A Book Review by Louis J. Wasser.
It’s entirely possible you’ll come away from Peter Shelley’s biography of Gene Hackman knowing less about the actor than you thought you knew. Hackman is at once a perfectionist, cruel, gracious, ungrateful, humorless, a comedian, helpful to his fellow actors, and difficult to work with. The noted film actor has always been inscrutable. And it’s a dubious virtue of Shelley’s work that he lets the material he’s uncovered represent the chameleon identity of its subject. Clearly, if Shelley does have a fix on Gene Hackman’s true nature, he’s not telling. As readers of Gene Hackman, The Life and Work (McFarland & Company, Inc.), we’re left to connect the dots the biographer has made available to us, or at least come to our own conclusion based on the last Hackman film we’ve seen.
One thing’s for sure. Eugene Hackman, born in in San Bernardino, California, on January 30, 1930, did not fight his way to the top with a conventional preparation. He didn’t come equipped with Yale School of Drama or Julliard credentials. True, he attended Pasadena Playhouse for a very short stint; but he was quickly booted out and dubbed by Playhouse alumni as one of two students “the least likely to succeed” (7). The other student so stigmatized was a nineteen-year-old Dustin Hoffman.
Hackman’s more proletarian actor’s education found him working as a doorman, a soda jerk, a relief counterman at Whelan’s Drugs, a truck driver, and a woman’s shoe salesman at Saks 34th Street in Manhattan. Once he and his first wife, Faye Phillippa Maltese, worked their way back from California to a sixth-floor, cold water flat in New York City, he slowly began getting television, legitimate theater, and minor film roles. But to say he endured disappointment along the way would be to underestimate the actor’s early struggle. We can only imagine the letdown Hackman must have felt when director Mike Nichols fired him from The Graduate, the 1967 film that gloriously launched his close friend Dustin Hoffman’s career. As Nichols saw it, Hackman simply performed unconvincingly as Mrs. Robinson’s (Anne Bancroft’s) cuckolded husband. (He was convincing in the same year’s Bonnie and Clyde.)
In 1970, Hackman appeared in the movie his followers generally identify as the beginning of his film career, I Never Sang for My Father, in which he plays the son of an ill-tempered and ungrateful father, portrayed by Melvyn Douglas. Even though some thought that Hackman’s lines in that film were uninspiring, the actor won acclaim from noted critics Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert. In fact, Variety rated him as “superb” (33). What’s more, Hackman managed to get himself nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor despite his personal doubts about the role. But those doubts would reveal a grumpiness in Hackman early on, one through which he learned to value his self-criticism over the criticism of professional reviewers. Despite his own reservations, Hackman’s Academy Award nomination for I Never Sang for My Father now marked a conspicuous launch to his film career.
Regardless of his increasing need for privacy as his career progressed, Hackman could no longer ignore the fact that film awards, at least in America, are how the industry keeps score. Nor could he any longer deny his feeling of exuberance at winning the 1972 Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance in The French Connection (1971). Here’s how host James Lipton talked about it in later years on Inside the Actors Studio:
That night was like a dream, like he was standing in back of the theater and watching it through a lot of smoke …. He commented that winning the award was startling. People could say that the awards were commercial or self-serving, but when they called your name, it was like a lifetime dream coming true. He thought he would say something erudite, but it all came out mush. (44)
After The French Connection, Hackman instructed his agent not to be over-demanding when offers came in. Still, his per-picture fee jumped from a $200,000 to $500,000. While he very much enjoyed the opportunity to keep working, he also sensed his growing influence in the business, and didn’t hesitate to decline an offer to appear in a film as prestigious as Ordinary People (1980) when the filmmaker wouldn’t agree to his terms. Nor did he hesitate to make a picture for the sheer money, as he did with The Poseidon Adventure (1972).
Once you’ve seen several of Hackman’s films, and then read the Shelley biography, you can’t help but sense an overlap between the actor’s life and work. What appears to drive both Hackman the person and Hackman the actor, as he portrays his various characters, is impatience – or, more precisely, agitation. Some kind of carryover seems at work here. We feel that agitation in The French Connection (1971), when the cop, Jimmy Doyle (the Hackman character), uncomfortably cold outside, peers inside an expensive Manhattan restaurant at his nemesis, cocaine dealer Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) enjoying a sumptuous meal. We feel a similar agitation in Hackman when, as Walter Lloyd, in Target (1985), he shocks his son, Chris (Matt Dillon), with the skills he summons from his CIA training to rescue his kidnapped wife (Chris’s mother) portrayed by Gayle Hunnicutt. We also catch the agitated Hackman at work, when, heroically, as high school basketball coach Norman Dale in Hoosiers (1985), he keeps railing at the referee’s one-sided calls, thus getting himself thrown off the court.
For those of us who doubt agitation is a Hackman signature he imports from offscreen, it’s worth considering Shelley’s quote from fellow biographer, Nat Segaloff, in Arthur Penn, American Director about Hackman’s work with Matt Dillon on the set of Target:
The tension between the characters was paralleled offscreen between the actors one day. Hackman blew up at the 21-year-old Dillon, when he made a suggestion for a scene. He told him, “That’s not what you do,” and gave a five-minute lecture on what it was to be a serious actor and an artist. Dillon reported that this changed his life, giving him a new respect for the art. (89)
Shelley’s book is replete with such examples of Hackman’s quick temper and his desire to get on with the work at hand. But at least for every example of the actor’s explosive nature, the biographer cites an instance of his graciousness and appreciation of directors and fellow actors when they do work that impresses him. By the time Shelley’s book reaches the point in Hackman’s career when he decides to retire (in 2004), we perfectly understand. He’s a journeyman performer who only asked to pretend to be other people, and move on to his next role. He never enjoyed attending Hollywood functions or explaining himself to the press. Unless the 88-year-old actor decides to come out of retirement, and grace us with at least one more performance, perhaps, as he told GQ in a June 2011 interview, it’s best we remember him the way he prefers to be remembered: “as a decent actor who tried to portray what was given to him in an honest fashion” (165).
Louis J. Wasser is a freelance essayist and critic specializing in film, and classical music. He’s written extensively for The Washington Post, Washington Jewish Week, Identity Theory, and other publications. He’s also a financial copywriter.