For his debut feature, P.T. Anderson made a monument for his favorite actor.
“Never ignore a man's courtesy.”
It’s the line I keep coming back to. While I much prefer the indulgent heart and propulsion of Magnolia and Hall’s performance as ‘What Do Kids Know?’ host Jimmy Gator within it, this line from Hard Eight gets right to what I loved about him as an actor. His appearance on screen was always a courtesy extended to the audience. And you could not ignore the impact he made on scenes. His Sydney is largely understated, making lines like, “This is a very fucked-up situation,” hit even harder than they might coming from a more outsized scene-chewer. The way in which he hints at undercurrents of menace and past failures is pure perfection.
For the longest time (maybe until The Master), this was my favorite P.T. Anderson film. Philip Baker Hall is the reason. I'm glad the film is called "Hard Eight" and not "Sydney," because the moment when Philip Seymour Hoffman taunts him into throwing that hard 8 is the first time we see Sydney break his own rules. We don't want to see that calm authority ruffled in any way, but that's just a taste of what's coming, as he gives up more of that careful control, and eventually sacrifices the last shreds of his soul to preserve John's illusions about him. It's just devastating to me, and so masterfully acted.