In 2004, Gene Hackman appeared in an unforgettable supporting role in Welcome to Mooseport. It was a typical clever performance in an unworthy movie and fans thought it was just another step on the way to another better movie. But nothing came of it, and a few years later, Hackman announced his retirement from acting. Subsequent offers from directors such as Alexander Payne did not tempt him and it now seemed unlikely that he would make another film. But his 33-year career, beginning with Mad Dog Coll (1960), yielded enough treasures…
Get the latest from BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Hackman had been playing secondary roles in films for several years when he got a call to play Buck Barrow in Arthur Penn’s era-defining drama. It was part of a dream, providing solid support to Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the title roles. Buck is irrepressible showmanship, bragging and has a penchant for bad jokes whose big talk leads nowhere. But he is also naive, unable to believe that the end of the road is imminent, the one who diligently nurtures the legend. Buck must be unbearable but Hackman makes it impossible for him to completely hate and the actor received his first Oscar nomination for the role.
French Connection (1971)
Director: William Friedkin
After Bonnie and Clyde, Hackman treaded the water for a while, doing well but not getting the leads he deserved. This changed with the cop thriller The French Connection, in which the funniest actor plays, with complete authenticity, a complete bastard. What we know about realist detective Eddie Egan, the character on which Popeye Doyle was based, suggests that this is totally accurate, but it’s also clear that Hackman was uncomfortable in the role and should have been pushed by director William Friedkin to make Doyle so obnoxious. It’s quite convincing, and dominates the screen in violent scenes, but the character is rather one note here and you feel like Hackman was thrilled with the opportunity to deepen the portrayal in the excellent 1975 sequel.
Director: Jerry Schatzberg
One of Hackman’s lesser known films is one of his best. It’s a picaresque road movie in which Hackman and Al Pacino play two drifters who find a connection while traveling to Pittsburgh where they dream of opening a car wash. It’s not easy to admire Max Hackman again – the road has made him thorny and difficult – but the two men grow to know each other, and the result is a tale of a twisted and compelling friendship that ends in tragedy. Hackman gets a chance to play in a wide range here, from taciturn to cute, and in one terrifying moment. He even does comedic striptease.
The Conversation (1974)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
The role of Harry Cole, an anal eavesdropper, painfully shy, is a surprising one for Hackman, but it does reveal his brilliance as an actor. His relationship with director Francis Ford Coppola was turbulent but the result was one of Hackman’s finest hours. It overpowers his natural fervor, serving the character with heartbreakingly painful honesty. Harry, like many heroes in New Noir, is not half as intelligent as he thinks, and he easily realizes the wrong end of the wand, precipitating the very tragedy he is trying so hard to prevent. The ending, where Harry sits in the apartment he stripped down in an attempt to avoid an elusive mistake, is startlingly grim.
Night Movements (1975)
Less famous than The Conversation, but equally impressive, Night Moves is one of the greatest thrillers of the 1970s. It’s a detective story in which Hackman plays Harry Mosby, a soccer player who turns special and gets caught amid shady activities in the Florida Keys. At his best, his ruthless sense of humor conceals a deep sensitivity about his own messy marriage and his personal failings, he enjoys the educated and intelligent dialogue provided by Alan Sharp and the chance to play opposite the gorgeous Jennifer Warren, an actress with whom he has great chemistry.
One of Nicolas Rouge’s biggest failures, it ran for about a week in London and never appeared in United States of America Until three years later. But it’s also one of his most complex and interesting films; A family saga combined with courtroom drama and one man’s dream study turned into a sunny nightmare. Appearing on screen alone for much of the first hour, Hackman plays a prospector, based on real-life Harry Oaks, whose obsession with gold leads to his downfall. Roeg has a ball with sequences of pictures, mysterious symbols, and sudden violence, and Hackman serves him well with a complex performance that requires him to be 20 years old.
Under Fire (1983)
Director: Roger Spottiswood
The fall of the corrupt president of Nicaragua in 1979 and the subsequent struggle between the leftist government and weSupported opposition forms the backdrop to this political drama by Ron Chilton. The wonderful cast is led by Nick Nolte and Joanna Cassidy, but the central character is reporter Gene Hackman, friend and lover of one of the other. Hackman boosts the movie’s power level every time he appears, and his ultimate fate – based on his murder ABC Reporter Bill Stewart – It comes as a real shocker. It is a film that clearly appealed to Hackman’s liberal political views, which were consistent but rarely expressed.
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Alan Parker’s 1964 study of racism in the Deep South was, to put it mildly, not an accurate movie. Nor is it historically accurate as an account of events in Mississippi when two civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. But as a show by Gene Hackman, it’s hard to beat. This was his first major role for several years and he dominated everyone before him, whether beating up Brad Dorff in a barber shop, making jokes with a nervous agent Willem Dafoe, or gently flirting with the terrifying Klan widow Frances McDormand. It brings warmth and humor to a movie that would otherwise lack both.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Many thought he should have been chosen as Best Actor for Mississippi Burning, but Hackman finally won his second Academy Award for his portrayal of Little Bill, the brutal realist mayor in Clint Eastwood’s elegiac farewell to the West. Little Bill is a very annoying man, but Hackman’s delicate, multi-layered performance makes him a dreamer as well as a sadist, a killer who builds a house to realize the vision of sitting on his porch as the sun sets. The actor’s ability to combine tact with menace is put to good use, particularly in the scene where Richard Harris’ English Bob is violently punished for daring to take up arms in his hometown.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Wes Anderson’s sultry, nostalgic comedy about a dysfunctional family wasn’t Gene Hackman’s last movie, but it sure is his last great movie — is anyone eager to watch Runaway Jury (2003) or Welcome to Mooseport? He’s as hypnotized as ever as an extremely unkind, utterly unsympathetic but strangely lovable father, who fakes bowel cancer in an attempt to return to the bosom of the family and humiliates and upsets everyone in his path. The film is partly his own redemption story, as he, backed by a killer soundtrack, attempts to mend his ways and reconnect his bonds with his troubled descendants. In the end, we saw everything that made us love Hackman as an actor. It’s a great late-career bend.
The next ten…
- I’ve Never Sung to My Father (Gilbert Keats, 1970)
- Cisco Pike (Bill L. Norton, 1972)
- Bullet Bite (Richard Brooks, 1975)
- All Night Long (Jean-Claude Tramont, 1981)
- Uncommon Valor (1983, Ted Kotchev)
- The Company (Sydney Pollack, 1993)
- Geronimo: An American Legend (Walter Hill, 1993)
- The Fast and the Dead (Sam Raimi, 1994)
- Crimson Tide (Tony Scott, 1995)
- Stealing (David Mamet, 2001)