Spotlight On: Gene Hackman

Acting is a business few people truly retire from, most just take on fewer and fewer roles until they die. But Gene Hackman is one of those rare cases where he has seemingly left show business for good. Considering the incredible body of work he has left behind for audiences I would say the acclaimed actor has more than earned this break. After a stint in the Marines as a teenager, Gene Hackman was bit by the acting bug and though he struggled for years and was never expected to amount to anything eventually things fell into place. Cinema in the 70’s liked tough, grizzled leading men and Hackman had that quality as he proved in his breakout film The French Connection. From there his star only grew as he could dependably turn in an incredible and rich performance no matter the role. With a stellar career filled with memorable performances it is time to shine the Spotlight On Gene Hackman.

The French Connection (1971): The movie seen by many as the greatest cop movie of all-time proved to be the movie that made Gene Hackman a star. As surly NYPD detective “Popeye” Doyle, he is the quintessential 70’s movie cop who takes no crap from criminals or the system. When he discovers a vast drug smuggling conspiracy run by powerful people, he is far from intimidated and sets out to bring them down. Featuring the best car chase in movie history, the French Connection put Hackman and the film’s director William Friedkin on the Hollywood A-list.

The Conversation (1974): Introverted surveillance expert Harry Caul has built a profession recording those who do not want to be recorded. What his clients do with that audio is never his concern, until this latest job. While tailing a couple, he begins to suspect they may be in danger from powerful people who do not mind resorting to lethality. Directed by the legendary Francis Ford Coppola, Hackman disappears into an under-the-radar master of his craft who learns when you peer into the private lives of others there are consequences. Famed movie critic Roger Ebert claimed this performance was the actor’s peak portraying one of the most “tragic characters in the movies”.

Night Moves (1975): A slick neo-noir with a psychological bent courtesy of acclaimed screenwriter Alan Sharp is bound to be a daunting task for any leading man. But Gene Hackman took that lead role and crafted it into one of his most memorable performances. Aging Los Angeles private eye Harry Moseby is hired by an aging actress to find her missing daughter, and the trust fund money that daughter provides. He soon finds himself thrown into a complicated case with plenty of twists and turns while also struggling to rebuild his own failing marriage. With the role of Harry Moseby, Hackman took the template of the cinematic PI and added new layers to the archetype.

Superman (1977): When assembling the first ever big budget studio superhero film an all-star cast was needed to bring legitimacy to the production. One of the biggest names they got was Gene Hackman who would bring to life Superman’s arch nemesis Lex Luthor. While he may not be the sharp businessman modern fans may recognize, Hackman’s Luthor is still a greedy egomaniac who looks to make money no matter who dies. It is easy to see the Oscar winner is having a blast hamming it up as the supervillain, though he refused to come back for the sequel (body doubles and deleted scenes from the original were used) as a protest against the poor treatment director Richard Donner received from producers.

Hoosiers (1986): One of the all-time great sports films sees Gene Hackman cast as Norman Dale, the new coach of a struggling high school basketball team. Charged with turning a motley group sans their best player into a winning team will not be easy and it is only a matter of time before everyone turns on him. Eventually he gets through to his players and leads this band of misfits to a championship. One of the great underdog sports flicks Hoosiers has become an absolute fan favorite and a staple of sports cinema.

Mississippi Burning (1988): Based on the real life murder of three civil rights activists in Mississippi by white supremacists with powerful ties. The FBI sends two agents to investigate, played by Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman. Dafoe is the young Northerner Alan Ward who is an alien world, and Hackman plays Rupert Anderson, a man who’s roots are in the world of Deep South law enforcement so he has a better understanding of what is at play. The headstrong Agent Ward soon learns that the methods utilized by his more experienced partner is the way to go. Almost from the start, acclaimed director Alan Parker knew he wanted Gene Hackman as the lead of his star-filled ensemble and the actor was eager to do a historical drama so everything fell perfectly into place.

Unforgiven (1992): easily one of the greatest Westerns ever made, this Clint Eastwood directed film looks at the truths behind the myths of the American West. In a town in Wyoming, Sheriff “Little Bill” quite enjoys the amount of power he wields and uses a reluctant biographer to build up his legend. Little does he know, a storm is coming his way in the form of the aged and retired outlaw Will Munny. Hoping to leave his past life behind to be a family man, the call of a bounty proves to powerful and brings the old gunslinger out of retirement. For his charismatic performance as Little Bill, Gene Hackman took home the Oscar and the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor.

The Firm (1993): To be honest, living in Memphis one of my favorite parts of watching this movie is catching the landmarks and going “oooh that’s Blues City Café” or “Hey, that’s warehouse where the beer garden is now” but I digress. As the senior partner at the small but prestigious law firm, Bendini, Lambert & Locke, Avery Tolar is able of offering the world on a silver platter to the young and hungry new associate Mitch McDeere. In exchange he only demands loyalty and secrecy, but when Mitch finds out just how deep he is in with this firm, this loyalty and secrecy becomes harder to give. While his character in the source material is an outright ruthless villain, Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Avery is a more well-rounded character who is more of a mentor to the naive Mitch.

The Birdcage (1996): The acclaimed English language remake of the French film La Cage aux Folles, features a scene stealing Hackman as a staunchly conservative senator being duped at a family dinner. When his daughter getting married, Senator Kevin Keeley feels the need to meet the young man’s parents. Unbeknownst to him, these parents, Armand and Albert Goldman, are the owner and top performer of a South Beach drag club. The Goldman’s try to play it straight for the “family values” senator and his wife, but when the press starts getting wind of what is going on Keeley’s career could be in danger. Fitting in perfectly with an incredible cast of Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Dianne Wiest, Christine Baranski, and Hank Azaria; Gene Hackman proves to be the perfect comedic straight man to bounce off of.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001): Regarded by many as the last great picture Hackman starred in, the Royal Tenenbaums was actually a movie he had no desire to do. Director/writer Wes Anderson created the role specifically for him, but it took convincing from both his agent and co-star Angelica Huston to take it on. While stories abound of the actor being cranky and difficult to work with on-set, one can not deny how great he was. As the aging patriarch of a brilliant but dysfunctional family, Royal Tenenbaum finds himself trying to reconnect with those who had largely written him out of their lives.