5 Brilliant Philip Baker Hall Movies And Where You Can Watch Them

Actor Philip Baker Hall was masterful at creating characters that were simultaneously gruff and wounded. Many of his characters read as sad, and often relatably pathetic. No matter how young he was in a role, he could communicate that his character has led a long, interesting life.

Hall's film career began in 1970 with an appearance in the counterculture satire "Cowards" (aka "Love-In '72" when it was covertly reissued) about draft dodgers during the Vietnam War. Hall made his first big splash in 1984 with the release of Robert Altman's "Secret Honor," a one-man show wherein Hall played Richard Nixon, alone in his New Jersey mansion. The film is an extended monologue and may be Hall's greatest performance. 

Hall would pop up in a few '80s blockbusters ("Midnight Run," "Ghostbusters II") and a few '90s thrillers ("Eye for an Eye," "Kiss of Death") before finding a new career groove with then-rising director Paul Thomas Anderson. In Anderson's 1996 feature debut "Hard Eight," Hall would play a mysterious perhaps-criminal gambler named Sydney who begins to care for — for reasons not revealed until much later — a down-on-his-luck Reno denizen (John C. Reilly) in need of money and parenting. Sydney is one of Hall's greatest roles. 

After decades of work, and associating with Anderson, Hall would land in 1999 with one of the most impressive years from any actor's résumé. When coming up with a list of his most impressive movies, one needn't look outside of 1999.  


In Anderson's "Magnolia," Hall plays Jimmy Gator, the longtime host of "What Do Kids Know?," a fictional game show whereon child prodigies compete in a trivia competition. "Magnolia" takes place over the course of one day, and Jimmy's is going quite badly: He is dying of cancer, and drinks heavily to get through the day. On camera, Jimmy seems to be slowly coming undone. The audience later learns of another drama he is party to: He is attempting to reconcile with his estranged daughter (Melora Walters) who refuses to accept anything he has to say after the sexual abuse she suffered by his hand. Jimmy claims not to remember the abuse and is desperate to reconnect before he passes. 

As the day continues, Jimmy deteriorates emotionally, admitting further wrongdoing to his wife Rose (Melinda Dillon). Jimmy is, he finally is able to openly admit to himself, not a great person. The climax of "Magnolia" is a shared event (no spoilers) that will give Jimmy and all the other characters a new perspective. Jimmy Gator is a rich, deep, exciting role for an actor, and Hall fills it with every iota of his talent, giving Jimmy a monstrous past and a human face.

"Magnolia" is available on Paramount+ and for free on Kanopy.

Cradle Will Rock

Tim Robbins' "Cradle Will Rock" takes place during the height of the government's Works Progress Administration, a widespread employment program enacted as part of the New Deal during the Great Depression. "Cradle" is specifically about the arts wing of the WPA called the Federal Theater Project, which guaranteed a level of government funding to the theatrical arts. However, because it was backed by the government, some uptight, racist congressmen (particularly one Martin Dies) accused the FTP of preaching Communist ideals in their plays and allowing too much racial integration. At the center of this fight was Marc Blitzstein's musical "The Cradle Will Rock," a social satire that confronted the government, the church, and the shallowness of pop entertainment. 

"Cradle Will Rock" is, like "Magnolia," a giant ensemble piece that covers many angles of the Red Scare and how it related to the arts in the 1930s. Hall plays no one less than John D. Rockefeller, the famed philanthropist who buys art to support certain political candidates, but who has no personal passions for the arts whatsoever. Rockefeller is played as a grump with little patience for the artistic obsessions of his girlfriend, the Countess Constance LaGrange (Vanessa Redgrave). Robbins is careful to depict that art can be saved, although it's often for corrupt reasons. A Da Vinci will not be appreciated in the halls of rich people's houses. 

"Cradle Will Rock" is streaming on Hoopla.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

In Anthony Minghella's dark thriller "The Talented Mr. Ripley," Hall only plays a minor role, but he provides a major plot twist that defined the conclusion of the movie. In "Mr. Ripley," Matt Damon stars as the title character, a wimpy, pale, bisexual dreamer with a compulsion toward deception. Tom Ripley is hired by the father of an old classmate named Dickie (Jude Law) to go to Italy and retrieve him before Dickie spends his entire family's fortune. Tom does so, but with a great deal of subterfuge. It won't take long before Tom will fall in love with Dickie and find himself in a twisted position to take his place. By the film's end, Tom has committed any number of sins to retain popularity, wealth, and the sexual partners he desires. 

Hall plays a private investigator hired by Dickie's father to look into what's been happening. Without spoiling anything, Hall would appear to Tom Ripley, imply that he's under threat ... and then say the opposite of what is expected. Hall carries with him a natural threat and authority, so when he says what he says, it's a great sigh of relief for the audience ... or a sign that the world is corrupt and that bad people might be getting away with bad things. 

"Mr. Ripley" is one of the best films of a year chock full of them. Just look up and down this list for more examples. 

"The Talented Mr. Ripley" is on Peacock Premium

The Insider

Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in '99, Michael Mann's "The Insider" tells a fictionalized story of Jeffrey Wigand, a chemical engineer who works for the tobacco industry. In working on safer versions of cigarettes, Wigand discovers that many cigarette companies were intentionally including chemicals in their products to assure they were more addictive than they would be ordinarily. In Mann's film, Wigand is played by Russell Crowe, and his liaison to the media is journalist Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino). The film is an ice-veined delve into the complex politics of media reportage and how well whistleblowers are protected, if ever. 

In "The Insider," Hall plays the real-life TV executive Don Hewitt, the creator of "60 Minutes." Because of Hall's natural authority, his words, however scant, have a deep and hard impact. "The Insider" is all about who and who does not have authority over information, and Hall plays a character who considers himself something of an information arbiter. He has to carefully weigh what is meant to be included and what is not on a show like "60 Minutes." 

"The Insider" is not included on any streaming subscription services, but can be rented by various online outlets.

Let the Devil Wear Black

Few saw director Stacy Title's third feature "Let the Devil Wear Black" when it was released, and only Shakespeare nerds tend to know about its existence in 2022. "Black" was a hard-edged hipster version of "Hamlet" set in modern day L.A. with modern language, a lot more paranoia, and a good deal more sex. "Black" is a looser adaptation than most, although some critics declared it to be a far better effort than Michael Almareyda's "Hamlet" (the one with Ethan Hawke) a film that used Shakespeare's language, released the following year. 

In "Black," Hall plays the Polonius character, the father of the Hamlet character's jilted girlfriend Ophelia (Mary Louise Parker). Polonius is traditionally depicted as a "wise fool," in that he says intelligent things, but kind of by accident. Polonius is a blowhard, and also a bit clueless and cruel when it comes to his children. In the original play, Polonius is killed by Hamlet long before the finale. If his fate matches in Title's film will have to be discovered by the curious. It's exhilarating to think that Philip Baker Hall had such an excellent year in 1999 that his Shakespearean performance is now seen as the least of what he did. 

"Let the Devil Wear Black" is also not available on any streaming services, but it too can be rented and purchased online.