The Good, the Bad & the Badass: Gene Hackman
Last week, we took a look at the career of director William Friedkin, whose film – THE FRENCH CONNECTION – marked the arrival of this week’s legend as one of the definitive actors of the last forty years.
I’ve actually been putting off writing about Gene Hackman. More than anyone else I’ve profiled, Hackman deserves to be called a “bad-ass” not just for his iconic performances, but for the integrity he brings to all of his performances even if the movies weren’t always up to snuff. The reason I was reluctant to profile for him is simple. Take a look at his filmography on the IMDB. Notice how many great movies he’s been in??? Most actors are lucky if they get to be in one or two truly great movies. Hackman’s been in DOZENS, many of which – admittedly – are made great by his performances. But given his body of work, something’s sure to get overlooked.
Anyone remember the joke in PCU, where one of the characters tries to prove that at any given time of the day there’s always a Gene Hackman or Michael Caine movie on? Sure enough, during the eighties and nineties Hackman was insanely prolific (he’s one shy of having one hundred acting credits on the IMDB), but the thing about him was that even if the part was small or the movie wasn’t so great, he always gave it his all. That’s a work ethic that I think has been lost on a lot of modern actors. How many of our favorites have occasionally phoned it in? Hackman never did, not even in something as innocuous as WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT. As he’s my father’s all-time favorite actor, I grew up on a steady diet of his movies in the eighties and nineties, and I’ve been a fan of the guy for as long as I can remember. Go to his filmography on the IMDB, pick a film at random, and I guarantee you it’ll be worth watching, even if only for Hackman. And given the number of outstanding movies he’s been in, you probably have a really good chance of choosing something outstanding.
Yeah, there’s absolutely no way I can chose just one movie here. Hackman’s been making movies for fifty years, and he’s got at least ten performances on his CV that would be a career best for anyone else. If I had to choose three movies that best sum up Hackman, I’d choose THE FRENCH CONNECTION, MISSISSIPPI BURNING and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS.
While these are three wildly different performances, they have something in common. Throughout his career Hackman’s specialized in playing deeply flawed men who you can’t help but sympathize with or root for. In each of these movies, Hackman plays a rather unconventional hero. In THE FRENCH CONNECTION, he’s a racist slob of a cop, who’s nonetheless incorruptible, and won’t let anything stand in the way of him doing his job. It’s sad to think that nowadays Popeye Doyle would never make it to the screen as he did in 1971. Can you imagine a major action film with a hero who uses racial slurs, endangers civilians, and accidentally kills a fellow cop? It seems unlikely, and I wonder if anyone but Hackman could have pulled this off.
Alan Parker’s MISSISSIPPI BURNING is another procedural, starring Hackman as a southern FBI agent who – along with his more by-the-book partner (Willem Dafoe) investigates the disappearance of three civil rights workers in a small Klan-run town in Mississippi. Again, he's an unconventional hero. While not a racist, his motives are harder to discern than his more immediately compassionate partner (Dafoe) although in the end it's his tough brand of police work that solves the crime. It's another tour-de-force performance and one of his best.
Hackman's last truly great performance (to date) was in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. Much has been written about how Hackman clashed with Wes Anderson and didn't necessarily want to do the film in the first place, but it can't be denied no one but Hackman could have played the part. He's alternately hilarious, reprehensible and touching. With all due respect to Denzel Washington, Hackman – who astonishingly wasn't even nominated – should have won the Oscar that year.
I've never been a fan of Hackman's interpretation of SUPERMAN villain Lex Luthor. While Hackman probably shouldn't be blamed, Luthor was too likable, which is not necessarily a quality you want in your super-villain. He's so broad that he feels like a leftover from the old Adam West BATMAN TV series. Again though, Hackman's not really to blame. On the plus side, Hackman apparently had a great relationship with Richard Donner, and when he was sacked from SUPERMAN II, Hackman quit in solidarity, which is why he's looped for about half of his screen-time in the sequel. In the Director's edition you get Hackman's original voice.
Hackman's got dozens of movies I'd call underrated, but in the interests of choosing one I'm pretty sure a lot of you haven't seen, I'm going to go with UNCOMMON VALOR. Ever wonder what RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II would have been like with Gene Hackman as Rambo? Guess what – that movie exists! Two years before (and a year before the similarly themed MISSING IN ACTION) Hackman played a retired Colonel who leads a rescue mission into Vietnam to rescue his MIA son. The issue of unaccounted for MIA's was a touchy one in the eighties, and UNCOMMON VALOR was the first movie to address it. Directed by Ted Kotcheff – who perhaps not so coincidentally directed FIRST BLOOD – UNCOMMON VALOR is a real hidden gem as far as eighties action movies go. It's loaded with action, and has a cool cast of characters, including Fred Ward as a shell-shocked tunnel rat, TRANCERS star Tim Thomerson, Randall “Tex” Cobb in a rare good-guy part, and a young Patrick Swayze (the fight scene between Cobb and Swayze is great). Hackman is top-notch as always, bringing a lot of heart to what could have been just another run-of-the-mill action flick. The bittersweet ending is especially good, and if you haven't seen this one it's well worth checking out. The 1975 western BITE THE BULLET is another one that's worth checking out. Last time I checked, a lot of DVD copies of the movie come bundled with THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, which is yet another underrated one.
I wasn't sure what to put here as I used the famous FRENCH CONNECTION chase in last week's write-up of William Friedkin. While I could have chosen many other scenes, I decided to choose something fun. During his early-heyday, Hackman (who had never really done comedy) did a brilliant cameo in Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, spoofing the “old blind man” scene from BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. If the result doesn't make you laugh you have no funny bone.
Sadly for us, Hackman's been retired since 2004 and he's doesn't seem eager to work again. He's been offered numerous roles, including the lead in NEBRASKA, but he's turned them all down. If Alexander Payne can't get him back in front of the camera, I think it's safe to say no one can.
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