The Careful Craftsmanship of Gene Hackman

His shaggiest role

I’ve written about almost every other major cast member of my second favorite movie (the first film I ever saw in a cinema) The Poseidon Adventure (1972) except perhaps the most important one, Eugene “Gene” Hackman, born 1930. My explanation for this omission is that the springboard for this blog was originally show business, and there are plenty of show business angles to Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson, Red Buttons, Leslie Nielsen, Ernest Borgnine, Stella Stevens, Roddy McDowell, Carol Lynley and even Eric Shea (I still have a few more to do). But Hackman is quite a serious man, not a show biz type at all. He was, however, one of the finest actors of his generation, certainly ranking with his former room-mates Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall. And like his old compadres, he lived in that welcome new territory of the combination character actor/ leading man. And completion mania will out, so here we are.

In Poseidon, Hackman made a big impression as a renegade, foul-mouthed preacher who brow-beats a bunch of misfit ocean liner passengers into saving their own lives after their ship capsizes. In Paul Gallico’s original book, the character was a crew-cutted ex-football star who dabbled in paganism and was possibly gay. In the blockbuster film, he was still macho, but groovy, with long-hair and turtlenecks, making all the women swoon, which was more in keeping with the times. Producer Irwin Allen had hired Hackman for prestige. He was fresh off his Oscar-winning performance in The French Connection (1971) and two Oscar nominations before that, for Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and I Never Sang For My Father (1970). Though it was a major hit, Poseidon would not burnish Hackman’s already stellar reputation. It”s never spoken of as one of his great performances and he had to utter a couple of downright terrible lines, but it made a huge impression on this seven year old, especially Hackman’s spectacular martyrdom at the film’s climax.

One of the things that’s unique about Hackman is the range he is capable of without doing much to step outside his natural qualities. He doesn’t put on dialects or change the register of his voice. He is always Gene Hackman. But he is still able to embody a wide range of roles by exploring the frontiers of his own psychology. As the Reverend Scott in The Poseidon Adventure he is charismatic and outgoing. In Francis Ford Coppola’s low-key thriller The Conversation (1974), he is a quiet non-entity. In Bonnie and Clyde he was a jovial, dumb good-old-boy who robs banks. In the nearly forgotten drama I Never Sang For My Father, a middle class college professor who has never outgrown the shadow of his old man (Melvyn Douglas).

Popeye Doyle is generally considered his most iconic role, an anti-hero New York narcotics detective, a street-savvy Archie Bunker with tenacity and an inexplicable midwestern accent.

One of my personal favorites is the unjustly forgotten Scarecrow (1973), a buddy film reminiscent of Midnight Cowboy, with Hackman and Al Pacino as a pair of drifters. Hackman’s character, an ex-con, seems at the opposite end of the spectrum from Popeye, and shows how Hackman could alter himself to suit a part. Some of Hackman’s other interesting work from this rich creative period include Michael Ritchie’s mob drama Prime Cut (1972), the hippie drug yarn Cisco Pike (1972) with Kris Kristofferson, the obscure but extremely well-done western Zandy’s Bride (1974) opposite Liv Ullman, his famous if inexplicable cameo in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974) , Arthur Penn’s neo-noir Night Moves (1975) with a young Melanie Griffith, Stanley Donen’s prohibition comedy Lucky Lady (1975) with Liza Minnelli and Burt Reynolds, the fun western horse race Bite the Bullet (1975), and Nicolas Roeg’s epic Eureka! (1983), which has much in common with There Will Be Blood. 

As opposed to the early ’70s when all the work seemed interesting and worthy, by the ’80s, only occasionally did Hackman get what passed for semi-serious employment in the Hollywood of that day. Some of the halfway decent later films included Hoosiers (1986), Woody Allen’s Another Woman (1988), Mississippi Burning (1988), and Postcards from the Edge (1990). Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) proved another high water mark, one of Hackman’s best performances (his second Oscar) and one of his best films. It spawned a brief western phase that included Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), Wyatt Earp (1994), and The Quick and the Dead (1995). Other later films of relative quality included Get Shorty (1995), Nichols and May’s The Birdcage (1996), The Royal Tennebaums (2001), and Welcome to Mooseport (2004).

Prior to his golden era, Hackman had done time in the theatre, at the Pasadena Playhouse, and on Broadway and Off-Broadway. He was in his first major film, Robert Rossen’s Lilith, with Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg in 1964. Other notable early stuff included the all-star caper film The Split (1968), the sky-diving romp The Gypsy Moths (1969), the critically-acclaimed Downhill Racer (1969) which was Michael Ritchie’s first film, and the all-star astronaut thriller Marooned (1969), originally devised by Frank Capra, but eventually filmed by John Sturges.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses. Hackman had begun getting cast on television in 1961. If he had played the part of Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch, as was originally intended, his appearances in most of his more brilliant films would not have been possible. And this goes to a larger critique of Hollywood, for of Hackman’s 100 screen credits there is a lot to be greeted with indifference. After the peak in the mid 70s, his movies and the parts he was given to play became far less interesting, sometimes just plain dumb. I guess because he possessed something akin to machismo (he was a former marine and an offscreen brawler) his later resume includes a surfeit of suspense and acton films in roles that many less-talented actors could have played, things like A Bridge Too Far (1977), The Domino Principal (1977), the Superman movies (1978, ’80 and ’87), Under Fire (1983), Uncommon Valor (1983), Target (1985), No Way Out (1987), Bat*21 (1988), The Firm (1993), Crimson Tide (1995), Enemy of the State (1998), Under Suspicion (2000), Behind Enemy Lines (2001), and many more with titles like these that are too boring to type. How are these not all the same movie? I’m sure he was glad of the paycheck, but they sure were a waste of Gene Hackman. This terrific interview in The Guardian reveals why he took a lot of that work.

By 2004, Hackman had retired at age 74. In this period he focused primarily on writing novels. He has written five of them: Wake of the Perdido Star (1999), Justice for None (2004), Escape from Andersonville: A Novel of the Civil War (2008), Payback at Morning Peak: A Novel of the American West (2011), and Pursuit (2013). The first three were written in collaboration with Daniel Lenihan. They sound a lot like his movies.