Gene Hackman turned 82 this week. A true artist, his acting transcends accents and costumes, and his talent reaches across all movie genres. I think what I admire most about Hackman is his voice. It’s a wonderfully raspy, folksy instrument that he uses to be charming, soothing, threatening, befuddled, condescending or inspiring – as he sees fit.
Consider this a meager attempt at repaying decades of moviegoing enjoyment.
BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967)
This was Hackman’s breakout role, and it was hard to miss. With its startling violence and sly social commentary, “Bonnie and Clyde” created an absolute sensation. Hackman played Buck, older brother of Warren Beatty’s Depression era bank robber, Clyde Barrow.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)
Hackman took center stage for this one, getting his first Oscar in the process. As brutal cop Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, he offers a blue-collar, no-nonsense intensity that doesn’t feel forced. He also gets to be part of a movie car chase that is one of the best in film history.
THE CONVERSATION (1974)
Here’s one of Hackman’s great introverts. Harry Caul, a government surveillance operative, is the personification of paranoia and isolation. It seeps into his soul, corrupting him the way it corrupts our social institutions.
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)
This one is a real comic gem. For a change, Hackman is unrecognizable as a blind man who encounters the Monster in Mel Brooks’ classic comedy. Without resorting to exaggerated movements or vocal qualities, Hackman delivers huge laughs simply with his command of timing. It’s a great cameo in a great movie.
NIGHT MOVES (1975)
“Night Moves” is an underrated private eye flick that, in my opinion, belongs right up there with noir-ish 1970s flicks such as “The Long Goodbye” and “The Late Show.” Why? Because Hackman makes every step seem natural and spontaneous, while still being true to the classic themes of the movie gumshoe.
Oh, but he can chew some scenery, too, can’t he? As Lex Luthor, evil genius, Hackman was perfection. He tapped into the humor of the role without losing his edge, making Christopher Reeve seem all the more upstanding and heroic.
As a sports fan and a native Hoosier, I can tell you that Hackman’s performance as a small town basketball coach with a troubled past has become iconic among a lot of guys. Mr. H. is masterful here, knowing when to play it stoic and when to tug on the heartstrings.
POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE (1990)
This one is another cameo, but it’s terrific. Hackman plays a kindly movie director dealing with an insecure actress, played by Meryl Streep. He’s patient, supportive, constructive – and best of all, he quietly matches Meryl step for step in their scenes together.
Now we get to something amazing. In Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” Hackman is a sadistic sheriff, Little Bill Daggett. Rather than go for a full-tilt, larger than life tone, he shades his performance, finding bits of truth, humor and delusion to mix with the rage and gleeful violence. His scenes are remarkable.
THE QUICK AND THE DEAD (1995)
Same genre, also a bad guy – yet an entirely different kind of performance. Everything in “The Quick and the Dead” is about flash and style, so Hackman makes the appropriate adjustment. He swaggers his way beautifully through every word he utters. He even holsters his guns with bullying bravado.
GET SHORTY (1995)
What a sublime shifting of gears. In a supporting role, Hackman plays a likable, but weak-willed Hollywood B-movie producer. He’s employing the lightest of touches here, perfectly matching the material.
THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS
Quite possibly my favorite Hackman performance. It’s deadpan, nuanced comedy acting at its finest. He’s the title character here, in a typically peculiar Wes Anderson film about a dysfunctional family. There’s not a wasted movement or syllable in his work, whether he’s faking an illness or hitching a ride on a garbage truck. His delivery of the line, “Let’s shag ass,” has made me tumble out of a chair, laughing.
There are other favorites, too: “Zandi’s Bride,” “Enemy of the State,” “The Birdcage,” “Scarecrow,” “Crimson Tide.” So much good stuff. Happy Birthday, Mr. Hackman.