The Hard Part’s Getting Away: The Versatility of Gene Hackman, as Seen through His Five 2001 Films

Movies Features Gene Hackman
The Hard Part’s Getting Away: The Versatility of Gene Hackman, as Seen through His Five 2001 Films

Earlier this year, a picture of Gene Hackman taken in May 2019 went viral on Twitter, with folks around the internet gathering to share their appreciation for the 91-year-old actor. Particularly for a place as ridden with heated daily debates about Eternals Rotten Tomatoes scores and whether or not it’s okay to watch Dune on HBO Max, seeing the Twitterati collectively unite to pour love on the two-time Oscar winner is representative of how Hackman’s gifts transcend any possible divide. He’s an actor you always recognize, yet he plumbs new depths and dimensions with each role he takes on, never failing to find the rhythms of the world around him. Whether you’re into disaster blockbusters, revisionist Westerns, paranoia thrillers or slapstick comedies, there is a Gene Hackman performance out there for you.

With the actor back in the discourse sphere, discussion inevitably led to a topic oft-mentioned: That of the disappointment that Hackman’s illustrious career ended with 2004’s critically reviled Welcome to Mooseport, a political comedy that sees Hackman’s retired U.S. President run a mayoral race against Ray Romano’s everyman. While it’s understandable for cinephiles to wish that their favorite artists end their careers on a high note, bemoaning this film as a nadir in a 40-year career does a disservice to the fact that Hackman was playing at the peak of his abilities right until the very end. While some of his contemporaries who dominated 1970s Hollywood could rightly be considered to have fallen into taking low-effort paycheck gigs in their later years, Hackman didn’t slow down for a moment until he unofficially retired post-Mooseport.

One only needs to look three years earlier than his final film to see the level of versatility he demonstrated, a recurring theme throughout his lengthy career. 2001 didn’t just bear witness to a single great Hackman performance; it saw him run a streak across five entirely distinct films, delivering in each a performance totally unique from the rest. It’s a body of work across one year that proves the elasticity of an actor who could always be counted on to deliver. The rarity of an actor taking big swings the way that Hackman did and still not missing is something that is unfortunately not appreciated enough when it comes to appraisals of his work, despite the laudits given to him since his early years.

2001 began in an unexpected place for the actor, with a sneaky eleventh hour role in Gore Verbinski’s romantic action comedy, The Mexican. Starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts as a chaotic couple on the outs, the narrative crux of the film finds Pitt traveling south of the border to pick up an allegedly cursed firearm for a man named Arnold Margolese, an incarcerated mob boss Pitt is indebted to. Throughout the film, we hear bits and pieces about Margolese, giving us the impression of him as a larger-than-life figure, a mysterious man you wouldn’t want to cross. It’s not until the very end that we actually meet him, played in a one-scene performance by Hackman.

Regaling Pitt with a tale of how several years in the slammer have transformed him, Hackman holds the responsibility of conveying the entire history of a character, the entire core of who this man is, in a single scene. He manages it without breaking a sweat. To put the pressure of capturing this man who has been discussed the entire film onto an actor for one scene, and one scene only, is a great deal for anyone to take on. Hackman not only has to be believable as the unnerving criminal kingpin Margolese once was, but also the changed man he has become. It’s almost an impossible task, as you enter a Catch-22 situation where the actor needs to be someone recognizable enough to the audience to immediately make an impression, yet we also have to be able to see this character for who he is—as opposed to it being Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder, where part of the fun is the fact that we all know that’s Tom Cruise being ridiculous in a minor role. Hackman toes the miniscule line necessary to find success, ably underplaying the gravity of the role in a way that allows us to see him as a human being underneath the ominous shadow that has been cast over this man’s name for the entirety of the movie.

It’s rare for a star as big as Hackman to show no hesitation in taking on supporting roles, yet it was something he did with regularity. While he had showy leading parts in 2001, he also took a step back from the dynamic duo of Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt in David Mirkin’s con artist comedy Heartbreakers, an underrated gem that perfects the “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but they’re women” formula that The Hustle botched twenty years later. Weaver and Hewitt play a mother/daughter pair who use their sexuality to fool men into giving up half of their fortunes, with Hackman coming into the picture as their biggest target yet. The film is a broad farce, and Hackman leans into this with aplomb, taking on the role of a tobacco baron with a cigarette in his mouth every second he’s on screen. An absolutely deplorable wretch, this is Hackman at his most wildly unhinged, a scene-stealing turn that chews just enough scenery to ignite laughing fits whenever he’s around while never attempting to upstage the film’s stars.

Hackman may have been the mark in Heartbreakers, but he’s the man in charge in David Mamet’s Heist, a cold-blooded neo-noir thriller as only Mamet could make them. While Heartbreakers saw the actor having a ball in absurd comedic territory, Heist finds him back in the position he’s best at—a no-nonsense professional who’s getting in too deep. Forced by Danny DeVito’s fence to perform the ever-cinematic “one last score,” Hackman’s career thief Joe Moore has to put together a squad for his final mission before he can retire to sail away on his boat for good. It’s a role that feels particularly well-suited for Hackman nearing the end of his career, taking this last stroll through a string of noteworthy roles before he puts his feet up and kicks back away from the spotlight.

Moore brings to mind some of Hackman’s most noteworthy roles, like Harry Caul in The Conversation and, of course, The French Connection’s Popeye Doyle. He’s a wonderful Mamet creation, existing somewhere between the calm, cool and collected stylings of Joe Mantegna in House of Games and the world-weariness of Paul Newman in The Verdict, and Hackman excels at pulling off that particular Mamet rhythm in the dialogue. He’s a born professional in Mamet’s world, just as Moore is. One of Moore’s partners, played by Mamet regular Ricky Jay, at one point describes him thus: “My motherfucker is so cool, when he goes to bed, sheep count him.” It’s a tremendous Mamet line in a film full of them, and Hackman personifies the type of man who would be spoken about in this way. A guy you don’t want to mess with, but one you always want on your side. If any performance across 2001 demonstrates that Hackman was still at his peak all the way until the end of his career, this is the one to do it, in a film that endures as one of the very best he ever took part in.

That sentiment can’t exactly be shared with Behind Enemy Lines, director John Moore’s military thriller loosely based on the 1995 Mrkonji? Grad Incident during the Bosnian War. If Heist is a movie that holds the same stature now as it did upon release, and Heartbreakers is a film that actually plays better today than it did twenty years ago, Behind Enemy Lines is one that feels like a relic worth forgetting—though, not to say it was particularly well-received at the time. Drearily gauzed over with a blue-tinted aesthetic, peppered with questionable depictions of its antagonistic forces and featuring a woefully miscast Owen Wilson in the leading role, there’s not a lot to admire about the film today. One of the few bright spots is, inevitably, Hackman, playing a Navy Admiral attempting to help rescue a pilot (Wilson) shot down in enemy territory. The film largely doesn’t work, but if it stands as a testament to anything, it’s Hackman’s innate presence as a commanding force on screen.

Playing this type of militaristic figure is something he could have done in his sleep at this point. Lying about his age when he was 16 in order to enlist in the Marine Corps, Hackman had plenty of experience putting his military past to use, in films like A Bridge Too Far, The Package and Crimson Tide, so him taking on this role is perhaps the most prototypical of all his 2001 parts. He very easily could have cakewalked to a paycheck, and yet here Hackman is, doing the work the same as he does with every role. He spends almost the entirety of this movie looking at screens and giving orders, yet he makes you stand to attention with each word. You may not remember anything after the movie is over, nor particularly want to, but that is the mark of a good actor—to make the uncompelling something that grabs you, even momentarily.

While Heartbreakers saw Hackman going as broad as anyone could possibly go, his final performance of 2001 played in a different comedic register, one that required a set of skills only someone with his range could pull off. As Royal Tenenbaum, the incredibly flawed patriarch of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, Hackman is tasked with playing a man at least partly responsible for an entire family’s trauma, as we see the ripple effects that are borne from his narcissism over decades when he tries to reinsert himself into his family’s life after being out of the picture for years. In a role written specifically for Hackman, we must understand not only why these characters hold so much bitterness and resentment towards Royal—why they would never want him in their life again—but also the thing that pulls them to still allow him to be around, and eventually leads to an arc that finds growth for the man in his twilight years.

The Royal Tenenbaums is a perfect encapsulation of Hackman’s skillset as an actor, and his career at large. Even as he was nearing what would be his final role, he was trying out new registers, exploring depths he hadn’t taken before and finding success in doing so. A moment late in the film sees Eli Cash (played, amusingly, by Owen Wilson), a childhood friend of the Tenenbaums, remarking that he “always wanted to be a Tenenbaum.” Royal responds, so quietly that he may be talking to himself, “Me too.” It’s a moment that feels odd at first, but when you look at Hackman’s face you can see the sincerity in what Royal is saying. The film is all about a family who seemingly has it all, a large collection of parents, siblings, children all under the same roof, and yet every single one of them, even Royal, still feels like an outsider. It’s a line that speaks volumes to what’s at the heart of the film and of this character, and just like he does in that one-scene performance in The Mexican, Hackman makes the perfect choice to underplay it when other actors may have gone bigger.

In a 2011 interview with GQ, when asked about doing one more movie, Hackman responded, “I don’t know. If I could do it in my own house, maybe, without them disturbing anything and just one or two people.” The irony shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the world is now in a state where that seems more possible than ever. Realistically, however, it’s well past time for us all to accept that Gene Hackman is retired for good. After advice from his doctor that he can’t take on any more stress, he’s left movies behind to enjoy a career as a novelist, co-writing three pieces of historical fiction with Daniel Lenihan, before striking out on his own for two solo novels, 2011’s Western Payback at Morning Peak and police thriller Pursuit in 2013. Like Heist’s Joe Moore, Hackman has sought out his boat ride into the twilight years, and we’re fortunate enough to bask in the legacy he’s left behind.

Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.

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