One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 30
By Laurence Lerman
For my 30th column, I decided to adhere to general convention with a tribute to one of my favorite actors, the great Gene Hackman, who’s happily alive and well and retired at 91. This arrives after nearly a year of purply pontifications on all manner of films big and small—everything from Hollywood classics and foreign greats to period exploitation movies, samurai flicks, biker films, Italian giallo and poliziotteschi, a smattering of TV and even the occasional adult offering. As the great media historian Ed Grant might say, “Everything from “high art to low trash and back again.”
Starting out as a theater actor in the late Fifties before moving to the New York stage at the dawn of the Sixties, Gene Hackman quickly picked up bit parts on network TV shows and then bigger ones on dozens more over the next few years. Hackman appeared on everything from Naked City and The Defenders to Iron Horse and I Spy prior to his cinematic breakthrough as Buck Barrow in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. Prestige pictures followed shortly after (highlighted by the 1969 double whammy of Marooned and Downhill Racer), leading to his Oscar-winning turn as rough-hewn New York City police detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle in The French Connection. Vicious, sensational, fast-moving and realistic, William Friedkin’s landmark 1971 policier changed the game as far as cop thrillers were concerned—and elevated Hackman to the A-list of Hollywood leading men, where he would remain for the next 40+ years.
Since Hackman has appeared in nearly 80 films, running down 30 outstanding performances for the occasion of my 30th column appeared to be a sound, relatively easy proposition. But a glance at Hackman’s resume inspired me to revise my thinking and focus on a period where he appeared to be at his most artistically prolific. Clearly, Hackman’s diverse decade in the trenches as a TV day player and big screen supporting star honed his talents, which may have come into play when his post-Oscar possibilities offered him the opportunity to tackle a wider, more varied swath of starring roles. I refer to Hackman’s busy years of 1974 and 1975, when he appeared in no less than seven new releases, six of them in a leading capacity. Some of the films were quite fine, a couple were not; some were memorable, while others were forgotten. But there was nary a bad performance in the mixed bunch, and that’s probably the greatest thing you can say about an actor doing his job in a not-so-great film.
Hackman’s work was adept, plentiful and game during those years, and more than confirmed the authority he brought to his craft. To wir:
The Conversation (Released April 7, 1974)
Following his portrayal of an ex-con opposite Al Pacino in Jerry Schatzberg’s critically lauded 1973 drifter drama Scarecrow, Hackman starred as an obsessive surveillance expert in crisis in Francis Ford Coppola’s mystery-drama. A small project sandwiched between Coppola’s two Godfather sagas, the film quickly became a cult favorite before being hailed, decades later, as a classic of paranoid Seventies cinema alongside The Parallax View, Marathon Man and Three Days of the Condor.
Zandy’s Bride (Released May 19, 1974)
An interesting arthouse choice for Hackman, the western drama Zandy’s Bride, Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell’s first film in a brief Hollywood sojourn following his Oscar-nominated immigrant epics The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972), features plantation owner Hackman and mail-order bride Liv Ullmann trying to make things work in the none-too-comfortable wilds of turn-of-the-century Northern California. It all looks gorgeous and the leading players are fine, but nothing too memorable happens here, save for the couple’s uncomfortable first night together as husband and wife.
Young Frankenstein (Released December 14, 1974)
Hackman lets loose his comedy chops in a single uproarious scene in Mel Brooks’ beloved send-up of the Universal monster movies of the Thirties. As a poor blind hermit living in the Transylvanian woods, Hackman scalds Peter Boyle’s zipper-necked monster’s crotch with hot soup, shatters his cup of mead, lights his thumb on fire and then pleads with him not to leave before the Espresso. Funny stuff.
French Connection II (Released May 21, 1975)
Though not as strong as its predecessor, there’s still a lot going on in this inevitable sequel, directed by the no-nonsense John Frankenheimer, who had worked with Hackman previously in the 1969 barnstorming action-drama The Gypsy Moths. An extended central sequence where Hackman’s Popeye is forcibly addicted to heroin by a bunch of baddies and then plunged into the hell of withdrawal is particularly harrowing.
Night Moves (Released June 11, 1975)
Hired by a client to track down her runaway teenage daughter, addled Los Angeles private eye Hackman stumbles into a mystery far more sinister than he could have imagined. The ensuing scenario is not a wholly credible one, but Hackman’s central performance and those of costars Susan Clark and a young Melanie Griffith keep it together. Underappreciated at the time of its release, this Arthur Penn-directed detective yarn is now considered to be one of the era’s seminal modern noirs.
Bite the Bullet (Released June 25, 1975)
Richard Brooks’ lively, adventurous entertainment plays like a sort of Cannonball Run horse race across the Wild West, with Hackman and partner James Coburn vying for a winner-take-all prize of $2,000 against Ben Johnson, Candice Bergen, Jan-Michael Vincent and Ian Bannen. This was Hackman’s third western in a five year stretch with a handful more still to come, including the picture that garnered him his second Oscar, Clint Eastwood’s elegiac Unforgiven (1992).
Lucky Lady (Released December 25, 1975)
Stanley Donen directed Hackman, Liza Minelli and Burt Reynolds as a trio of rumrunners in Prohibition-era San Diego who engage in some after-hours hanky-panky in this big-budget, high-profile commercial disaster. An uneasy mix of comedy, adventure, violence and a little music (including a pair of Kander and Ebb songs!), the superstar trio looks like they’re having some strained fun, but not much else. Hackman’s agent at the time, Sue Mengers, reportedly proclaimed that with the amount of money her client was being offered, “it was almost obscene for him not to do the film.”
A little bit of this, a little bit of that, right? Hackman didn’t pop on the big screen in ’76—perhaps he was chilling after the calendar-cramped release schedule of the two previous years—but he returned in ’77 with leading turns in the assassination thriller The Domino Principle and the French Foreign Legion adventure March or Die, and a role in the ensemble WWII epic A Bridge Too Far. Nothing all that grand for audiences or critics here, but the future looked bright in the guise of the delightfully evil Lex Luthor in 1978’s Superman. Still the quintessential comic-book movie in tone, scale and presentation, Richard Donner’s first entry in the franchise not only smashed box office records and became a beloved modern classic around the world, but it also introduced a whole new generation to an outstanding performer who would continue to reign until his dignified retirement in 2004.
There’s a lot to choose from, so consider cherry-picking a lesser-known Hackman film or two and dig in. You might bite into one that’s a little sour or stale or maybe even bland, but I promise you there’s still something tasty inside.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.