By John H. Foote
He was one of the greatest character actors in movies, his immense talent crossing over to leading status. Honest, real, truthful in every performance he ever gave, I am not sure one could ever catch him “acting”. He burrowed under the skin of each character he brought to the screen, bringing a unique take to each.
Gene Hackman retired from acting a few years back after a fifty-year career in which he won two Academy Awards, should have won a couple more, two awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and countless other awards and accolades.
The last time I encountered Hackman was in my hometown of Port Perry, where he and Ray Romano were shooting the comedy Welcome to Mooseport (2004). I had interviewed Hackman in the past, four or five times, and he spotted me watching in the crowd, politely keeping my distance. Walking over with a smile, “Mr. Foote isn’t it” he said to me amazing the local onlookers. He shook my hand and pulled me along with him into a nearby restaurant where we grabbed a coffee, ice tea for him. He loved the town, was renting a house on the nearby island where they choppered him to and for the shoot in the downtown area. We had about half an hour before they called him to set, he shook my hand, gave me Hackman smile and said, “Maybe we can do this again while I am here John”. One of his last films, it is a shame he did not go out on a higher note, though his best performance came just two years earlier.
Rooming with Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall in New York, trying to break into the theatre scene, Hackman finally found a breakthrough role on film as Buck Barrow, brother to Clyde in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Brilliant as the boisterous crook, he earned his first of five Academy Award nominations, and more work came his way. He was nominated again as a son struggling to connect with an arrogant, domineering father in I Never Sang for My Father (1970) before landing the role that made him one of the seventies major actors. As Popeye Doyle, an obsessed, tough as nails narcotics detective in The French Connection (1971), despite battling with director William Friedkin, the actor was stunning winning the Academy Award and New York Film Critics Awards for Best Actor. Friedkin shot on the film on the streets of New York, often guerrilla style, no permits, and asked Hackman to be authentic, using his research to create Popeye. Hackman often did not understand where the young director was going, and despite many rough days, he trusted a Friedkin, the result being the years Academy Award winning Best Picture and Best Director. From there Hackman had his pick of roles, and long with Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman, had his pick of great roles. .
He worked in big Hollywood films such as The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and was just as comfortable in small personal films, like Scarecrow (1973) with Pacino. In The Conversation (1974) he gave one of his finest performances as Harry Caul, a professional surveillance expert who becomes increasingly paranoid in his work. Though nearly a silent performance, Hackman deserved an Oscar nomination that did not come.
For French Connection II (1975) he again deserved to be nominated but was not, but for me, the performance in that sequel was truly more powerful than the first.
Unlike his co-stars Burt Reynolds and Liza Minnelli, he survived the debacle that was Lucky Lady (1975), and was well cast as villain Lex Luthor in Superman (1978), his big broad performance just what the picture needed.
Hackman everywhere in the eighties. Brilliant in a supporting role in Reds (1981), again in Under Fire (1983) before giving an array of superb lead performances in Twice in a Lifetime (1985), Hoosiers (1986), No Way Out (1987) and best of all in Mississippi Burning (1988) for which he should have won his second Oscar, bested, ironically by his former roommate Hoffman in Rain Man (1988).
He finally did win that second Oscar for his terrifying performance as a sadistic town Marshall in Clint Eastwood’s superb western Unforgiven (1992), taking with her m the lions share of critics awards as well. It would be his final nomination despite giving the best performance of his entire career in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) as the rascally, criminal minded patriarch who wants to make amends with the family he hurt. He won the Golden Globe but incredibly, was not up for the Oscar. I still cannot wrap my head around that one.
- THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001)
As the conniving, lying, manipulative patriarch of a family of child over achievers, Hackman was never better. You can see the wheels of deceit constantly moving in his brain, just behind those sparkling with mischief eyes. Banished from his family, he misses them so attempts to return but constantly makes it worse, until he finally breaks through. With so many great performances around him, you gain insight into his greatness in that you cannot stop thinking about him long after the film ends. Utterly shameless, stooping so low to pretending to have cancer, with such a jolly disposition, Hackman makes us like him, and damned if we do not. Oscar should have come calling for this but sadly he was not even nominated.
- UNFORGIVEN (1992)
Hackman won every Best Supporting Actor available to in him, including the Oscar for his intense and terrifying performance as sadistic town Marshall Little Bill Daggett. A renowned gunman who just wants to build his house (poorly) and rule the town with terror and vicious beatings, the character is among the most purely evil in cinema. Hiding behind a smiling demeanour he turns violent in a heartbeat, and once started there is no stopping him. Watch the scene where he whips a man with a bull whip, leans in over his shoulder and talks gently, like a lover, about having to get mean. Frightening.
- FRENCH CONNECTION II (1975)
Though he won the Oscar for the first film, and deserved it, his work in the little-known sequel is far more complex. Sent to Paris, France to aid the French police in tracking the drug cartel that eluded him in New York, Popeye is a fish out of water, but knows crime and where to find it. Trouble is the criminals know him too, kidnap him, and addict him to heroin, before tossing him out of a car in front of the police station where the horrors of withdrawal are waiting for him. Brilliant and troubling, again, the Academy missed this one.
- THE CONVERSATION (1974)
Francis Ford Coppola directed, produced and wrote this gem between his Godfather films, at the height of Watergate when fear and paranoia had gripped America. Harry Caul (Hackman) is a gifted surveillance operator who says little for fear of being recorded, but captures much on his whirring machines. The growing sense of paranoia is superbly captured in Hackman’s fine performance as we watch a man have his own machines turned on him. Again, Oscar noticed the film, but missed the actor.
- THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)
Hackman won his first Academy Award as tough as nails narcotics detective Popeye Doyle, a mean as sin cop willing to bend, and break the rules to nail the French leader of a massive drug cartel. Hackman owns the film, giving a blustery though powerfully focused performance as a man obsessed with his work because he has nothing else, and he knows it. Shot in a documentary fashion, Hackman struggled initially with the Director, but eventually they were in synch and the actor carried the film. A superb, realistic performance that catapulted Hackman into the forefront of American actors.
- MISSISSIPPI BURNING (1988)
Hackman should have won Oscar number two here for his brawny southern FBI agent sent to find the killers of a trio of Civil rights fighting youths, two white, one black. Understanding the politics of the small southern town where the Ku Klux Klan is alive and well, he is like a massive bull in a china shop, bashing his way through the rednecks politics to get to the killers. Underneath the anger and rage is a deep-rooted self loathing that he is one of them, which shames him. There is a gentle romance between he and a young woman married to the vicious deputy, Frances McDormand and Hackman have a lovely chemistry and it displays the range of the actor. Ironically, he lost the Oscar to former roommate Dustin Hoffman…a mistake.
- BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967)
As bombastic Buck Barrow, brother to Clyde, Hackman is outstanding as a good old boy who drags his hysterical wife Blanche into the world of the title characters. Handy with a gun and fearless, Buck is a good addition to the gang but his wife is not, and sadly he knows but is so hen pecked by her he cannot say a word. Hackman spends the final third of his screen time bleeding profusely from a head wound that has blown part of his head away. This performance caused him to leap into the big leagues, and brought him his first Oscar nod.
- UNDER FIRE (1983)
In 1979, ABC news correspondent Bill Stewart was gunned down by soldiers during a routine inspection during the civil war in Nicaragua which set off an international incident. Hackman is Alex, based on Stewart, a newsman called back to the States to be an anchor for the network, only to return to the hot spot in Nicaragua where he meets his doom. The actor is terrific here as an arrogant man who may not be news anchor material, but he thinks he is, he believes he deserved the post. Stewart, arrogant or not, certainly did not deserve to be gunned down in the streets as cameras captured it of film. An urgently brilliant film when released, superbly acted by Nick Nolte, Joanna Cassidy, Ed Harris and Hackman
- YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)
In an unbilled cameo, as the blind hermit who gives shelter to the creature created by Frankenstein, Hackman is hilarious. Blind, he has no clue of the mayhem he causes, pouring scalding soup into the lap of the monster, smashing the cups together ending any chance of wine and finally setting the poor monsters aflame thinking he is lighting a cigar, all with genuine hope and kindness that he has at last found a friend. Hackman clearly was having great fun n the role and he displayed a true comic talent, up to that point untapped.
- HOOSIERS (1986)
As the decent coach of a basketball team not expected to win but who end up State champions the actor is rock-solid, fatherly, brotherly, the foundation of goodness on which the team was built. Knowing his assistant is the town drunk, but has a keen eye for the sport he trusts him, just as he trusts his team to reach down and dig deep. Little does he know they dig for him, they do their best for him. There is a quiet romance on the side, but the film is about a coach and his team. One of the great sports films, with a powerhouse performance from Hackman.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.