|by Matt Bartley
Welcome to the first ever Hollywood Bitchslap Hall of Fame. This is the place where, we, the critics of this site induct a person - be they actor, actress, director or other - into our own Hall of Fame for their outstanding contribution to the cinema that we know and love. The criteria is simple: we are not bound by volume or era, so anyone from the 1920s to the present day, anyone with a career of 80 films or 8 films can be inducted. All we ask is one thing: that they have provided we critics, who are film lovers above all else, another reason to keep going to the cinema week after week.
This months inductee - Gene Hackman.
Gene Hackman is from that school of late 1960s/early 1970s acting. One of many who burst forward in this period alongside the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Robert Duvall, John Cazale to name but a few. So why have we picked out Gene Hackman from that extremely distinguished company?
Quite simply, it comes down to that old quote "It's the quiet ones that you've got to watch". Because the beauty of watching Gene Hackman in action is that you're never aware that he's 'acting'. In fact, when you think about it he shouldn't be a movie star at all really.
For a start, he doesn't have a cool name, he sounds like a girl. He's certainly not a matinee idol, with his doughy, squashed features. Even his hair is strange, thinning on the top, but exploding at the bottom into an unruly mess. Yet despite this, he's one of Hollywoods most charismatic stars and convincing actors. This is partly due to the fact that he's completely at ease in his roles and absolutely naturalistic. Whereas with other method actors you can see the work that's going on behind their eyes, you can see the tics and tricks that they're using, you can feel the effort that they're throwing onto the screen, Hackman doesn't do that. He slips into any role like a glove. And it's because of this style that he never distances himself from the audience, he never gives you a 'performance', he gives you a 'character'. Put it this way, can anyone give a Gene Hackman impersonation? No, because Hackman never gives a cliched performance, never falls back onto new tricks and, crucially for an actor entering his fourth decade of work, never becomes a parody of himself.
What he does do is quietly steal just about every film that he's in, without ever drawing attention to himself, even when he's not the lead. And this is something he's been doing from the start of his career. As our own Bentino Furioso states about his performance in Bonnie and Clyde, "That thread of violence under the surface of a smiling yokel was pretty damn scary", and this in a film starring the pretty good looking duo of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. But despite this, Hackman has just as much impact as them, despite much less screen-time, notching his first Oscar nomination as a result.
Oscar has been kind to Hackman, with two wins out of five nominations, one for lead and one for supporting. Yet Hackman never repeats himself, and as Paul Bryant said in one of our forums, "watch him in The Conversation and then Unforgiven and marvel at his range". His Oscar-winning turn in The French Connection is all the more surprising when you consider just what a racist, bigoted, thorughly unlikeable shit he is. He doesn't have an arc, he isn't redeemed, and he ends the film killing one of his own colleagues before running away. And he's our hero. He also doesn't have any big speeches (it's surprising to note that Popeye Doyle has relatively little dialogue), or exterior motivation apart from being a big bastard of a cop, but he wins that Oscar through sheer force of physical presence, becoming the father of all Vic Mackey and Jack Bauer in the process. Or look at the jail cell scene in Unforgiven where he gleefully destructs the fictional legends of the Old West, to Saul Rubinek. It's a scene that an other actor could push into parody, giving a wink to the audience about it's post-modernity. But he doesn't as he attacks it with glee, but keeps it within the character of Little Bill.
And marvel indeed at his range. From tough-bitten cop dramas to Hollywood blockbusters to slapstick comedies, Hackman is invariably the best thing in any film he's in. He steals Superman from Christopher Reeve as Marc Kandel points out, with some wonderful comic timing:
"he was sublime as Lex in the original:
Miss Tessmacher: "But Lex, my mother lives in Hackensack!"
Hackman pulls his sleeve back, looks at his rolex, looks back to Miss Tessmacher, shakes head slowly back and forth".
Has he been in some dreck? Yes he has - Behind Enemy Lines is the dreck that other dreck won't touch, but he's absolutely magnetic in it anyway. He takes fairly routine thrillers such as Narrow Margin or Mississippi Burning and somehow elevates them into something else. Our own Jack Sommersby points out just how good he is in them:
"His career-capping performance was as FBI agent Rupert Anderson in Mississippi Burning. There isn't an emotion this guy isn't asked to convey, and he pulls each one off brilliantly. Should have won the damn Oscar for it...
His work in Peter Hyams' Narrow Margin is also highly commendable. There's this long dialogue scene where he and James B. Sikking tease each other over a cup of coffee about the whereabouts of the woman Sikking's looking to kill and Hackman's trying to protect that's beautifully played."
Like other contemporaries of his age, he's also proud of showing off his comedy bone - but with Hackman it's nothing new. He is, after all, the funniest thing by far in Young Frankenstein. But it's testament to Hackman's quality that he plays comedy like all great comic actors do - straight. He doesn't parody himself, he doesn't act goofy by playing it to the back seats, he plays it absolutely straight, and makes it so much funnier in the process. He manages to steal Heartbreakers from Sigourney Weaver's Russian accent, Jennifer Love Hewitt's pratfalls and Ray Liotta's bulging eyes, with his wheezing, nicotine-stained tobacco owner simply by playing him like he would in a drama, and lets the material speak for itself. Royal Tenenbaum may be a bastard, but Hackman nails his one speck of decency without making it mawkish, while selling priceless lines like "I'm sorry for your loss. Your mother was a terribly attractive woman" to his grieving grandsons, without making it sound like a joke.
For most other actors, that would be a career highlight, but for Gene Hackman, it's just another in a long line of excellent characters that he's fully inhabited and brought to life.
As Erik Childress says: "Hackman has done more than enough good work (even in bad films) to outweigh any shame that could ever be associated with him ten times over. Yes, even as the voice of God in Two of a Kind."
And we'll leave Marc Kandel with the final instance as to Hackman shines in whatever he's in:
" just thought of another film where Hackman owns without saying a word- its overall a silly little romp, but there is a stingingly poignant moment that never fails to awe me. The film is Uncommon Valor, where Hackman reassembles his old army squad and they try to find his son in Vietnam- basically a team effort on the ol' Missing in Action idea- and its mostly silly but very entertaining.
But there's a great moment when he is lying in bed with his wife. Its the dead of night and there is a terrific thunderstom going on outside. Hackman looks at his doorway and sees his son as a young child coming in to sleep with Mommy and Daddy because he's frightened of the storm- and Hackman reaches his hand out to let his son know its ok to join them and to take his hand, and the kid starts to come into the room and then Hackman looks, and there's no one there- he's just remembering his boy as a child, and his hand is held out, fingers splayed but his son is not there to take his hand. His face has this love and hope for just a moment, but then it just vanishes, and there is such a tangible sense of loss and grief on his face. Its a moment that's better than the film its in. Heck, I got a little misty just thinking about it."
For providing us with four decades of inspiring, varied and multi-faceted work, and never showing signs of slowing down or becoming predictable, Gene Hackman - we salute you.
Welcome to the Hollywood Bitchslap Hall of Fame
link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1838
originally posted: 05/30/06 21:02:03
last updated: 10/19/06 00:37:58