When I heard the recent announcement that Robert Redford was retiring from acting, I thought, what better time than now for us to discuss one of the best actors of his generation: Gene Hackman.
Of course you agreed. Hackman has been a favorite of yours, mine and Roger Ebert as far back as we’ve been aware. He’s been retired since 2004’s Welcome to Mooseport. Being a new husband, father and then looking for work for the first time in 15 years, I didn’t take the time back then to lament what his leaving the scene meant to cinephiles. It did make a dent in our lives, though, as time away from new Hackman performances revealed.
We decided to watch two lauded Hackman films that we have never seen. Very easily we came up with I Never Sang to My Father (1970) and Night Moves (1975). Knowing that Ebert gave both of these films his highest rating helped in the decision. There are a lot of gaps for both of us in his 70’s work. It’s a tough decade for us who came of age on the movies of the 80’s. This proves accurately evidenced by our reaction to the films, if not his performance in each of them.
There are a few Hackman stalwarts in the decade that we keep going back to watch. First being his Oscar-winning performance as Popeye Doyle in French Connection. Another is his current changing performance in The Poseidon Adventure. Then there’s The Conversation and Superman.
In the 80’s and 90’s he always has had something coming out too recently for me to search too far back in his past for something on video tape. Accessibility and modernity had something to do with my choices. This was before the advent of streaming. Hence, with our ability to decide what to watch on a Saturday morning and pay for two $3 Amazon rentals later, we’re on our way.
What did you think of our first choice, I Never Sang for My Father?
This is a movie I knew by reputation, and I guess I never saw it before because I had a general idea of what “type” of movie it was going to be. This was the beginning of the era of self-analysis, and movies that would explore family dynamics and suppressed feelings. And while the film’s plot was similar to what I expected, it was well worth watching, at least once. The performances were solid from top to bottom.
This is one of Hackman’s earliest starring film roles, and yet he was not a young man here. He found fame a little later in life than most leading men of his time, much like Paul Newman. But the Hackman we all know and love is on display here. For much of the movie he is carrying suppressed feelings, but he finally has an explosive scene near the end which gives us hints of the Hackman we will see prominently in many films in the next 25 years. This scene also earned him his second Oscar nomination.
Beyond the performances, there are frustrating and distracting elements of the film. Some of them are just a product of the time. Others are more puzzling. The sound mix in particular comes to mind. Background noises, such as birds chirping, were obtrusively loud, often competing with the dialogue for attention. This hardly seems like a conscious choice.
What are your thoughts on the film?
Many of the elements that were a product of this time scream obnoxiousness at viewers who were raised in the post Jaws / Star Wars era, of which I am definitely a part. Quite a few dramatic films of the era grew out of plays which dealt with an exploration of the human condition.
That Hackman came from a stage acting background is definitely in evidence here, as he is at home in every scene. We see his performance as a type of growth of character. He’s perfectly cast as a man who is in touch with his feelings and completely honest with himself and others…except for his father, played by fellow Oscar nominee Melvyn Douglas.
As you state, the performances all throughout are worthy and in a playhouse, this would definitely be worth seeing. As a film, this, like the era just doesn’t resonate as a complete experience. One of my favorite feelings in watching a film with you is when we both experience something shocking. There’s always a look at each other for a reaction. This time didn’t disappoint.
Near the beginning of the film, just after the opening scenes at the airport and on the way home, we see the family arrive. Then this, almost 5 minutes in, a warbling theme song, causing both of us to cringe:
It’s as out-of-place here as any song I remember hearing. If they’d wanted to just play the theme for 30 seconds, then perhaps the song over the end credits, it may have worked better. This is another product of the time, though. Push a song at the start of the film, like insisting that the audience find the feeling the director doesn’t appear to trust they would discover in the normal course of the story. Kind of like having There’s Got to Be A Morning After sung at night on the Poseidon Adventure, before the events of the night have occurred.
Despite this, I definitely enjoy seeing the gift that Hackman has in full evidence. His buildup to the dramatic final scene is remarkably powerful, to the point where we get that delightful Hackman scream, totally appropriate in the climax of the final act. No one of his era was ever more at home with silence and then with screaming in the same film as Hackman.
The second film of our day had a completely different feel than the first, though.
A different feel for sure, but equally frustrating. At least it was frustrating for different reasons. If I had to pick a favorite of the two, it would be Night Moves, although it has a very convoluted plot and moments that just don’t hold up to scrutiny. What it does have in common with the earlier movie is Hackman, and he is the best thing in both films.
The idea of Hackman as a private detective is a good one. Detective movies had a bit of a resurgence in the 70’s. Elliot Gould starred in The Long Goodbye. Donald Sutherland starred in Klute. Paul Newman starred as Harper in two movies. Hell, even Mitchum starred in two Philip Marlowe adaptations in the 70’s, even though he was clearly too old for the part by that time. As great as all of those actors are, Hackman gives the best performance of the bunch in my opinion, even though the film is uneven at best. I could easily imagine Hackman playing Harry Moseby in a succession of films, had this one been a bigger success. Hackman doesn’t strike one as a franchise man (although he would put the lie to that by the end of the decade) but he so naturally inhabits Moseby’s skin, that we can’t help but like him even though his life is a mess.
Just as with the other film, there are intrusive elements here that scream 70’s, primarily the soundtrack, and also the treatment of women characters who seemingly exist only to screw Harry Moseby either literally or figuratively.
What did you take away from this one, good and bad?
It’s a mess that thinks it’s a good film. Several elements hinge on things said by characters heading off-screen. It took us three run throughs just to figure out why the hell Moseby went out on the boat with the two women at night. Just to hear the third time that Tom said for Paula to take Delly out swimming. The entire plot hinges on what happens after this. Not to mention the fact that the metaphor that the title is based on “Knight Moves” takes place for no particular reason the night before.
It’s not a mystery, and there certainly is no moral to the story. Like Homer Simpson said once: “It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened.”
The thing is, the watchability of this story is entirely due to Hackman’s acting. He is helpless to these events, even if he has a bunch of tools that could be useful. Who could pull off a character like this, to counter the frustrated, but dutiful son we see in the first story?
This is the thing about Gene Hackman to me. It didn’t matter the quality of the work around him. It similarly did not matter what the plot required. He constantly rose up to or above what the occasion required and became what the story needed from him. The list of examples is endless.
I recently watched Mississippi Burning again. The story on it’s own is a good one, even if it seems to play a little bit with the facts, it also captures a feeling. Willem Dafoe is good as lead agent Ward. Frances McDormand was nominated for an Oscar as Mrs. Pell. This film had Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey, Michael Rooker and Stephen Tobolowsky as antagonists, for Christ’s sake. It’s a murderer’s row.
The thing that keeps me going back, though, is Hackman. Whether he’s feeling people out telling that joke about black men playing baseball, or showing Mrs. Pell genuine affection while winning her over to the good or the scene below, he absolutely steals this film from that entire cast.
Just look at the way he puts down that bottle, finishes Rooker off, then takes another sip. An absolute cinematic monster. No one even comes close.
And it’s only one of my favorite Hackman scenes. A good bookend to this scene is from Get Shorty. He is the complete opposite in terms of power, but he steals the scene from the desk to the floor in his absolute cluelessness.
What kinds of scenes come to your mind when you think of Gene Hackman?
The first scene that comes to mind is the first one that made me aware of Hackman as an actor. And that was his death scene in The Poseidon Adventure. All of those epic disaster films of the 70’s used to air on TV in the early 80’s as a “movie of the week” and I ate them up. I was really into the disaster flicks. They were chock full of stars, and even at a young age I realized that they were hamming it up. But Hackman was on another level. While Ernie Borgnine and Shelley Winters (great actors both) seemed to be there for the paycheck, Hackman was taking his role seriously. The other element that made it powerful was that he was playing a priest, so the Catholic boy in me was drawn to that. And not just any priest, but a priest that yelled at God! Who besides Hackman could imbue that scene with so much power, without ever losing plausibility. That’s the thing about Hackman, he makes you believe in his character no matter how silly the plot (an upside down ocean liner!) may be.
Another one that resonates with me is his portrayal of Harry Caul in The Conversation. While the movie is ostensibly about the uncovering of a murder mystery, it is equally a character study, as Caul becomes increasingly paranoid, to the point that it consumes him. That last scene of him alone, with no dialogue, as he meticulously strips his entire apartment down to the boards in search of a listening device that probably isn’t there, is a perfect portrayal of an obsession carried too far.
The final one I will mention is a real favorite of mine, The Royal Tenenbaums. It is very much an ensemble piece, but Hackman is the titular head of the family, and all of the other characters, and their collective neuroses, circle around him in their own crazy orbits. The film is ultimately about redemption, how Hackman redeems himself and heals his family as his dying act. We both love Hackman for his bluster, but here he wins me over with a very quiet moment. There is a short, simple exchange between Hackman and Ben Stiller near the end of the film. If this scene were removed, the movie would be unfulfilling, but this one minute scene ties the whole film together for me. They are kneeling over a Dalmatian dog. “I’ve had a rough year, Dad” Stiller says. “I know you have” Hackman replies, placing a hand on Stiller’s shoulder. So simple, and yet it demonstrates that this father/son relationship is healed. After, as Stiller walks away, Hackman stands alone. You can see him reflecting on his life, on what he has wrought, and you can imagine him thinking “my work is done.” The angelic music on the soundtrack adds to the feeling. I can’t watch this scene without shedding a tear.
So there are three very different examples of Hackman’s greatness.
And not one word about The French Connection or Unforgiven.
To pick that film would almost feel like an insult to the ability and greatness of Gene Hackman. This is certainly not because the performances aren’t worth of the Oscars he received for both.
I do need to point out his performance in the winning of both awards, however. Even here, Hackman exhibits the power he holds over an audience. Whether intentional or not, Gene always looks like we’ve caught him mid thought, and it is a thought he means to complete. Whether he completes it with us there or not is not as important.
The first one, for his work as Popeye Doyle, he starts off by very humbly thanking his acting teacher who sat right in front of him. He thanks all of the requisite people who he worked with in the film. Then he slows down, looks up, and very earnestly thanks his wife. He stumbles a bit here. You feel the love and gratitude he has for his wife for bringing him to this moment. One gets the feeling Hackman doesn’t feel entitled. Just lucky. I wonder if Halle Berry ever felt so humble.
The moment over two decades later doesn’t seem any less enigmatic and powerful. His speech is even shorter, if that can be believed. There are no jokes. There is no transparently false references to how lucky he is just to be on stage with the other four. We get a few quick thanks, a chuckle, then a few more. Then he pauses, ever so slightly and deliberates. What is he thinking? He actually appears to be feeling a moment 1000 miles away. He then dedicates “my part in this evening” to his Uncle, Orin.
A tiny bit of research, by Roger Ebert, ironically, reveals that his uncle “he passed away last night, and I just learned about it today. He was a newspaperman in Rochester, New York, a painter, and a really interesting guy. He was 88.”
That was the depth of the man. He has a lot going on, yet is simple. He’s believable only because he is in no way attempting to convince you about anything. He’s like our father, grandfather or uncle from any era. He’s seen it…he may even be the cause of it. He’s not going out of his to describe it to you. He knows it’s something you need to see for yourself.
We see it, though. And it is perfectly described. Through his weary eyes.
Kind of like Norman Dale, from Hoosiers.
I think your summation is perfect. He’s believable because he’s not trying to sell it to the audience. Gene Hackman probably never wanted to be star. He probably could not care less about being in the limelight. He was just a guy who chose a craft, and dedicated half a century to being the best at that craft that he could be. And in the process, gave us an unforgettable body of work. A body of work which makes Hackman one of the greatest actors of our lifetime, and arguably of all time.
And with that good sir, I bid you good day.
Good day, indeed.