Thursday, January 30, 2014

Hackman 84

illus. by Hedward Brooks
     Gene Hackman turns 84 today. Unfortunately, the two-time Oscar winning actor and historical fiction scribe hasn't been seen in anything since 2004's Welcome to Mooseport. Just prior to that it seemed like the December period of his long and celebrated career was only getting started with a sterling part in Wes Anderson's follow-up to Rushmore (1998), the less intriguing but equally distinctive The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Hackman has always had a unique appeal to all genders, races and ages. Like Steve McQueen was to a generation of post-hippie, would-be badasses, Hackman brought a real-world quality to every role and seemed like he was someone you could glean sage advice from over a couple beers. He was no bullshit. From such diverse parts in I Never Sang for My Father (1970) to Night Moves and Bite the Bullet (both 1975), Hackman proved he could master any genre; whether just supporting (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967), starring (Hoosiers, 1986) or simply playing a walk-on (Reds, 1981). To celebrate, I've selected five of my favorite Hackman performances in no particular order. So, as you go about your day, take a moment or two to give thanks to Mr. H., and think of the void his retirement from acting has left the film world.

Young Frankenstein (1974)
as Harold, the Blindman
Hackman went uncredited in the original theatrical release for his hilarious bit as Harold, the blind hermit out to spare Frankenstein's poor Monster on the lam, only to eventually scare him off with some dangerous hospitality. It left some viewers scratching their heads at first trying to place a name with that unmistakable voice and visage behind the old man beard and wig. Hackman had just scored an unqualified hit with the waterlogged The Poseidon Adventure (1972), played in two back-to-back character-driven classics (Scarecrow; The Conversation) and it seems as if it was finally time to do something just for fun. Plus, he earned points for pronouncing "espresso" correctly; without an "x". Next stop: Superman (1978); Loose Cannons (1990)

The Birdcage (1996)
as Senator Kevin Keeley
Of all Hackman's great comedic performances, and there have been several (Get Shorty also springs to mind), his surprisingly fresh turn as a loony Senator out to meet his daughter's future in-laws and save his own career in the process was one of the best. Mike Nichols' film is a marvel of efficiency. Every single character is fully developed, and Hackman gets just as many laughs playing the proverbial "straight" guy as his more flamboyantly funny costars. Some fans of the original (La Cage aux Folles, 1978) may have shrugged this one off, but I'm telling you, this film is a modern classic. Next stop: All Night Long (1981); Full Moon in Blue Water (1988)

French Connection II (1975)
as Det. Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle
Sure, Hackman won an Oscar for the first film, but his obsessive "Popeye" Doyle was played to complete perfection in this oft forgotten continuation of the 70's greatest dope saga. With John Frankenheimer at the helm (replacing William Friedkin who won an Oscar for The French Connection, 1971) Hackman really got a chance to settle into the part that made him a household name. This film was darker, edgier and more European in style as well as locale. A must-see for all aspiring Hackman aficionados. Next stop: Uncommon Valor (1983); Mississippi Burning (1988)

Unforgiven (1992)
as Little Bill Daggett
I never seem to tire of talking or writing about this film. It's one of those rare, perfect scripts; conventionally straight-forward yet somehow experimental in the way it refuses to be pigeonholed or predictable. The brilliance of course is that it intentionally ends up being an example of the very thing it professes not to be: a legend. Hackman finally landed the role he had been preparing for his whole career as the villain we somehow still love (that is until he whips Morgan Freeman's character to death). The Academy honored him with a second Oscar (for Supporting Actor) and Eastwood's film has since aged like fine wine. They broke the mold with this one. "Duck, I says." Next stop: Cisco Pike (1972); No Way Out (1987)

Zandy's Bride (1974)
as Zandy Allan
Not much really happens in terms of plot in Jan Troell's (The Emigrants; Everlasting Moments) largely overlooked film, but like a Wyeth painting, there are secrets hiding just beneath the seemingly simple surface. Just as polarizing with critics as it was with audiences, this is the type of film my friend (and fellow Western-connoisseur) Eddie might say: "looks like one that could make me ball my eyes out"; not from any histrionics or melodramatic devices, but from the very honesty of its essence. Hackman plays Zandy, an angry, cruel man who seems to have it in for his new bride (the luminous Liv Ullmann) the moment he sees her. Troell simply lets the actors breathe in their parts, and stays out of their way. It's an approach that in the wrong hands could spell disaster, but here it accentuates the plainness and authenticity of these character's lives. Hackman is incredible in the way he never slips into caricature and somehow earns our sympathy. Harry Dean Stanton and the late Susan Tyrrell (two of my all-time favorites) also shine. Next stop: Prime Cut (1972); Eureka (1984)

1 comment:

  1. Gene Hackman is a classic star and a gentleman