Hackman follows examples of Matthau, Bogart

Character actors are character actors, and stars are stars, and — theoretically, at least — everyone is supposed to stay in niche.

But, like Walter Matthau a decade ago and Humphrey Bogart a generation before that, Gene Hackman is one of that rare breed: the consummate character actor who crossed over to star status.

Hackman was memorable in his first real screen role, in Robert Rossen’s interesting and underrated “Lilith” (1964), but it wasn’t until a few films later that “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) kickstarted his career.

As Warren Beatty’s jovial brother, he was crucial to a film that, together with “The Graduate” that same year, was hugely influential in moving Hollywood into new directions.

His supporting actor Oscar nomination for that role ensured that he would be working steadily, but — despite another nomination in the same category for “I Never Sang for My Father” (1970) — it wasn’t until the blockbuster success of both “The French Connection” (1971) and “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972) that he achieved real stardom.

No one makes great claims for “The Poseidon Adventure” as high art, but even the hugely acclaimed “French Connection” doesn’t represent Hackman’s finest work. It’s certainly an unforgettable performance: He invests Popeye Doyle with fierce energy — but so fierce that arguably the character’s moral ambiguities are not as nuanced as in the actor’s later roles.

In fact, one of Hackman’s greatest attributes is his ability to take us inside characters who are morally ambiguous or conflicted. Two of the best examples of this are the two Harrys he played in the 1970s: Harry Moseby in Arthur Penn’s neo-noir “Night Moves” (1975) and Harry Caul in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” (1974).

Moseby is a troubled but essentially decent guy, who becomes aware that his actions may have tragic impact. Caul has similar problems, but, unlike Moseby, he is a defective personality, a man plagued by obsessions, paranoia and guilt.

In recent years, Hackman has given us a parade of straight-out villains (“Unforgiven”), straight-out good guys (“Narrow Margin”) and vain, cartoonish buffoons (“Get Shorty”). But he has also given us two very different morally complex portrayals with “Under Suspicion” (2000) and “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001).

In the flawed but underrated “Under Suspicion,” he plays Henry Hearst, a prominent citizen suspected of a series of rape/murders of underage girls; almost all of the action transpires in real time, as the local police detective (Morgan Freeman) grills Hackman.

In essence, 90% of the film is an extended cat-and-mouse game between two superb actors, and Hackman constructs a character who moves from pompous righteousness to guilty anxiety to despondent resignation. It is a master display of his genius for revealing one layer after another of a complex character.

“The Royal Tenenbaums” couldn’t be more different in tone or purpose, yet Royal Tenenbaum himself is almost as morally complicated as Henry Hearst. Initially, Hackman shows us a lovable, irresponsible scoundrel, whose irresponsibility is so relentless that he soon stops seeming quite so lovable. After pulling this off, he manages to make us believe in Tenenbaum’s reformation in the midst of a determined antic film.

“The Royal Tenenbaums” is also a reminder of a less appreciated side of Hackman: Like many performers who made their names with “serious” dramatic roles, he was initially not thought of as a very funny guy. But his breakthrough was an uproarious comic cameo as the blind man in “Young Frankenstein” (1974). Sandwiched in between the grim “Conversation” and “Night Moves,” the role was so out of character that many viewers didn’t even realize it was Hackman.

While he still appears primarily in dramatic features, he has also been hilarious in the first two “Superman” films, “Get Shorty” and “The Birdcage” (1996).

With all these credits, it’s inevitable that Hackman has been in some not-so-good films; but even in those he has never given a not-so-good performance. He is always, at a minimum, first-rate; and often he transcends that with sheer inspiration.

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