Hackman Fever

Gene HackmakIt’s tough to believe that the 83-year-old Gene Hackman hasn’t made a film for seven (!!) years. His last appearance was in the 2004 Ray Romano comedy Welcome to Mooseport. And, as it seems now, it may be the great actor’s last credit ever.

Once in a while you’ll hear a rumor about Hackman taking a part in a film, or at least a director mentioning that he’d like him to. The latest one had helmer Tony Scott, who worked with the thespian before on Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State, desiring Hackman to return to the big screen in a mob movie that was to also star Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke and Javier Bardem. But Gene seems perfectly fine, painting and co-writing historical novels with author Daniel Lenihen, living a low-key life in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his second wife, the owner of a furniture store.

Still, it’s hard to fathom: No more Gene Hackman movies. Perhaps it’s because that Hackman, who roomed with fellow Pasadena Playhouse alum Dustin Hoffman when they were both struggling actors in New York, was so prolific. Over the span of nearly 60 years, Hackman appeared in over 75 films, sometimes starring in five movies a year. And that’s not to mention the many TV credits he had between his uncredited film debut in 1961’s Mad Dog Coll and his co-starring role as Norman in 1964’s Lilith with Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg.

Were there stinkers? Certainly. Right of the top of the list, we give you—and you can keep—1990’s Loose Cannons with Dan Aykroyd and 1975’s glossy bomb Lucky Lady with Burt Reynolds and Liza Minnelli. And there was certainly no shortage of mediocre films that he made better: March or Die, Power, The Package, Narrow Margin, Company Business and The Replacements. But in a career as inexhaustible as his, there were few out-and-out misfires.

Hackman, who was inspired to be an actor after seeing Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, hails from the more-is-less school as acting, easily slipping into Everyman roles. The facial tics and actorly schtick were held to a minimum throughout his career, even when he played bigger-than-life characters, which he was often called to do. He was great at projecting evil and essaying characters with explosive tempers. But he has proven to be equally superb in quiet, subtle roles. Hackman is the quintessential character actor who became a movie star, although he would never consider himself one.

“I was trained to be an actor, not a star,” he has said. “I was trained to play roles, not to deal with fame and agents and lawyers and the press.”  And he added: “If I start to become a star, I’ll lose contact with the normal guys I play best.”

Comparing the fine films and excellent performances from the former Marine who grew up in a broken family is like wading through a flood of great cinematic memories. It all makes you wonder if anyone else could have played these parts.

When you think of Gene Hackman, more than likely the first film that comes to mind is 1971’s The French Connection, Hackman’s first Best Actor Academy Award nomination and first win. (He’d previously received supporting nominations for Bonnie and Clyde and I Never Sang for My Father.) His Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle is an iconic character, a gruff, hard-drinking New York cop trying to stop a suave French heroin smuggler dubbed “Frog” (Fernando Rey). Boasting gritty Manhattan locations, frenzied editing, boisterous expletive-filled dialogue and a wild chase under subway tracks that would come to be known as one of moviedom’s most exciting ever, The French Connection bustled to also take home Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing while being nominated in three other categories.

There was ample criticism at the time that that the jacked-up genre picture didn’t deserve the coveted trophies (its opponents included A Clockwork Orange, Fiddler on the Roof, The Last Picture Show and Nicholas and Alexandra). As for Hackman, he wasn’t the first choice to play Popeye: Steve McQueen, Peter Boyle, Jackie Gleason and even columnist Jimmy Breslin (he wouldn’t drive) were among the others also under consideration for the part. .

The film was such an audience pleaser, bringing in $54 million on a $2 million budget, that Hackman was recruited to repeat the role four years later. Hackman, now a movie star, managed to star in six movies and make a cameo in another film in the interim, taking the part as the lonely blind hermit in Young Frankenstein (“I was going to make espresso”).

Roy Scheider, who played Hackman’s partner in The French Connection, would go on and star in an unofficial sequel called The Seven-Ups, but Hackman returned as Doyle in The French Connection II.  John Frankenheimer replaced William Friedkin as director and put a decidedly European spin on Popeye Doyle’s story. Here Popeye is dispatched to Marseilles to track down Frog, the smuggler who eluded him in the original. This time, Doyle is captured by criminals and injected with heroin. The now doped-up cop has to go cold turkey and gain back his footing in order to complete his assignment of taking the smuggler down.

The film pulled in about a quarter of what the original did at the box-office, although it was no fault of Hackman’s. As a Yank trying to navigate through the unfamiliar confines of a French city with people who don’t speak his language, Popeye is indeed a more vulnerable character the second time around, a skuzzy stranger in a strange land. But we also discover for the first time that Popeye is indeed a lonely man, especially when taken out of his home playing field. It all adds another dimension to the character.

Between the two Popeye Doyle excursions, Hackman worked in blockbusters and small, personal films. He helped draw huge crowds playing the Christ-like Reverend Scott for Irwin Allen’s disaster production The Poseidon Adventure, starred opposite Lee Marvin in the outrageous gangster yarn Prime Cut and shared the screen with Al Pacino in the oddball road film Scarecrow.

The actor also turned in one of his most fascinating performances in 1974 in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. Inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, the powerful but low-keyed film posits Hackman as Harry Caul, a, devoutly Catholic  surveillance expert assigned by a mysterious client (Robert Duvall) to capture a conversation between a man (Frederic Forrest) and a woman (Cindy Williams) walking in a San Francisco park.  After obsessively filtering the dialogue between the two, Caul finally gets their voices clear, although the meaning of the exchange remains ambiguous. He senses his efforts will endanger the couple and begins obsessing about the recording. At the film’s stunning finale, Harry Caul finds himself alone, pondering the betrayal of all things he holds near and dear to him, including his skills as “the best bugger on the West Coast,” his religion and, ultimately, the privacy  he so lives for.

While The Conversation was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Picture (it lost, along with Chinatown, Lenny and The Towering Inferno to Coppola’s own The Godfather Part II), Hackman was somehow overlooked for an Oscar bid. But Hackman’s Harry Caul may be thes best thing the actor has ever done: perfectly modulated, compelling and unnerving. Team it with Alan Pakula’s same-year political thriller The Parallax View (as the two Paramount offerings often were, in theatrical bookings) and you have the all-time paranoid double feature.

Hackman played another memorable Harry a few years later in Arthur Penn’s underrated Night Moves. Using a similarly shleppy hair/mustache combo to that used in The Conversation (minus the glasses), Hackman is Harry Moseby, a former football player-turned-private detective searching through Florida for the slutty runaway daughter (an 18-year-old Melanie Griffith) of an aging, boozy Hollywood actress. This moody, cynical modern noir has Hackman mastering a shlub trying to make his way through the morass of his middle years. Pretty much ignored when first released in theaters, Night Moves, with a title derived from a conversation in the film Hackman has about chess, is now considered by noir fans one of the key films of its era. This is thanks in part to Hackman’s turn, along with the smartly cynical, multi-leveled script by Alan Sharp that mixes elements of the detective genre with incisive character study, Penn’s stylish handling of the often enigmatic plotline, and exquisitely moody cinematography by Bruce Surtees.

For a portrait of redemption, it is hard to top Hackman as the real-life Coach Norman Dale in 1986’s Hoosiers, which some consider the greatest sports film ever. The story centers on the victory of the small-town Milan Indians in the 1954 Indiana High School Championship. Hackman’s Coach Dale was a promising NCAA coach until he punched one of his players. A suspension and stint in the military followed the incident, and coaching Milan, based in Hickory, Indiana, may have been his last chance to guide a basketball team. The underdog story is not without the expected “Rocky-isms,” but there’s something fresh, free of cynicism and, well, All-American about Hoosiers as well.  Certainly Dale’s bond with town drunk Shooter (played by the Oscar-nominated Dennis Hopper), and his relationship with a fellow teacher (Barbara Hershey), help add to the rah-rah factor in this redemptive story, but it’s Hackman (actually the second choice after Jack Nicholson for the part) who anchors everything down, making audiences want to cheer on the underdog sans manipulation.

Hackman’s parts as pure heels are nothing to sneeze at, either. He was great at playing menace of all sorts: comic book, corporate, military, cowboy, sadistic. He could be bigger-than-life, comically oily, or quietly sinister. For the former, there’s his bewigged Lex Luthor in Superman: The Movie, conniving a spectacular real estate scam and battling Christopher Reeve’s Man of Steel, yellow carnation and shirt in tow.  Some have argued that Hackman—who refused to shave his head for the big-ticket part—played Luthor too broadly and threw the largely solemn tone of the film out-of-whack. We say the film needed the presence of Hackman’s Luthor, and Ned Beatty’s henchman Otis, as played; there’s genuinely unpredictable menace simmering under the jokey asides.  Certainly, his effort was more memorable than Kevin Spacey’s take on the cueball-coiffed villain in 2006’s Superman Returns.

Hackman’s second Oscar came in the Supporting Actor category for Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Best Picture-winner Unforgiven, a role he took after a career hiatus because of heart surgery. He played Little Bill Dagget, the dictatorial sheriff of the western town of Big Whiskey, whose severe interpretation of the law strikes fear in men and women alike. After a prostitute is mutilated, Dagget doles out justice by ordering the guilty parties to pay a nominal fine to her employer for their misdeeds. Her colleagues band together and put up a reward to be paid to any bounty hunter who can kill the outlaws responsible. Dagget, who rules the town with an iron fist, doesn’t like anyone undermining his authority and intends to stop the hookers, and anyone taking up their offer, in their tracks. Besides, he doesn’t need the aggravation, because he’s building a retirement home for himself. Hackman is perfectly cast as this man of contradictions with a sadistic mean streak the size of Wyoming running through him.

Hackman’s career has been often marked by charismatic villainy:  Oscar-nominated as grinning ex-con Buck Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde; the ornery rancher out to kill kidnapper Oliver Reed and abducted wife Candice Bergen in the nasty The Hunting Party; high-ranking, mistress-killing  politicians in No Way Out (as Secretary of State) and  Absolute Power (as the President); the heeby-jeeby-inducing gunslinger Herod in Sam Raimi’s Sergio Leone salute The Quick and the Dead; a megalomaniacal neurosurgeon in Extreme Measures; and a pro-firearms trial consultant in Runaway Jury. As for a major malefactor role that got away, Hackman at one time owned the screen rights to The Silence of the Lambs, and contemplated directing as well as starring. Having then just completed Mississippi Burning, however, Hackman believed the project was too violent for him to tackle at the time.

But it’s no surprise that the ever-versatile Hackman has proven equally adept at playing farceur as he has fiend. Consider his Harry Zimm, the buck-toothed Hollywood schlockmeister who gets involved with a project pitched by Miami loan shark Chili Palmer (John Travolta) to whom he owes money, in Get Shorty. Or Kevin Keeley, the extremely conservative senator of The Birdcage, who ends up in platinum blonde wig and drag at Robin Williams and Nathan Lane’s Miami gay nightclub singing “We Are Family.”

Actually, Hackman’s last great performance may be in a film that mixed his comic and creepy sides. In 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums, Hackman essayed the role of conniving lawyer Royal Tenenbaum, patriarch of one of the most dysfunctional families in movie history. After being evicted from his Manhattan hotel, the broke Royal tries to reconcile with his archaeologist ex-wife (Angelica Huston) by claiming he’s about to die from cancer. After taking residence in his ex’s home, Royal tries to make amends with his estranged brood, which includes a tennis pro (Luke Wilson), a real estate tycoon (Ben Stiller) and a playwright (Gwyneth Paltrow). All are facing downhill turns in their lives, and it appears doubtful that making their peace with Royal, a failure as a father and a person, will help make things better.

Like Hackman’s magnificent turn in The Conversation, his Royal Tenenbaum was ridiculously overlooked for an Academy Award nomination. But in some ways, it can be seen as a summation of the actor’s career. Consider what film critic A.O. Scott perceptively wrote in the New York Times about the actor’s performance:  “Mr. Hackman has the amazing ability to register belligerence, tenderness, confusion and guile within the space of a few lines of dialogue. You never know where he’s going, but it always turns out to be exactly the right place. “

Thanks for the ride, Gene.