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Head of the Class


Has there been a more complete American actor in the past forty years than Gene Hackman? He may not be the most sexy or daring movie star but I think he’s got more range than DeNiro, Pacino, Beatty, Hoffman or even Duvall. Which is not to put those guys down. I’m not knocking Nicholson either. And you know how much I adore Bridges, who is almost twenty years younger than Hackman.

But to me, Gene Hackman is the Spency Tracy of his generation. He’s Everyman, and I’m hard-pressed to recall too many performances where he wasn’t believable. (I was talking recently with a friend about actors who are only as good as their directors or their material and this doesn’t apply to Hackman, who made a career of being better than his material.)

Did you know that Hackman turns 80 in three days? And that he’s effectively retired as an actor? I didn’t until I read this nice appreciation of Hackman by Jeremy McCarter in the current issue of Newsweek:

One reason why we haven’t valued Hackman properly is a slur that’s been flung at him since the ’60s: character actor. But Gene Hackman is not a “character actor.” He’s a great actor, full stop. (He’s only a “character actor” in the way that Jackson Pollock is a “painting painter.”) Hollywood’s habitual bias toward pretty leading men slights the actors who have the range to play all sorts of roles. This, surely, is Hackman’s greatest distinction. Good ol’ boy Buck Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde. Comically diabolical Lex Luthor in Superman. The blind hermit in Young Frankenstein. The coach in Hoosiers. Saintly cowboys, panicky astronauts, philandering steelworkers, several kinds of president … Like every actor, he had some misfires, and there’s no denying that he signed on for some seriously regrettable films. But this side of Meryl Streep—which is to say, here among the mortals—it’s hard to think of a contemporary American actor who could convince you he was born to play so many far-flung roles.

Every year, the Oscars teach us to rate performances like these by how deftly an actor incorporates funny voices and prostheses. Hackman, to his credit, rarely went there. If you put his many characters side by side, their real marvel is how limited a set of tools he used to play them: save for a couple of Southern accents and the occasional porkpie hat, he relied on only the raw material of his voice and body. As Popeye Doyle, the volcanic, superextroverted cop in The French Connection, he pulled out all the stops, ranting and shouting and raising hell. Three years later, he did the opposite, pulling himself inward to play Harry Caul, the meticulous, introspective eavesdropper in The Conversation. When you’ve seen one transformation, the other looks doubly impressive.

Hackman played the romantic lead in All Night Long, an odd movie that is like a goofier, and less-self-aware version of American Beauty, and he was winning in Twice in a Lifetime too. His light comic touch was wonderful in The Birdcage. And one of my favorite Hackman leading roles was in Arthur Penn’s ’70s drama Night Moves.

He may be overlooked in some quarters. But not here.

[Photo Credit: Joran van der Sloot]

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1 The Mick536   ~  Jan 27, 2010 2:36 pm

Damn. This is a hard one. French Connection. Get Shorty. How about the Conversation? Heist. He played some bad boys, too. I have to think about this after I ponder The Hawk and the Expo's hat. I have an original Expo's hat. Still wondering what the B stands for.

2 RagingTartabull   ~  Jan 27, 2010 2:44 pm

son, whatever you do...don't sell that cow!

3 Alex Belth   ~  Jan 27, 2010 2:52 pm

Funny, when talking about this generation of stars, some people have no tolerance for Nicholson's hamming, others for Pacino or DeNiro. I actually have more patience for Nicholson, who I think has done some interesting work when he's not just being Jack. DeNiro, on the other hand, I think was very interesting in the mid-70s--mid 80s, but I don't think much of his work since then.

4 bp1   ~  Jan 27, 2010 2:54 pm

The skipper in Crimson Tide. He can ratchet up the tension. The sheriff in Eastwood's The Unforgiven - bad man. He's one of my favorites. I never worry I'm not going to get my money's worth when he's in the movie. Even when he plays alongside clunkers like Chris O'Donnell in "The Chamber", he raises the overall movie experience.

5 Simone   ~  Jan 27, 2010 3:28 pm

I hadn't realized that Gene Hackman had effectively retired as an actor. He has been underrated, but a favorite of mine. I just watched him in Unforgiven again. I loved him as Little Bill.

The Package was one of my favorite thrillers from the 1980s. I saw it again a couple years ago and only then realized that Tommy Lee Jones was the assassin.

Class Action was another film that I liked a lot. He and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio were wonderful playing the tense father/daughter relationship.

I have never seen The Conversation so I'll try and find it somewhere.

6 Bama Yankee   ~  Jan 27, 2010 3:28 pm

[0] Hackman's performance as the lead character in All the Right Moves was so good that he almost had me convinced that he was Tom Cruise... ;-)
(just kidding, I'm guessing you meant Night Moves)

7 Diane Firstman   ~  Jan 27, 2010 3:37 pm


But seriously, Hackman is a true original, and rarely have I seen him "over-act".

8 Bama Yankee   ~  Jan 27, 2010 3:38 pm

The first movie I remember seeing Hackman in was The Poseidon Adventure. I always thought it was a great film. But for me, when I think of Gene Hackman I think of Hoosiers and Crimson Tide.

9 Alex Belth   ~  Jan 27, 2010 3:55 pm

Dag good call. Oddly enough, All the Right Moves was based on a story by Pat Jordan.

10 RagingTartabull   ~  Jan 27, 2010 3:57 pm

mentioned it the other thread, but Randy Winn to the Yanks for 1 year/$2M...I'm not so sure about this

11 The Mick536   ~  Jan 27, 2010 4:04 pm

Okay. Mississippi Burning?

"Don't leave... I was going to make expresso." Not many left from that great movie. One of my favorite scenes in all movie history, him and Peter Boyle. Hard to top it.

Forgot Royal Tennenbaums, too.

12 boslaw   ~  Jan 27, 2010 4:12 pm

Photo credit Joran Van Der Sloot. Isn't that the kid that's accused of killing Natalie Holloway?

For me, Love Hackman, Hate Jeff Bridges - I think Bridges has been horrible more often than good. For me, his list of bad performances is long:

Arlington Road
Blown Away
Baker Boys

Movies I thought he was good in:
white squall

13 Sliced Bread   ~  Jan 27, 2010 4:27 pm

Hackman's performance in No Way Out raised the stakes making it a bonafide political thriller.

Who else could have delivered that pivotal speech to Meryl Streep in Postcards From The Edge without sounding cornball?

Two cases where Hackman gave credibility to movies and scenes that could have gone horribly wrong.

14 Shaun P.   ~  Jan 27, 2010 4:28 pm

Hackman is simply awesome - very good at so many roles, when you think of him, you don't think of just one type of character. For me, Crimson Tide and the Birdcage definitely stand out, among many others.

I'm more shocked that Hackman is 80 - as shocked as I was, earlier today, to find out that Bob Uecker is 75. Neither seem to be that "old", but there you are.

15 Bama Yankee   ~  Jan 27, 2010 4:57 pm

[12] I don't think that's the real Joran Van Der Sloot who took the Hackman photo. Looks like that picture is from a Flickr account by someone with the screen name "joran van der sloot":
I guess it possible that it's the same guy, but more likely it's just a guy who decided to go with an "infamous" screen name. FYI, that dude has a few strange and disturbing photos in his collection if you take the time to look (I wish I hadn't).

16 Mr. OK Jazz TOKYO   ~  Jan 27, 2010 7:38 pm

[5] "The Conversation" is one of the great American films , and Hackman's performance is beyond stunning. One of my all-time top-10!

17 wsporter   ~  Jan 27, 2010 8:54 pm

[16] I agree about The Conversation and it's place in great if generally and sadly not well known F.F. Coppala films. Hackman has a way of not eating the scenery when he could that helps make a film terrific. What an asset a great actor like he is must be to a director; it just seems he's there to make a movie as good as possible. I'm sure he has an ego like all those great guys but it never appeared to get in the way.

A role that I really admire is as the heroic "Max' in Scarecrow. He and Pacino are absolutely mind bending together in that one.

Favorite and most ironic line (even with all the great ones in the French Connection) I think is from Unforgiven: "I don't deserve this, to die like this. I was building a house."

18 Alex Belth   ~  Jan 27, 2010 9:03 pm

I don't think THE CONVERSATION is a great movie but I think it is excellent and a perfect movie for its time--the paranoid Nixon era. What I think is remarkable about Hackman's performance is that he makes his character, a deep introvert, intruiging. DeNiro had a few of those roles at the time--notably in THE LAST TYCOON, and there was nothing behind the muted exterior. With Hackman, even though his character was private, and withdrawn, you could still see his fierce intelligence working. But it wasn't forced, it was natural, like everything else Hackman does.

19 lroibal   ~  Jan 27, 2010 11:19 pm

The French Connection, Unforgiven, the Firm, Get Shorty, like Maldon who passed away last year, Hackman is a believable everyman . He seems to simultaneously convey strength and vulnerability. Thanks for that....I didn't know he was retired. Time for a lifetime achievement award?

20 Chyll Will   ~  Jan 28, 2010 4:15 am

[4] I didn't think Little Bill was simply a bad man as in "villain"; my thinking was here was a man who thought he was doing good by doing extreme things for the sake of order (and yet in the name of order he ironically could not build a decent house and was very sensitive to that fact); a very complex man in region where there was no time to think. There were many layers to Little Bill and Hackman does a really great job in peeling all those layers off from beginning to end, and ultimately exposing a morass of good intentions meshed and entwined with intentionally evil deeds.

LB: "I don't deserve this... to die like this... I was building a house!"
WM: "Deserve's got nothing to do with it."
LB:"I'll see you in Hell, William Munny..."
WM:"Yeah..." ca-click..................................................... BLAM!!!

Classic, period.

Unforgiven was one of those films that you had to contemplate who was actually the good guy in the story; absolutely no one stood out as a beacon of morality or even deserving a lot of good will except William Munny's already dead wife; and how much of that was true we can only speculate. No one was clean, not even the book writer who's attention and affections jumped from English Bob to Little Bill to ultimately Will Munny. No one was innocent.

The only movie that immediately jumps to my mind that reminds me of Unforgiven's values and overall quality is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Damn good movies.

21 Paul   ~  Jan 28, 2010 8:05 am

Only movies where I haven't liked Hackman? Superman. He may have been directed to camp, but another actor could have done much better. But I didn't like Spacey as Lex Luthor either. It's weird. We've had two very good Jokers, and Ledger was fantastic, but no one has claimed Lex Luthor yet. It doesn't seem like a tough character either to pull off, but it seems he would require a more layered performance. Superman is the foreigner. Luthor is the human in the narrative.

22 The Hawk   ~  Jan 28, 2010 8:27 am

I don't really see too much range from Hackman. Of the actors mentioned, I'd say Hoffman and probably Duvall display more. I do like Gene though.

I don't know why actors are divided up by gender either: Meryl Streep is by far the greatest American actor of that generation, methinks.

23 Alex Belth   ~  Jan 28, 2010 8:38 am

I think Meryl Streep is the most overrated actor in the history of movies. I'm always aware that she's 'acting,' she's all technique. Like her in comedies. She is extremely talented, of course, I don't mean to dismiss her, but she leaves me cold.

24 The Hawk   ~  Jan 28, 2010 12:09 pm

I'm blissfully unaware of any acting techniques so maybe that's why it works for me. Though I also think she's a magnetic on-screen presence, which isn't something I'd think you could chalk up to technique.

25 The Hawk   ~  Jan 28, 2010 12:10 pm

Ha, it's somewhat ironic but I just noticed who's in that picture accompanying the "Dark Harbor" post. There's the best ever, hands down.

26 Shaun P.   ~  Jan 28, 2010 12:29 pm

[21] "but no one has claimed Lex Luthor yet."

Not in any of the movie versions of Superman, perhaps - I though Hackman did a good job - but John Shea's performance as Luthor in the TV series "Lois and Clark" is, for me, the "iconic" one, even though he was only around regularly for the first season.

The "portrayal" of Luthor by Clancy Brown in various animated shows since the animated Superman" of the late 90s (where Tim Daly voiced Superman) was, and is, also outstanding. Though of course voice acting is a bit different.

27 The Hawk   ~  Jan 28, 2010 1:06 pm

The best Superman still is those Max Fleischer cartoons, imho.

Big problem with Spacey's Lex Luthor is his stupid scheme which was an homage to the stupid scheme Hackman's Luthor had. It's cool to pay your respects and all but you gotta pick your spots.

28 RustyJohn74   ~  Jan 28, 2010 11:11 pm

Hackman represents a kind of actor that just isn't around anymore...the type that was around in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I always felt he was more like Lee Marvin, Jimmy Stewart or William Holden than his contemporaries. Best Hackman roles have to be 1) Royal Tenenbaum; 2) Popeye Doyle; 3) Little Bill Daggett; 4) Lex Luther and 5) Kevin Keeley if only to see him in drag singing "We Are Family."

By far my favorite Hackman scene is from the Royal Tenenbaums when he is attending Margo's play and he's sitting at the table with the turtle neck, sunglasses and cigarette and is asked what he thought of the play. "Hmmm, it didn't seem believable to me." Then turns to Eli, "Why are you wearing pajamas? Do you live here?"

"Well did you at least think the characters were well developed?"

"What characters? There's just a bunch of kids dressed up in little animal costumes! Sweetie, don't be mad at me. It's just one man's opinion."

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