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The Hard-Won Legacy of Gene Hackman

Posted: 03/21/2010 5:06 pm

The story of Gene Hackman, who quietly turned eighty just two months ago, is one of raw will and talent overcoming a host of limitations that would have defeated most people.

He was the child of a broken home who lied to get into the Marines at 16. Later, he would study at the University of Illinois on the G.I. Bill, while maintaining a series of menial jobs, from doorman to furniture mover. At thirty, he still had no idea what his true calling was.

Then he recalled seeing Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire years before. Compared to the traditional glamorous Hollywood star, there was something powerfully authentic about the way Brando looked and performed. Hackman remembered thinking that maybe he could do that. Now, a decade later, the idea came back to him, and he promptly enrolled in The Pasadena Playhouse.

If Hackman was seeking some validation of his abilities there, he did not find it. Receiving rock-bottom ratings for his efforts, he resolved to go to New York, where soon enough he'd be sharing an apartment with fellow Playhouse alum Dustin Hoffman. These were lean times, to put it mildly.

After doing off-Broadway and summer stock, in 1964 Gene was chosen for a Broadway part where he received good notices. This led to a small role in the Warren Beatty film, Lilith. Beatty was sufficiently impressed by Gene's work to later cast him as his brother Buck in the breakout hit Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

Now Gene was working steadily in Hollywood. Against all odds, he had become a working actor, which was really all he wanted. Stardom did not seem desirable, much less attainable.

Then a young director named William Friedkin knocked on his door, seeking a lead actor for a cop film based on a true story, to be called The French Connection (1970). Gene was not first choice; a host of other actors, including Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen, and Peter Boyle, had turned it down. Incredibly, journalist Jimmy Breslin had been tapped for the part, but Friedkin was reconsidering that choice after several weeks of rehearsals.

Gene, of course, devoured that role, winning himself the Best Actor Oscar in the process, and achieving the movie star status he'd never expected. Then, over the next thirty-plus years, he'd go on to become one of the most admired and prolific actors in the business.

In 2004, without much fanfare, he retired from the screen... though of course there's always hope he might be tempted back for the right part. As the multitude of fans who miss him hope for that outcome, they still have a host of enduring Hackman titles to fall back on, a few of which follow:

The Conversation (1974) -- Detached and distrustful of others, surveillance expert Harry Caul (Hackman) is a deeply private, virtually friendless man whose life is consumed by his special brand of freelance intelligence work. Hired by corporate director Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) to monitor the conversation of a young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest), Caul is troubled by the fragments of talk he illicitly captures on tape and begins obsessively piecing them together, suspecting a murder is in the works. Made before he began work on The Godfather, Part II Francis Ford Coppola's prescient, haunting drama is a brilliant character study set in a pungent atmosphere of paranoia and conspiracy. Hackman is the dark heart of the film, playing a profoundly solitary man tortured by guilt, complicity, and his own inability to trust anyone, including girlfriend Amy, played by Teri Garr. Coppola's most artful film, The Conversation is dark, brooding, mysterious, and ultimately, completely unnerving.

Night Moves (1975) -- Private-eye Harry Moseby (Hackman) takes on a missing-persons case: former Hollywood starlet turned alcoholic has-been is missing her wild young daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith), who's taken off for parts unknown. The case is a welcome distraction from Harry's own problems, as he's just learned his wife Ellen (Susan Clark) is having an affair. Harry finds Delly with her stepfather in the Florida Keys and after a time, returns the precocious girl to her much-despised Mommy. With this disillusioning assignment behind him, Harry can't shake the feeling he was missing something down in Florida. A tragic event spurs him to uncover the missing piece in the puzzle. The revered private eye film gets updated to the 1970s at the expert hands of director Arthur Penn. Hackman is tailor-made for Moseby, a regular guy who once played football, and who's much better at snooping on others than figuring out his own disordered life. Young Melanie scores in her feature debut as the teenage temptress, and look for James Woods in an early role as Delly's good-for-nothing boyfriend. Don't miss this vastly under-rated whodunit.

Under Fire (1983) -- During an excursion to Chad, combat photographer Russell Price (Nick Nolte) meets Claire (Joanna Cassidy), a dogged American radio journalist who's on her way to war-torn Nicaragua, where Sandinista rebels are fighting to overthrow the corrupt, US-backed Somoza regime. Attracted to Claire, whose ambitious boyfriend Alex (Hackman) is returning to the States and a possible TV-anchor job, Russell decides to tag along. Together, they enter the crossfire of a conflict that will change them both in unexpected ways. An engrossing, still timely drama about the role of the news media in covering violent political conflicts, Fire asks us to consider the ethics of objectivity, dramatizing the political transformation of a man who, in an act of journalistic deception, chooses to choose sides. Nolte is excellent as Price, the rugged veteran who experiences a change of heart behind rebel lines, while Hackman, Cassidy and Ed Harris, playing a steely soldier-for-hire, add further fuel to this Fire with gutsy supporting roles. A tense object lesson in the dangers of eyewitness reporting.

Hoosiers (1986) -- Norman Dale (Hackman) has a checkered past coaching basketball, with his natural gift for the game repeatedly undermined by a volcanic temper. Finally exiled from college ball, he takes a job coaching an Indiana high-school team with low morale and limited prospects. On a mission, Norman proceeds to whip the team into shape, but not before ruffling some influential feathers. Will Norman keep his job long enough to see how far his team can go? Deeply felt, tense and exciting, this fact-based movie is anchored by yet another bravura Hackman performance, as a man who must confront his demons and restore his own sense of worth. Dennis Hopper also registers in an Oscar-nominated turn as Shooter, a former player who loves the game, but who's also the town drunk -- until Norman jolts him back to help the team. Also credit director David Anspaugh's expert shooting of all the on-court play, which steadily builds suspense all the way to a breathless climax. Jerry Goldsmith's rousing original score also received a well-deserved Oscar nod. Here's that rare thing: a good old fashioned, feel-great movie for the whole family (though best for older children).

Mississippi Burning (1988) -- Alan Parker's blistering film recreates the true story of three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964, and takes some dramatic license in doing so. Agents Rupert Anderson (Hackman) and Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) arrive down South to investigate the disappearance of the three men (two white, one black), and their warm welcome comes in the form of a burning KKK cross. Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey, Gailard Sartain and Michael Rooker make up this unsavory welcome party, and Frances McDormand is also on hand as Dourif's abused wife. The FBI team must then break through this small town's wall of silence to solve the mystery, while trying to control violent retribution against the local black population. Though detractors claim the movie inaccurately depicts a white FBI coming in to rescue helpless blacks, in fact the film features some extremely courageous black characters, and at the outset, the FBI seems more muddled than heroic. Regardless of debates on historical accuracy, the movie remains a skillfully paced nail-biter -- and it's extremely well-played. Though McDormand was Oscar-nominated for the small but pivotal role of Mrs. Pell, the movie is Hackman's, as he turns in his most explosive performance since The French Connection (he also got a richly deserved Oscar nod for this).

Unforgiven (1992) -- In the waning days of the West, one drunken, nasty customer in the town of Big Whisky brutally disfigures an otherwise innocent prostitute when she laughs at the wrong moment during their encounter. When brutal, corrupt Sheriff "Little Bill" Daggett (Hackman) lets the man off with little more than a slap, the girl's colleagues decide to raise a bounty for the culprit. Learning this, long-retired gunslinger Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood), whose pig farm is failing, resolves to pick up his weapon once again, and old colleague Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) goes along for the ride. The craggy, mellowing Eastwood directs himself admirably in this scenic, first-class oater, which strikes an ideal balance between character piece and action film as it portrays a rapidly changing way of life. Nominated for nine Oscars, Unforgiven nabbed four, including Best Picture and Best Director for Clint, and a Best Supporting Actor award for Hackman, whose Daggett is deliciously despicable. Look too for the late Richard Harris in a showy turn as one "English Bob," a self-aggrandizing old gunslinger who gets on Daggett's bad side.

Get Shorty (1995) -- Chili Palmer (John Travolta) is a gifted film producer trapped in the body of a loan shark. When he goes to Hollywood to collect on a debt from movie schlock-meister Harry Zimm (Hackman), he ends up pitching him a story instead. Soon he's also wooing Harry's frequent star, B-movie queen Karen (Rene Russo), who's known as the best screamer in the business. Chili's start in show business seems auspicious, but then gets slowed somewhat by the arrival of some shady figures from his day job. Still, for us viewers, this only makes his odyssey more colorful. Barry Sonnenfeld gets the credit for helming the best screen adaptation of any Elmore Leonard work to-date. Scott Frank's Golden Globe nominated script vividly brings to life the author's hysterically low-life characters, while recreating the unique cadences of Leonard's imcomparable dialogue. The result is a flashy, fast and funny outing which lampoons Detroit goombahs and La-La land fringe-dwellers with equal abandon. The players are all in top form: Hackman has never been funnier, and Dennis Farina almost steals the picture as a disgruntled mobster who has an axe to grind with Chili. Look fast for a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini as a hapless bodyguard.

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