Sunday, January 31, 2010

He's No Hack

Cure for Sale - Loomis + the Lust (mp3)
Written All Over - The Jayways (mp3)

Ever seen Hoosiers? God I love that movie. For a stretch of about 10 years, I would watch that movie the week before the NCAA basketball tournament began, back during the time when I was under the illusion that cheering for UNC was anything at all like rooting for the little engine that could.

Anyway, there was always one scene in Hoosiers that left me feeling really icky. Cold shivers up my spine. Hair on the back of my neck raised. A pinch of nausea.

Barbara Hershey’s character finds Gene Hackman’s coach walking out in a field. (There’s a lot of those in Indiana.) They talk. He tries to explain his sketchy past. She, 18 years younger, caves in to his sad song, and they kiss.

You remember back when Al Gore kissed Tipper at the DNC, and the entire viewing universe offered up a collective groan of uncomfortable disgust? Well, Al stole that move from Gene Hackman from Hoosiers. It was disgusting enough the first time around. Al Gore’s version was like the Gus Van Sant remake of Psycho.

That scene is, to the best of my knowledge, the only time I can ever recall watching Gene Hackman and thinking, “That’s Gene Hackman, and that’s just wrong.”

The rest of Hoosiers, and the rest of his career, Gene Hackman never really did anything to make me think much about him. And I mean that to be just about the best compliment I can offer an actor.

A recent issue of Newsweek offers a brief but great send-up of this man’s career, a career that is apparently over.

Did you know Hackman hasn’t been in a movie since 2004?! Neither did I. Combine his remarkable acting with his unremarkable looks and his uninteresting personal life, and you have someone who, when their name isn’t on the marquis, can be out of mind when out of sight.

But when he’s in sight? When he’s on that screen? Hackman is like BASF. He doesn’t make the movie you watch; he makes the movie you watch better.

I just looked through his list of 70+ movies, and I can’t see a single one where any actor could have taken his role and made the movie better. Did some of his films suck? Sure. Was he the sole reason Unforgiven was amazing? Of course not. But even Michael Jordan didn’t win every year. He was on some shitty Bulls teams. And the Wizards. And the Barons, fer Chrissakes. It’s not like he won a World Championship every year. And Jordan won titles thanks to some pretty vital supporting actors.

Hackman's critically-acclaimed work – The French Connection, The Conversation, Mississippi Burning – certainly deserves respect, but it’s the collection of films down the rung that endear me to him and his talents. In almost all of the Hackman films I love, he manages to create characters both despicable and deeply sympathetic, people designed to be the villain yet frustrating us with their moments of endearing humanity, as if those moments were an unavoidable weakness.

Crimson Tide, The Firm, The Quick and the Dead, No Way Out. Even stuff as unimpressive as Extreme Measures and Absolute Power. His CV is filled with roles of unlikeable, cranky men. But damn he’s good at it. And not many people are so good at it that they can keep tweaking it and riding it into one film after another without most people getting sick of it.

I can’t think a single actor who has been in so many films that I happily and greedily digest over and over. Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman might come close. Tom Cruise has more than I’d like to admit. Jack Nicholson almost competes, but he’s soooo busy being soooo Jack Nicholsony in his movies that it’s hard to say he’s fighting fair.

And Hackman gets but a fraction of their glory. ‘Cuz he’s fugly.

But if you had to limit yourself to a single actor’s or actress’ works, to never again watch a movie that didn’t include that person, you’d be hard pressed to find a better collection and a wider array of genres and vibes than Hackman’s. Sorry Meryl, but there just ain't enough testosterone in your collection.

I hope to never be limited in such a way, but if I had to, Gene ol' buddy, you'd be my man.

"Cure for Sale" is off their EP Nagasha. "Written All Over" is from The Jayway's EP Light. Both are up and coming bands. Give 'em a whirl and see what you think!


The Warden said...

"I can’t think a single actor who has been in so many films that I happily and greedily digest over and over." C'mon, man, how about Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, just off the top of my head. Made some fairly interesting films in their time. Hackman too often lived up to his name by taking A LOT of roles seemingly just for the $$$.

Bob said...

Billy, I'll side with you over the Warden this time. Pacino has to be "Mr. Intense" all the time and De Niro has been stuck in self=parody for a long time. Pacino was great in the 70's, but after that he never had the range that Hackman developed. Can you imagine Pacino as both Lex Luthor and the guy in The Conversation? I can't. I guess, if you'd asked me in 1978, I'd have thought a future post like this would be about DeNiro. But Hackman seems right on target. The American Michael Caine. I prefer to think that he took all those roles for the work and the love rather than for the money.

The Warden said...

Fair enough. Pacino has been doing "Pacino" for a long time, but then he sinks his teeth into a movie like The Insider and disappears inside the role.

I think Pacino's and DeNiro's highs are considerably above Hackman's. They'll be studying both their respective roles 100 years from now; not sure that's the case with Hackman, who I don't dislike by the way. (His first role, more or less, is in my favorite gangster movie of all time, Mad Dog Coll, which unfortunately has been out of print forever; check out the supporting cast besides Hackman: Telly Savalas, Jerry Orbach, Vincent Gardenia!) I just remember over the last 10 or 15 years saying to myself, boy, Hackman spreads himself pretty thin, what with making what seems like 10 movies a year. If you check Pacino's CV, it's like 1-2 roles a year for most of his career.

Good debate, though, and I enjoy your blog and musical selections immensely.

Bob said...

Agreed. And, like I said, I thought it would be DeNiro, but except for the comic turn in "Meet The Parents," (a tired role already by the time of the sequel). But like you suggest, Hackman has no Taxi Driver or Mean Streets or Raging Bull or Serpico or Dog Day Afternoon on his resume. I don't think the French Connection holds up the same way.

Billy said...

Warden -- Thanks for the comments. (You too, Bob.) It's exactly what I'd hope for with a random opinion piece where I'm on something of a limb.

Pacino would be close. De Niro -- and I know I'm going to hell for this -- is great, but doesn't cut it. Most of De Niro's great works (and I'm excluding "The Godfather," because we all know that's in a class allll by itself) are the kinds of movies I don't really want to re-watch very often.

The only part I find a little ironic is that I believe Hackman's worst films of the last 15 years can't possibly bring him more shame than the tripe that De Niro and Pacino have done. (I beg you to IMDB this and say I'm wrong.)

De Niro and Pacino both might have more heft, but for me, Hackman's collection is more varied and entertaining.

The Warden said...

Actually, I'm one of those guys who can watch my favorite movies like Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco, Casino, Serpico, Glengarry Glenn Ross over and over again. It's mostly the great dialogue that I never get tired of.

For a good DeNiro comedy (I agree the Meet the Parents and Analyze This movies were travesties) try Midnight Run.

I did IMDB Hackman's roles, and I overstated it. He didn't take as many roles per year as I thought. Hadn't realized either that he's semi-retired, not having worked since 2004. Ironically, I was just thinking of French Connection the other day; wanna watch it again as it's been a long while.

Also, fellas, finally saw the Battle of Algiers over the weekend. IF you haven't, make it a priority to find it. It's a tour de force that will blow you away as the kids say.

Anonymous said...

I'm a fan as well. Bonnie and Clyde. Others in his class are Jeff Bridges and Robert Duvall. Philip Seymour Hoffman might be the next generation Hackman.