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Head of the Class

Posted By Alex Belth On January 27, 2010 @ 2:31 pm In Bronx Banter | Comments Disabled

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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 [2]:

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] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/hackman2.jpg

[2] nice appreciation of Hackman by Jeremy McCarter in the current issue of Newsweek: http://www.newsweek.com/id/230733

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