A Year of Gene Hackman: An Introduction
Before I begin, let’s get one thing out of the way: Gene Hackman is America’s greatest living actor. That is just a fact.
You can try to counter that by bringing up Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, or Denzel Washington.
If you want to get serious, you can mention Morgan Freeman, Robert Duvall, or Tommy Lee Jones.
Heck, you could even go younger and throw out names like Leo, Pitt, Hawke or Joaquin.
But, you’d be wrong. Objectively. On all counts.
What’s so great about Gene Hackman?
Sure, many American actors have had more star power. There are better leading men and better “character” actors out there. There are quite a few who deliver flashier performances. And there are others who disappear — physically and/or psychologically — into their roles in ways that Hackman rarely, if ever, attempted.
These are all good points. But, my assertion still stands.
Here’s what Gene Hackman has on his resume: Eighty-one film credits and not a single bad performance.
Sure, he was in some bad movies. But, any film that had Hackman in the cast was far better for it.
Go ahead and read though his IMDB page if you don’t believe me. I’ll wait.
Hackman was more than just a steady presence and a manly persona that people enjoyed seeing onscreen for decades. He was never like Clint Eastwood or Harrison Ford, for example. Those guys are beloved for many reasons, but they’re not great actors.
Many have complimented Hackman by saying he was an “everyman” actor. But, that’s misleading.
Over the course of his career, he played the President of the United States (twice), lawyers, coaches, cops, military leaders, and, of course, Lex Luthor. Far more often than not, his characters were exceptional. Very few were even remotely average or ordinary.
Even if the “everyman” labeled is misplaced with Hackman, it’s not hard to see why people have used it.
It wasn’t because he wasn’t that he seemed an average Joe. It was that he played seemingly every type of character — be it a president, a supervillain, a submarine commander, or an idiot movie producer — and it never seemed like he was acting.
That’s not to say he always played himself. It simply means that, no matter the role, Hackman always seemed to be perfectly cast.
Every scene he was in and every line he uttered was anchored by his presence and delivery. Movies clicked and made sense whenever he was onscreen, even if they went completely off the rails when his scenes were over.
Maybe it was his subtle laugh. That trademark “heh-heh.”
It was one of the most versatile go-to moves in the history of film acting. He used it to show both confidence and insecurity. Dominance and subservience. Brilliance and, in a few roles, ineptitude.
Other actors have had some of these same gifts. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, for example, had many Hackman-esque qualities, and perhaps a bit more range. But no one has been as consistently good in a career as long as Hackman’s.
So, yeah, you can point to De Niro in Raging Bull or Phoenix in Joker and say Gene Hackman never delivered a performance like that. And you’d be right.
But, De Niro has also phoned in more than his share of performances. Phoenix has been in at least a handful of movies where his innate eccentricity was a bug, not a feature.
This is not to criticize on those two fine talents, anyone else for that matter. The point is that even great actors have weak moments. They have performances where they seem totally out of place or like they’re trying too hard — or not hard enough.
Yet, over the four decades of his acting career, Hackman never gave a subpar performance.
Go ahead and look at IMDB again.
My Project: The Year of Gene Hackman
So, what’s the point of all this?
Gene Hackman hasn’t made a movie in over 15 years. And the last one — Welcome to Mooseport — wasn’t that good. The man is now 89 years old and will almost certainly never appear in another film. That’s why I keep referring to him in the past tense.
So why should you care?
The best answer I can give is to tell you why I care.
From the time I was a young kid, at least one of my favorite movies featured Hackman in a major role. Every kid my age loved Superman. Just like every adolescent with dreams of being an athlete loved Hoosiers. And so on…
I’ve wanted to discuss and examine Hackman’s body of work in many different film-geek writing projects. But it can’t be done in one or two pieces.
I figure it’ll take me about a year to do the job right. So that’s my plan.
For the next 365 days, I’m going to watch/re-watch at least one Gene Hackman’s movie a week and document the experience in writing. The purpose will be to discuss each entry and do my best to put every performance into some kind of broader context or perspective.
I won’t be going in order. It’ll be much more fun to bounce around.
I’m fairly certain my mom will like this project. She’s likes everything I write. And she LOVES Gene Hackman. I hope others will find it interesting as well.
But, in the end, I’m sure that I’ll enjoy it more than anyone.
A Roadmap: The Four Versions of Gene Hackman
To categorize and contextualize the long list of Hackman performances, I’m going to borrow some wisdom from an 2015 Grantland article by Steven Hyden.
In a searching for a common thread in Hackman’s work, Hyden noticed that his roles ebbed and flowed to reflect specific changes in society:
Nevertheless, there is a thematic link in Hackman’s movies, and it doesn’t square with the word most often used to describe him: Everyman. On the contrary, Hackman played exceptionalists — cops, lawyers, coaches, military leaders, heads of industry, Lex Luthor. For more than 30 years, people bought movie tickets to watch Hackman take charge. He was a molder of men: Hackman taught Redford how to ski, DiCaprio how to shoot, and Keanu how to play quarterback.
As the culture’s perspective on Great White Males changed, so did cinema’s view of Hackman. If you want to chart how attitudes about power shifted in the late 20th century, Gene Hackman movies are a good place to start. His filmography unfolds as a treatise on how authority is established, then corrupted, then dissolved.
Following this general outline, most Hackman performances fall into one of four basic categories. These are “The Four Versions of Gene Hackman.”
Version 1: Post-Watergate Gene Hackman
America’s faith in its leaders started to wane after Vietnam and Watergate. And this is precisely when Hackman became a big deal. He most often played strong and capable men who nevertheless fell victim to their own flaws or the inherent weaknesses of authority and institutions.
These are the types of characters he played in movies like The French Connection or The Conversation.
Version 2: Reagan-era Gene Hackman
In the 80s, popular culture reflected a renewed respect and admiration for authority and authority figures, even those with conspicuous moral failings. For Hackman, this meant that more of his characters got to win at the end of the movie. This shift suited his talents nicely.
This is the Gene Hackman you see in movies like Hoosiers and Mississippi Burning.
Version 3: Bad Dad Gene Hackman
The cultural pendulum swung back in the 90s as movies once again became skeptical of the establishment. Hackman shifted again, most often playing a specific type of villain or foil: He was the archetype for the bad father/mentor figure younger protagonists had to defeat or leave behind as a rite of passage.
This is the Gene Hackman in films like The Firm and Crimson Tide.
Version 4: Against-Type Gene Hackman
Hackman spent most of the latter years of his career playing weak or corrupted authority figures. But, in between those parts he found opportunities to, in Hyden’s words, “embrace his inner buffoon.” These against-type performances were among the most memorable of his career.
People tend to bring up The Royal Tenenbaums when discussing the last years of Hackman’s career. This is probably his most widely acclaimed comedic performance.
I agree that he’s pretty great in that film. But, truth be told, I prefer his work as the moronic schlock filmmaker Harry Zimm in Get Shorty. Or his shamefully overlooked portrayal of late-90s social conservatism in The Birdcage.
As I embark on this long, nerdy voyage, these four categories will help me navigate the waters. Of course, there are Hackman performances that don’t fit neatly into just one of these silos. I expect those will be among the more interesting pieces to discuss.
Long story short, this is gonna get interesting. At least I hope will.
Like I said, I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy myself either way.