Tova Gannana, curator

Join us on November 28th at 7:30 PM for Secret Honor.


Tickets: $10 Member, $12 Non-Member

Dinner seating in Bistro begins at 5:30 PM. Reservations recommended - 206-451-4011.
Auditorium opens at 7:00 PM
Movies at 7:30 PM