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Gene Hackman – A career in brief

Not as intense as De Niro, not as cool as Pacino, and not as handsome as Redford, Gene Hackman is the rough-necked everyman of great American character actors. Already creeping into middle-age when 1967’s Bonnie And Clyde brought him stardom and a first Academy Award nod, the screen has always known him as a little bulky, a little sulky, and set apart from the dynamic flamboyance of his more fashionable New Hollywood counterparts.

But ‘everyman’ does him no justice at all. Behind the broad frame and creased brow, Hackman has a tenderness and a twinkle that saw him move from upcoming support player to leading man with The French Connection in 1971. Hackman’s pork pie-hatted Popeye Doyle swaggered through grimy, sweltering New York streets on his way to earning the actor his first Oscar, and was perfect for the burgeoning star – foulmouthed and flawed, with a complex but unspoken history etched in Hackman’s 40-year-old face.

Proving he could do big-shouldered mainstream as well as low-budget grit, straight after The French Connection Hackman donned a titanic polo-neck and hairpiece combo for disaster blockbuster The Poseidon Adventure. Then, shifting gears again, he gave what arguably remains his career best performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s delicate between-Godfathers masterpiece The Conversation. More than any of his contemporaries, through the charged, changing landscape of 1970s Hollywood Hackman combined bankability and dazzling, daring talent. Talent that saw The Conversation’s Harry Caul slowly unwind from gruff professional to wide-eyed obsessive as Hackman’s earnest vulnerability grasps an almost existential loneliness (“I’m not afraid of death,” he confesses during a tortured dream, “But I am afraid of murder”.)

When he moved to New York in the late fifties, West Coast native Hackman had settled into a high-spirited collective of fellow Next Big Things – Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, James Caan – that fuelled chat show anecdotes for the next four decades. “We’d have little parties because we didn’t have any money,” Hoffman remembers. “If someone were to say, at any of those get-togethers, ‘See those three guys there? They’re going to wind up being movie stars,’ the place would have laughed. And we would have laughed the loudest.” This was Hackman last big secret – that as well as intense and stoic, that weathered face could wrinkle into a wry smile and he could do /funny/. His deadpan timing is immaculate as the blind hermit in Young Frankenstein (“I was gonna make espresso…”) and his gleefully benevolent Lex Luthor is the beginning and end of larger than life cinematic supervillainry.

The quality of Hackman’s CV might have dipped in the eighties – in line with Hollywood’s entire output – but the solidity of his onscreen presence remained. In fact it grew, from swarthy to statesmanlike, as the actor became a shorthand for authority both good and bad in the likes of Hoosiers, No Way Out, and, moving into the nineties, glossy hits Crimson Tide and The Firm. This is the closest he gets to cruising – letting his worn gravity command the screen while he collects the cheques – but even this later period is sprinkled with gems: callous lawman Little Bill Daggett in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and patriarchal anti-hero Royal Tenenbaum in Wes Anderson’s dazzling family drama. Now 80, Hackman has officially retired, but Royal is how we’d like to remember him – effortlessly engaging, uncomplicatedly emotional, and with a devilish twinkle in his eye.

Key Films

Bonnie And Clyde (1967)

Hackman beams with happy-to-be-here exuberance as elder Barrow brother Buck in Arthur Penn’s game-changing arty gangster flick. The brash chuckler has fewer brains than Hackman’s later characters, but was the perfect foil for Beatty’s immaculate Clyde.

The French Connection (1971)

“Doyle is bad news. But he’s a good cop” grunts the release trailer for William Friedkin’s uncompromising thriller. Friedkin didn’t like Hackman for the rough-housing lead, but with Newman, McQueen and Gleason turning it down, Hackman puts on a career-making show.

The Conversation (1974)

An in-the-groove Hackman learned to play the saxophone to voice the anguished isolation of monosyllabic wire-tapper Harry Caul in Coppola’s claustrophobic classic. He’s the flawless focal point of a near-flawless film – studied, serious, and achingly alone.

Mississippi Burning (1988)

Righteous fury lights up Hackman’s Agent Rupert Anderson in this tinderbox of racial tension set in the deep south. Anderson is savvy and savagely moral, and forms the ultimate good-cop-bad-cop double act with Willem Defoe’s soft-faced liberal.

Unforgiven (1992)

No character illustrates the moral blankness of Clint Eastwood’s Western return better than Sherriff Bill Daggett – in his own mind a steel-fisted lawman with dreams of a peaceful future, but in the eyes of the audience a dangerous sadist who enjoys power for its own sake.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

A fitting finale, Hackman’s last great film confronts love, regret, and mortality all through the meticulous geek-gaze of director Wes Anderson, who assembles an almighty ensemble to toy with in his giant doll’s house of a set.

This text first appeared in Total Film #176.

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