Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #24 - Gene Hackman


The Royal Tenanbaums
Superman II
Crimson Tide
The Poseidon Adventure
Now Way Out
Young Frankenstein
The Quick and the Dead

Gene Hackman is best known for playing tough guys.  As a result, much of his career is littered with over-the-top machismo.  But the reason why he was chosen for those roles is because he had a chance to shine as a man of hulking authority, not in frame, but in screen presence.

Hackman won an Oscar for the overrated Unforgiven.  The flaws in this movie are much more reflective of Clint Eastwood's inefficient style, not because of the performances, particularly Hackman's.  His Little Bill is a sadist who wraps himself in the law to justify his violent tendencies.  He goes from smiling to scowling in a way that fills you with terror.

His characters always project strength as he did in Crimson Tide, where is tough-as-nails captain is in a battle of authority with his first officer.  But he doesn't play these characters as 1-dimmensional.  His performance as Herod in The Quick and the Dead has some truly wonderfully understated moments where he realizes he has to fight his son or when he begins to experience real fear for the first time in years.  You can also see that fear in his trapped performance in No Way Out as he feels the walls closing in on the cover up for the accident death of his mistress.  You get a knot in your stomach just hearing the stress in his voice.

That does not mean that he doesn't have a wide range of emotions.  His coach in Hoosiers is very stoic and understated.  But when he very simply and unguardedly says, "I love you guys," it echoes deeply because of the depth that Hackman brings.  And no performance of is more heartbreaking for me than his Rev. Scott in The Poseidon Adventure.  The movie captures in a concrete, physical way the frustration that evangelizers feel every day.  Scott is trying to save everyone, but they won't listen.  And when they don't listen, they willingly embrace destruction.  He can only bring a few on the narrow path and many of those won't make it.  I will never forget his embracing the comic-tragic Mrs. Rosen and crying.  And it all culminates with his love/hate relationship with God over all of the pain they have endured.

But he also had a strong comedic side.  Many criticize the goofy tone of Lex Luthor in the Superman movies, and rightly so.  But given that it was his job to play Luthor the way Richard Donner prescribed, Hackman did an excellent job of being a callow con-artist.  It is particularly funny how he uses all the powers of his sycophantic scurrying to not only incur favor with Zod, but avoid his wrath.  And his turn as the blind man in Young Frankenstein is hysterical.

Gene Hackman, like Sean Connery, has quietly retired from acting.  But he has left us a great body of work to admire.

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