Skip to content

The Martini Shot: Gene Hackman

April 26, 2011

In the summer of 2004, Oscar winner Gene Hackman told Larry King he had no future plans to act and was retiring from show business. Sure many actors before him had issued similar statements only to show up later in some straight-to-DVD release or as a guest star on a hit TV show. For Hackman fans this was quite a blow because his performances leading up to his retirement – starting with Enemy of the State released in 1998, and his brilliant work in The Royal Tenenbaums – ranked up there with some of the best film has to offer. Four years passed with nary an appearance from Hackman – save his voiceover work for Lowes – and the actor confirmed his retirement, which should have been the final word, except nobody noticed.

Hackman turned 81 this year and while he’s certainly kept his military figure (Hackman was in the Marines) and busy (he’s written three novels with undersea archaeologist Daniel Lenihan) he is 81 and fully entitled to pursue other interest no matter how frustrated this makes his fans (myself included). In addition, Hackman hasn’t always been appreciated for his fine work because he was so prolific. But Newsweek sums up this point much better:

One reason why we haven’t valued Hackman properly is a slur that’s been flung at him since the ’60s: character actor. But Gene Hackman is not a “character actor.” He’s a great actor, full stop. (He’s only a “character actor” in the way that Jackson Pollock is a “painting painter.”) Hollywood’s habitual bias toward pretty leading men slights the actors who have the range to play all sorts of roles. This, surely, is Hackman’s greatest distinction. Good ol’ boy Buck Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde. Comically diabolical Lex Luthor in Superman. The blind hermit in Young Frankenstein. The coach in Hoosiers. Saintly cowboys, panicky astronauts, philandering steelworkers, several kinds of president … Like every actor, he had some misfires, and there’s no denying that he signed on for some seriously regrettable films. But this side of Meryl Streep—which is to say, here among the mortals—it’s hard to think of a contemporary American actor who could convince you he was born to play so many far-flung roles.


I’m not holding out hope for a grand return to acting for Hackman, which means trying to understand the quiet coda that is Welcome to Mooseport. The 2004 film boasts an impressive cast, an amusing premise – Former president moves to Maine and decides to run for Mayor of his adopted home town – and is satisfying in the way that My Fellow Americans, Space Cowboys and Grumpy Old Men is (all films I count as tasty treats). Yet, the film was critically and commercially panned and currently enjoys approval ratings in the teens by critics and the twenties by audiences. Of course, at the time who could have known this would be the last film ever made by Hackman. I certainly didn’t at the time and I enjoyed the film.

It was classic Hackman comedy, though the role could have easily been inhabited by Eastwood, Freeman or Garner. That said, if everyone had been aware it was Hackman’s swan song I’m certain the film would have been treated much kinder. So far there hasn’t been the kind of rush to revise as was the case with The Big Lebowski, but as each year passes without a screen appearance from Hackman, I’m sure it’s coming. The revisionist train is slow, but never late.

Selected Filmography

The French Connection
The Conversation (available for streaming in Netflix)
Superman: The Motion Picture
The Firm
Postcards from the Edge
Enemy of the State
Behind Enemy Lines
Crimson Tide
The Runaway Jury (Hackman’s penultimate acting performance)
Narrow Margin
The Royal Tenenbaums


The Martini Shot is an ongoing series examining the overall body of a performer’s work through the lens of their last work, whether it is through death, disillusionment, d-listing or retirement. In film jargon, The Martini Shot is the last shot of the day.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. marlene permalink
    April 26, 2011 10:30 am

    I’d never really thought of Hackman as the male counterpart to Meryl Streep, but it’s an apt comparison, one that probably isn’t made too often because unlike women, we somehow expect great male actors to be that prolific and varied in their roles. It still shocks us when a woman pulls it off.

    If Hackman ever does decide to come out of retirement, I hope it will be to work with Wes Anderson. Just think of the oddities they could create!

  2. April 26, 2011 10:53 am

    I’d never really thought of Hackman as the male counterpart to Meryl Streep, but it’s an apt comparison, one that probably isn’t made too often because unlike women, we somehow expect great male actors to be that prolific and varied in their roles. It still shocks us when a woman pulls it off.

    Agreed and also it’s so interesting how pretty male actors are deified whenever they are able to demonstrate range, as though being able to demonstrate range was some minor component of acting! Hackman and a lot of “character” actors of all genders are our true actors. Most celebrities that get called actors are essentially bamboozling us into paying for the privilege of seeing them play themselves in film after film. looking at you, Aniston.

  3. evmaroon permalink
    April 26, 2011 11:42 am

    I love Hackman! He’s one of only a few actors whose voice I can summon up in my memory. He’s distinctively Hackman in every film but he always brings a well rounded character to each film. I loved him paired with Denzel and he was terrific in The Royal Tenanbaums. What a great career…I sure hope it’s not over.

  4. April 26, 2011 12:15 pm

    I love this take on Hackman, you write about him with such knowledge and affection. And I love this idea for a series, it’s making me rethink other actors and their final roles!

  5. evmaroon permalink
    April 26, 2011 2:53 pm

    After watching the car chase in The French Connection again, can I just say, THEY DON’T MAKE ‘EM LIKE THAT ANYMORE.

  6. Anie permalink
    April 26, 2011 8:44 pm

    I love Gene Hackable (as affectionately like to butcher his name).

    His lines/mannerisms in Runaway Jury (my personal favorite performance) ~ I have incorporated so many into my life, that it may even be perceived as annoying by others.

  7. April 26, 2011 9:07 pm

    Ha. Anie! You should watch Royal Tenenbaums if you haven’t already. I think it might give your Runaway Jury a run for the money. Plus it has Danny Glover!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: