Or he used to be anyway. One of my grandfather’s favorite actors was Gene Hackman. He never vocalized it but I could see from his bright, happy eyes and the way the sun glinted off his shiny pate as his jaw quickened that he admired Hackman’s Tough-Guy-Average-Joe-Schmoe-Who-Somehow-Prevails-Everymanliness more than I could know. Gramps had been balding for years and maybe Hackman’s increasingly obvious lack of hair, average build–his schlubliness, if you will–while still maintaining a strong presence had a lot to do with it as well. And though I was in many ways too young for it at the time, he piqued my eventual love of all things Hackman by first showing me The French Connection, which simultaneously inducted me into the world of Good Cinema and Hackman’s balls-out (& Oscar-winning) portrayal of Popeye Doyle, a cop who–by the way–does not get his guy. To be able to pull off a true-to-life defeat as expertly as Hackman does shows us, like Jack Nicholson at the time, an actor in full stride.
Fast forward three years to 1974 and we have The Conversation in which Hackman plays Harry Caul, a secretive & disturbed professional surveillance expert living in San Francisco who we meet doing a job for the CIA in the middle of a crowded Union Square. The always under-emotive Hackman plays the paranoid professional Caul brilliantly, going minutes without a word of dialogue, yet drawing the audience evermore into his own hellishly conflicted world of devout religion, and the one thing he can cling to: manic saxophone playing (he learned for the part). Despite his insistence of strict non-involvement in clients’ affairs, he becomes caught up in the drama, even to become a potential accessory to a crime, and eventually to end up–perhaps just in his own mind–the subject of counter-surveillance. His understated though tense encounters with Harrison Ford’s Martin Stett remain a highlight. Coppola sought to show the innate search for balance between the public and the private, asking whether the viewer (or in this case the listener) isn’t actually always somewhat the participant.
Written before Coppola took on The Godfather, when he hadn’t the clout to get anyone to produce it, this often overlooked study (it was nominated for Best Film alongside The Godfather II, lost to the latter but did take the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival) in paranoia seems to have opened the door for Coppola’s internalized brand of soul-searching to come to fruition in what many call the masterpiece of modern cinema, Apocalypse Now. Coppola had this to say in the short Making Of The Conversation:
Just the following year we find Hackman in Arthur Penn’s 1975 thriller, Night Moves, as Harry Moseby, an ex-NFL star turned Private Investigator whose seemingly average personal life is about to begin to fatally intermingle with his professional one. We learn early of his wife’s infidelities, but it’s not until much later that we learn what, if anything at all, Moseby feels about this and how this mirrors his current plight. Then there’s the case, passed along by a friend centering on a soused ex-nobody Hollywood blowjob artist’s runaway daughter (played by the young nymphet Melanie Griffith, whose nude scenes underwater probably got her noticed in Hollywood). Harry’s job is to find her, bring her back, collect a check. Easy.
“(This film) is a struggle. A struggle always on the brink of failure. I have learned in the past that those struggles usually bring about the best results.”
Turns out to be anything but. There are so many twists in this Alan Sharp penned anti-p.i. flick just when you think you have got the movie figured and you know who’s doing what to whom, you get the breath knocked out of you in what has to be one of the darkest final minutes of 70′s Hollywood noir flicks. Astonishingly good performances by Hackman, a young James Woods and Griffith, who’s just frustratingly, underagedly hot (yes, that’s her on the cover swimming in the nude).
Hackman was working his ass off during the 70s, building up a filmography so full of both philosophical thrillers, edge of your seat action and popcorn culture fare that few will ever have the strength of conviction nor range as an actor to match. Grandpa knew his stuff.
For more of Hackman’s greatest, here’s a few of my favorites. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) French Connection II (1975) A Bridge Too Far (1977) Superman (1978) Hoosiers (1986) Mississippi Burning (1988) The Package (1988) Bat*21 (1988) Unforgiven (1992) (Best Supporting Actor), and the ostensible sequel to The Conversation, Enemy of the State (1998).