Monday, June 8, 2015

Robert Ellis: Gene Hackman, an American Treasure

Robert Ellis
About a month ago we were tossing around posts in a tribute to Jackie Gleason and Vincent Gardenia for their extraordinary range as actors.

Over this past week I wound up seeing two of my very favorite films, two very different films: ENEMY OF THE STATE, a thriller directed by Tony Scott and starring Will Smith, Jon Voight, and Gene Hackman, and THE BIRDCAGE, a comedy classic directed by Mike Nichols and starring Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, and Gene Hackman.

Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest in The Birdcage
Is it me or is Gene Hackman getting the biggest ride, the best roles and having the most fun, of any actor in recent memory?

Gene Hackman's filmography reads like a list of the best in American cinema: French Connection, The Conversation, Young Frankenstein, A Bridge Too Far, Hoosiers, No Way Out, Mississippi Burning, Unforgiven, The Firm, Get Shorty, Absolute Power, and Runaway Jury -- to name just a few.
Hackman as Sen. Kevin Keeley in The Birdcage

Maybe the reason it looks like Hackman's having so much fun is that somehow over all these years he's never been typecast. How is this possible in a business where every other actor I can think of is typed after their very first role?

Gene Hackman as Edward Lyle in Enemy of the State
In Enemy of the State, a big time thriller that's never been more relevant than it is today, Hackman plays an ex-CIA agent who doesn't trust the system and is trying to live off the grid. In The Birdcage, he's an ultraconservative Senator with a daughter who wants to marry the son of a gay nightclub owner and becomes trapped inside the club by the media. His only way out is to dress up in drag and walk through the front door. In Runaway Jury he's a tough guy. (Warning ... The following sentence is a spoiler). In The Firm he's a man who sold his soul to the devil, but in the end, dies as a martyr filled with kindness and wisdom.
Hackman bugging a corrupt politician's hotel room

What a terrific week to stumble into two such great films. And it underlines something I've been thinking for a long time. Without Gene Hackman, a big chunk of great films would no longer be considered so great. I just feel lucky to have seen him at work.

Sleep Loose,

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