Out of the Picture

Article excerpt

Byline: Jeremy McCarter

Today's Oscar contenders should be thankful Gene Hackman's no longer acting.

Gene Hackman has quit the movies. That's not a stop-the-presses scoop. At this point, it's hardly news at all, though it's probably news to you. Two years ago, he went on a book tour to promote Escape from Andersonville, a novel he'd co-written with Daniel Lenihan. In more than one interview, he said that he'd stopped working in the film business. When a reporter from the Raleigh News & Observer asked him to explain his decision, he said he didn't want to "keep pressing" and risk "going out on a real sour note." "I feel comfortable with what I've done," he said.

Yet beyond a few Web sites and wire services, hardly anybody picked up the story or repeated what he'd said. Even now, the fact that one of our most accomplished actors hasn't appeared in a film since 2004, and has said he won't be doing any more, has barely gotten a mention. His agent says it's possible that the right script and director could lure him back, but even if he did return to acting at this point--and, like you, I fervently hope that he does--the nonevent of Hackman's retirement would stand as a strange episode in our recent cultural history. It's a telling, if sad, example of how cavalier we can be with our great artists.

A fluke of timing makes this the right moment to consider how we got here. On Jan. 30, Hackman turns 80--hard to believe, but true--providing an apt vantage point for sizing up his career. A few days later, Academy Award nominations are announced, boosting Oscar fever to an even noisier and more oppressive level than it is now. The commotion helps to pinpoint why Hackman hasn't always gotten the recognition he deserves. Oscar ratings may be dropping, but Oscar mania is exploding. The 24-hour always-on media cycle allows Americans to fixate on those little gold statues in a way that affects how we think and talk about film. It's not unlike the way that a horse-race mindset has warped how we think about politics: uncomfortable talking about value (what's good or bad), we find it easier to talk about success (who wins or loses, or deserves to), which isn't the same thing.

The point isn't that Hackman needs the validation of more trophies: He won plenty, including Oscars for The French Connection and Unforgiven. The point is that our award-season obsessions lead us to undervalue some forms of excellence that can't be toted up in a single role, or divided neatly into categories, or measured against some mythical standard of Oscar worthiness. These virtues, the kind that reveal themselves fully over time, don't have a name, but they do have a face. It's at the top of this page.

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.

Every year, the Oscars teach us to rate performances like these by how deftly an actor incorporates funny voices and prostheses. Hackman, to his credit, rarely went there. …