Tuesday, June 12

Gene Hackman

This is in part a tribute to an ex-neighbor of mine, Trudy, who was over the moon about Gene Hackman.  She even had a couple of framed pictures of him in her bathroom.  I always wondered how Gene felt watching me like that in so private a moment.  Trudy thought he was very handsome.  She would correct that and say manly and then say, well, he is both.  I know I never confused him with a trio of his costars, Beatty, Redford and Newman, but I had to agree with Trudy when she said that Hackman was one of the best actors around.  He has made some 80+ movies, most of which were quite good.  Of course there were a few stinkers in there but he's entitled.

Hackman looks like a great many men I have known in my life... mainly friends and acquaintances of my parents.  He lived for a time in Danville, Illinois, and I have been there a number of times.  While not born there, it's where he was raised and has that everyman face, brushed with earnestness and a singleness of purpose when he takes on a task or gives his word.  He is, I guess, a far cry from the movie glamour boys but I have always loved his face, feeling a comfort that I would with a favorite uncle.

Let's not mistake any of this with corny because there isn't a thing corny about Hackman.  He reeks of passion and worldliness (sometime wearily) and he is without a doubt one of the best yellers in the business.  When this man wants to raise his voice angrily, you better hold on to your hat.  Karl Malden stay home.  And he is not always the good guy either.  He can play a good guy with issues and he can play the baddest badass you might never wanna run into, whether out on the Pecos or in a Manhattan boardroom.

He struggled early on on the mean streets of Manhattan along with his pals Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall.  Actually all three of them would usher in a new type of actor.  Not able to rely on looks in a looks-driven industry, they had to pull up stuff from deep inside them to become respected actors.  I have enjoyed them all, too, but have probably enjoyed Hackman's formidable body of work more. 

Ultimately he made it to Hollywood and within just a few years he was playing Buck Barrow in 1967's iconic Bonnie and Clyde.  While Warren Beatty was looking around to cast the gangster epic, he met Hackman when they appeared in Lilith (1964).  Bonnie and Clyde would change the way movies were made (as would The Graduate, starring Hoffman).  Both gents would become world-famous because of these roles alone and both would receive Oscar nominations.

He spent the rest of the 1960s making The Gypsy Moths, Downhill Racer and Marooned and more and then in 1970 he made the film that I think is arguably his best, that of the never-good-enough son in I Never Sang for My Father, also starring the equally formidable Melvyn Douglas.  Both men received Oscar nominations playing strong men wrestling for control.  What a powerful film this is.  If you haven't seen it... um, Netflix.

I should hang my head in utter shame for having never seen The Conversation (1974).  I know... I know.  Don't know how I missed it in first-run or why I've not seen it since.  It's true that the imagined (on my part) slow pace of the film may have had something to do with my neglect, but that usually doesn't get in my way of seeing a respected film with an actor I quite like.  Must put this on my movie bucket list.

A year earlier he made a forgotten little film called Scarecrow.  For the life of me I do not get why this wasn't more popular.  Migawd, Al Pacino is in it, too!  The guys play a couple of drifters heading across the U.S.A. and it makes for wonderful acting for two acting genuises.  Netflix.

In 1971 Hackman won a richly-deserved Oscar for playing Jimmy Doyle, cop extraordinaire in The French Connection.  Some would say this was his best acting ever and I will not argue.  He punched that screen to the point my jaw was hurting sitting in the audience.  And sitting there a few times as I recall.  It is one of the more in-your-face cop stories that set the tone for many to follow.  Hackman has always had a soft spot, I think, for playing opposite other men, and here it was Roy Scheider keeping up all the way.  The movie contains one of the best car-chase scenes ever filmed... watching Gene in these scenes had me bug-eyed.  Trudy, too.  I remember her telling me.

I did, of course, see 1972's The Poseidon Adventure and so did you.  So did everyone else and well they should have.  Hmmm, I missed The Conversation and applaud The Poseidon Adventure...?!?!  Hit your delete key.  I hate to go all Simple Simon on you but the main task of all these moviemakers, past and present, is to keep me bloody entertained... and I sureinthehell was.  Hackman and Ernest Borgnine snarling all the way from the top up to the bottom of that ship was well worth the price of admission.

Sprinkled throughout the 70s were three turkeys (or at least cornish game hens) with Candice Bergen and also Prime Cut, Zandy's Bride, Night Moves, Lucky Lady, and of course a sequel to The French Connection.  Hackman began the 1980s with one of his most well-remembered roles, super villain Lex Luthor in Superman.  He no doubt gained a whole new audience with this performance.

Villainy occupied a lot of his time on screen, either in the form of political thrillers (No Way Out, Power, Absolute Power, Enemy of the State) or corporate America (The Firm, Corporate Business) or westerns (The Unforgiven-- for which he won another Oscar and is one of the best westerns ever made-- and The Quick and the Dead, among a cast that included Sharon Stone, Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio).  Military movies, such as Under Fire, Uncommon Valor and The Package, were another genre for which his take-charge nature was quite suited.

In 1986 he made a film for which he should be very proud to have been a part of and that was Hoosiers.  By this point I had lost track of Trudy but I'll venture a bet that this became one of her favorite Hackman movies.  It is a sports movie and even if this is not your favorite kind of film (it's not mine), treat yourself.  Netflix.  It is about a coach with a past and a town drunk who work miracles to bring a smalltown Indiana high school basketball team to glory.

In 1988 he made one of my favorites of all his films... Mississippi Burning, with three other great actors, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand and Brad Dourif.  It was about the murder of Civil Rights activists and the two vastly different FBI agents handling the investigation.  Another gripping Hackman performance, very worthy of his Oscar nomination.

In 1991 he played one of his tough father roles (to Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) in Class Action about father-daughter lawyers on opposite sides of the same case. I have always remembered that some of the dialogue between the two principals made me wince... really strong stuff. Too bad more people didn't see it.

Then, of course, in closing, let's not forget to mention The Birdcage (1996).  You didn't know Hackman was in it?  You didn't recognize him?  Take a closer look at the above picture.  Who did you think it was, Jo Ann Castle, the ragtime piano playing diva of The Lawrence Welk Show?  No, sillies, it's our Gene going all drag on some reporters out to mess with him as he's trying to hightail it out of a gay nightclub.

Hackman liked to work.  It no doubt stemmed from his everyman background.  By no means have I mentioned all of his films... there are simply too many.  If I missed a favorite of yours, I am sorry.  Write and tell me what it was.  Having made so many films, it was wonderful of the Golden Globes folks to honor him in 2002 with their Cecil B. DeMille award for his outstanding contribution to the entertainment field.  Well, I should think so.

We shall draw the curtain on this tribute to a very serious actor (although I am recalling The Birdcage) by telling you something amusing, a bit of a knee-slapper really.  Did you know that Hackman, yes Gene Hackman, was in the early running for the father role in TV's The Brady Bunch... ?!?!  Can you see him as Mike Brady?  Frankly, I can't.  But oh my God what an actor.

In 2004 he made his last film.  Larry King interviewed him afterwards and asked him what he had lined up and he said there was nothing.  He said he guessed he was retired.  It seemed like it was just occurring to him.  Our loss, that's for sure.  He became an author, having written several novels.  How I wish he would write his autobiography.  As I say time and again, if an actor doesn't want to write about a personal life, then write about the professional life.  Just write about your experience making all those 80+ films with all those actors and directors and film locations.   What a book that would be.

How'd I do Trudy?

NEXT POSTING:  Favorite Movie #36


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