Gene Hackman plays a high school basketball coach in “Hoosiers” (1986). You likely know that. It’s one of his best-known roles. There’s a scene where he stands at the far end of the locker room, in the background. The players, sitting in the foreground, dominate the shot visually. The dominance is visual only: It’s all Hackman otherwise.
Such counter-intuitive dominance helps make the shot notable. So does an actor of Hackman’s stature letting himself be stuck in back like that. Most telling, there’s the way he owns the scene despite not doing much of anything at all — no gesticulation, no yelling. He simply relies on the throttled intensity of his presence. Think of it as average-ness exalted.
Welcome to the career of Gene Hackman.
Hackman turns 90 on Jan. 30. Ninety! He’s the oldest of the Silver Age anti-stars who helped remake Hollywood in the ‘70s. Jack Nicholson is 82. So’s Dustin Hoffman (he and Hackman were aspiring-actor roommates in New York, along with Robert Duvall, in the ’60s). Al Pacino is 79.
It bespeaks Hackman’s innate modesty — or is it his dedication to quality control? — that he retired more than 15 years ago. Giving up acting for writing, he’s published two novels and co-written four more.
Unlike those others, Hackman was never starry, even in an inside-out way. He seemed as much character actor as star, happily joining versatility to modesty. You can see it in “Downhill Racer” (1969), where Hackman plays coach to Robert Redford’s alpine skier. Hackman’s only six years older, but Redford so clearly looks like a star (nothing anti- about him), as Hackman just as clearly does not.
It’s more than just looks. Hackman can be very good at doubt. Doubt is really hard for a star to do, since stardom, before it’s anything else, is assurance made flesh. Even at his most vehement — think of his two Oscar-winning performances, in “The French Connection” (1971) and “Unforgiven” (1992) — there’s this sense of brake on accelerator. Even more interesting, perhaps, at his least vehement there’s the sense of accelerator beneath brake.
The dividedness of Popeye Doyle, in “French Connection,” and Little Bill Daggett, in “Unforgiven,” is easy to miss. They’re clenched-fist characters. Yet Hackman lets us glimpse what’s inside each fist.
A New York police detective, Popeye is pasty-faced and wears a porkpie hat. He almost (almost) looks like the cartoon character who shares his nickname. Roy Scheider, with his rugged good looks and tough-guy suavity, looks a lot more like a hero as Hackman’s partner. Scheider would in fact become a star, too. Tellingly, though, his career petered out long before Hackman retired. (A capacity for doubt did not mean any lack of staying power.) No, even by ’70s standards, Popeye is a disturbing, and disturbed, hero: vicious, racist, overbearing. In at least one instance, he’s fatally inept.
Little Bill, the sheriff of an 1880s Wyoming town, is no hero. Even more vicious and overbearing than Popeye, he’s a villain, all right. Yet he is sheriff and has a real, if highly problematic, sense of justice. Several times he declares, “I do not like assassins. Or men of low character.” The words verge on cant. That doesn’t mean they’re not true. The fact that the man he’s up against, William Munny, is played by Clint Eastwood (who himself turns 90 this year, on May 31) makes it easy to overlook that Munny is an assassin, a killer for hire, if not a man of low character.
Hackman’s ability to convey such complicatedness made him excellent casting for positions of authority. Forget detectives and sheriffs and FBI agents (“Mississippi Burning,” 1988). Hackman has played the commander of a nuclear submarine (“Crimson Tide,” 1995); three generals (“A Bridge Too Far,” 1977; “Geronimo: An American Legend,” 1993; and “Antz,” 1998, though, admittedly, that’s just Hackman’s voice and the character is an insect); a senator (“The Birdcage,” 1996); a secretary of defense (“No Way Out,” 1987); a president (“Absolute Power,” 1997); and that high school basketball coach (who in Indiana outranks a president).
Hackman’s last movie came out in 2004, a comedy called “Welcome to Mooseport.” (Don’t worry, I’d never heard of it either.) His last high-profile movie was the John Grisham adaptation “Runaway Jury” (2003). His last glorious movie, and he’s had several, saw him top-billed in “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001). Yes, Gene Hackman in a Wes Anderson movie — in fact, Gene Hackman walking away with a Wes Anderson movie — that’s how surprising the career has been. His breakout role came playing Warren Beatty’s brother, in “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967). More than three decades later, he was playing Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, and Luke Wilson’s father.
It’s worth noting that Buck Barrow, in “Bonnie and Clyde,” is the older brother. Another thing that sets apart Hackman is how relatively late he came on the scene. After serving in the Marines, he didn’t start acting until he was 26. He was 31 when he got his first movie credit, unbilled, in “Mad Dog Coll” (1961). He was 38 when “Bonnie and Clyde” earned him a supporting actor Oscar nomination.
Finding success later in a career can’t help but make a difference, in a persona especially. Older may not necessarily mean wiser. It does tend to mean more lived in. You can see this within the rounded rectangle of Hackman’s face. The pieces don’t quite add up: dimpled chin; forever-receding hairline; narrow, crinkly eyes; small mouth; blunt nose; almost-double chin. Taken together, they’re as unfussy as a toolbox — also as workable, as usable. The tools in that toolbox — the absence of actorliness, the compactness of gesture, the on-pause dynamism (and when the play button gets hit ... watch out) — can be extremely effective.
If Hackman has a trademark it’s his chuckle. Sometimes it’s uneasy. More often it’s cold and sinister. Either way, it’s ratchety, even a bit mechanical, like the cocking of several triggers. The chuckle has a facial counterpart, a slightly snaggly grin of triumph. It can threaten. It can welcome. That duality, menace and decency — again, complicatedness — can be heard whenever Hackman speaks. The indeterminacy of accent (born in California, he grew up all over the Midwest) adds to his everyman quality — the everyman as craftsman. Notice how often he gets a slight throb in his voice at the end of a sentence. Hackman isn’t what you’d think of as a musical actor, but he knows how to play his instrument.
It’s a voice to reckon with, formidable but not quite intimidating: a leashed growl. It tells you what to do without your minding being told. There’s a reason Hackman did voiceover work for so many years in ads for United Airlines and Oppenheimer Funds and Lowe’s (speaking of toolboxes).
It’s also a voice to elicit laughter. People forget how very funny he could be. Hackman’s Lex Luthor, in three Superman movies is like a supervillain forerunner of Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark: winking comic-book fun of a very high order. His Hollywood producer in “Get Shorty” (1996) is sleaze on stilts. In a class of its own is his cameo as a blind hermit in Mel Brooks’s “Young Frankenstein” (1974). It may be the single funniest scene in what is an extremely funny movie.
Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation" came out the same year as “Young Frankenstein." Have any two performances within so short a time so clearly shown a Hollywood star’s range? Hackman plays a surveillance expert, Harry Caul. “I have nothing personal except my keys," he says. Emotionally incorporeal, Harry is a man who when he looks in the mirror only sees more mirrors. Beneath the brake is simply a larger brake. Opaque, oblique, oppressed, Harry hides in plain sight behind glasses, mustache, and the cheap raincoat he wears even on sunny days.
Nondescript and recessive are even more of a challenge for a star than doubt is. Don’t tell, show — the advice every writer hears — applies even more to actors. What’s an actor to do, then, with a character dedicated to concealment? Nicholson tried it two years earlier, in “The King of Marvin Gardens.” He couldn’t pull it off. Hackman does. In “The Conversation,” Coppola deliberately took the thrill out of the paranoid thriller. Doing so, he made one of the most disquieting works from the most disquieting decade in American film. It’s meant as high praise to say that Hackman’s performance is the single most disquieting thing in that film.
A quarter century later Hackman’s performance would have a coda, one that underscores the sheer variety of his filmography. Second-billed to Will Smith in the 1998 thriller “Enemy of the State,” Hackman plays a former government surveillance expert in hiding. We briefly glimpse his National Security Administration ID card from the ’70s. It shows Hackman as Caul. An easily missed grace note, it could stand for a career that’s full of them.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.