Gene Hackman has not made a movie in 16 years, and I have spent every minute not forgiving him.
Theoretically, I acknowledge that the acting legend deserves some hammock time. When he called it a day on his movie career, he was at the perfectly reasonable retirement age of 74. And he didn't even really retire, since he has written or co-written several novels since then. Still, call me selfish, but I miss seeing him on screen.
He gets a lot of attention for a guy who's been out of the public eye (although not its ear — for years, he was the voice of Lowe's and United Airlines commercials). Retired or not, he was identified as "the greatest living American actor" in a Grantland essay a few years back. Quite a few tributes popped up online when he turned 90 in January. And one of his best-loved performances, in "Hoosiers," has been getting quite a bit of play as the nation's sportswriters, absent games to write about, compile lists of the greatest sports movies.
One fascinating thing about Hackman's enduring popularity — a Backstage.com story claims he's the actor everybody loves — is that he usually plays jerks. In roles ranging from a stubborn teacher/coach who arrives in a small town with no emotional baggage and very little back story ("Hoosiers") and a blind man in a sidesplitting comedy ("Young Frankenstein"), Hackman is almost always a friendless loner. This may have to do with Hackman's history — he has talked about his father deserting his family when he was young — but the actor can convey that quality of isolation in a variety of ways: as shyness, bravado, rage or self-deprecating humor.
As an actor, Hackman tends not to reveal a lot. His characters always seem to be keeping secrets, which may help draw us to him. Or maybe it's just Hackman's everyman magnetism that attracts us, since he doesn't even need good material to shine. "Welcome to Mooseport," the lousy comedy that unfortunately capped his movie career, is distinguished by a line that must have resonated uncomfortably with Hackman: "I had dignity once. Does anybody remember that?" But even in the film's trailer, it's obvious that Hackman is giving it everything he has. That's also true of his work in "The Poseidon Adventure," one of the all-time-best bad movies, and even his tiny role in "Reds," a performance that chagrined director Warren Beatty years later when he learned Hackman (incorrectly) thought he hadn't done a good enough job to please Beatty.
What other movie star would nurse that insecurity for two decades? For that matter, what other movie star looks or acts less like a star than Hackman, who managed a high-profile, four-decade career without revealing much of anything about himself?
Certain characteristics travel from one Hackman role to another — a wry smile, a short fuse, that chuckle that indicates he doesn't think what he's laughing at is funny at all — but he showed enormous range across more than 100 TV and movie roles. And somehow, whether he was trying to take over the world in "Superman," robbing banks with "Bonnie and Clyde" or dealing tough love to Meryl Streep in "Postcards From the Edge," he always seemed like one of us.
'The Conversation' (1974)
Being born in a caul is supposed to be good luck, but Hackman's character, Harry Caul, has anything but in this riveting, slow-burn thriller, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It's Hackman in sad loner mode, up against a government conspiracy whose power he is not equipped to fight.
'The French Connection' (1971)
Hackman's early-1970s imperial period began with him as a type of character he'd return to: lawmen who are just barely on the right side of the law (his Oscar-winning turn in "Unforgiven," which just missed this list, is another). Still as electrifying as the day it was made and boasting maybe the best car chase in the history of film (give or take "Bullitt"), "The French Connection" earned Hackman just about every award, including the prestigious Kansas City Film Critics Circle best actor prize.
'Mississippi Burning' (1988)
The white-savior aspect of this drama about racial tensions in the 1960s does not hold up well, but it boasts my favorite Hackman scene. He's an FBI agent trying to figure out what happened to civil rights activists who vanished. Near the end, he shares a charged moment with the Mississippi woman (Frances McDormand) whose courageous testimony led to justice. They've fallen in love, they want to express that, they know there's no way it can lead anywhere and they regret parting even before they do — all of which the Oscar-nominated pair conveys with barely a word.
'The Royal Tenenbaums' (2001)
A lot of Hackman's comedies are unworthy of him. (Remember "Loose Cannons," opposite Dan Aykroyd? Nobody else does, either.) But this is a very big exception. Hackman's deadpan delivery suits Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson's droll script to such an extent that his reprehensible patriarch becomes weirdly charming.
'Night Moves' (1975)
Probably the least-known movie on this list, "Night Moves" is a quietly engrossing film noir with Hackman as the world-weary private detective. It reteamed him with "Bonnie and Clyde" director Arthur Penn and features Melanie Griffith's first movie credit, playing a teenager at the center of the mystery.
'Runaway Jury' (2003)
There's something to be said about each of the three John Grisham adaptations that featured Hackman as menacing figures, but Gene's penultimate film is my favorite. In part, it's because it pairs him with the unknown actor he roomed with when both began their careers, Dustin Hoffman. Also, it's because Hackman seems to be having so much fun digging into the juicy improbability of Grisham's legal thriller.
When I recently re-watched this small-town-Indiana-basketball-team-triumphs drama, it wasn't quite as good as I remembered, mostly because the games are poorly filmed. But Hackman's scenes with reluctant love interest Barbara Hershey and dissolute compadre Dennis Hopper are pure gold.