L13FC: The Long Careers of Actors

Today is my lucky day! You’ve decided to stop by and add to the discussion to this month’s film topic on my double-nickel birthday. Thank you!

Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Duvall are lifetime friends who bunked together while honing their craft back in the late 1950s. It’s a fascinating trifecta. Read Flip the Movie Script 2016 article, “A Brief Time in History with Friends Hackman, Hoffman, and Duvall” found HERE.

Considered character actors, they catapulted to stardom when their breakout roles were part of an Oscar winner for Best Picture. (Dustin Hoffman in 1967 with The Graduate, Gene Hackman in 1971 with The French Connection, and Robert Duvall in 1972 with The Godfather) Hoffman and Hackman won Oscars for Best Actor, and Duvall was nominated for his supporting role. As generational friends and colleagues, they’ve grown old on the screen and we’ve watched them do it. Their longevity is remarkable. According to IMDb:

Gene Hackman, b. 1930:  100 credits, 2 Oscars, 30 other wins

Dustin Hoffman, b. 1937: 84 credits, 2 Oscars, 60 other wins

Robert Duvall, b. 1931: 143 credits, 1 Oscar, 55 other wins

Having read Allan Hunter‘s biography Gene Hackman, after his win for Popeye in The French Connection, there was a battle within Hackman. How to navigate a career? Should your choices be picky for art’s sake, daring to fall out of favor if your film bombs? Or should you accept any role because you are afraid your flame will burn out quickly if you don’t maximize Oscar success? For Hackman, he never thought “this ugly mug would be so lucky.” By the middle 1970s, he accepted whatever script was offered, and it deflated his high-quality acting persona. Then in the 1980s and 1990s, he seemed to be cast in the same role over and over. The bastard. The son-of-a-bitch. He became “the man” everyone wanted to stick it to.

Please welcome my co-host, Nancy, my mother who has watched these three actors their entire careers. I asked her, “Because Gene is ordinary looking and plays ugly characters does he become repellent to you? If Gene were gorgeous and played ugly characters would he be as repulsive? Or sexier?” 

Nancy’s observations:

Gene Hackman’s looks have nothing to do with it. To me, he comes across as arrogant, even in comedies.  I don’t see him really “acting”, only playing parts that are him.  I love Robert Duvall.  Every character is different, good or bad, such as The Great Santini, Tender Mercies, and as Lt. Col. Kilgore. I don’t have an opinion on Dustin Hoffman one way or another.  Most of his roles aren’t memorable to me. None of them radiate sex appeal. Not like Richard Harris.

Cindy’s observations: 

Gene Hackman said in Allan Hunter’s biography that he knew if he couldn’t get the girl in the film, he would never become a “movie star” like, well, Richard Harris. His talents were utilitarian to a script that needed a smug, corrupt leader. He was perfect and predictable like a favorite dish at a restaurant. If you didn’t get what you expected, you’d be disappointed.

With actors who have sustainable longevity in the business, there seems to be a young version and an older version of themselves. Actors who play diverse roles are my favorite. They are the artists. One wonders after playing 80 + films, like an old horse down a hoof-beaten path, it’s not acting anymore, it becomes, as Nancy suggested, just the man on the screen. The originality of the initial spark that captivated an audience at the start of a career has long since burnt out.

Since many people have a say in the outcome of the film, it would be hard to know which film to pick. What seems like an interesting, meaty role, could end up being an unbalanced disaster beyond the actor’s control. It is the brave artist on screen who bears the criticism of good chemistry gone sour. For career actors, who make 80+ films, I have to wonder if they feel that filmmaking is a hit or miss endeavor. Maybe if one can count four or five excellent roles in a fifty-year career, that’s a job well done at the end of a life?

Considering Hackman, Hoffman, and Duvall, why do you prefer the one you picked? Their best role?

Another Pair with Gene Hackman

This is the second installment of my winter project of investigating the filmography of a male film star I know too little about. According to Allen Hunter’s biography, Gene Hackman, he grew up in his grandmother’s house surrounded by the unremitting cornfields of Danville, Illinois. He dropped out of high school, joined the Marines on a whim, and served from 1946-51. Acting school followed at the Pasadena Playhouse and the cementation of friendships with peers Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall. You can read about their unique 50-year-old friendship in Vanity Fair HERE.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) 

Warren Beatty produced the film and likened to the role of Clyde because he was a character who wanted to “be somebody’ in the uncooperative climate of the Depression. This motivation was the force behind Clyde; Bonnie coaxed that motivation. Clyde saved her from a boring life and she was willing to do anything for the thrills of their partnership. When her poem, “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde” was published, they had a national audience. Bonnie finally gets the passion she craved. The violence of the film pushed the envelope (a shot to the face of an apprehender smears blood on the getaway car) and the emergence of Faye Dunaway as the reckless Bonnie elevated the film to lofty heights. Dunaway reminded me of a young Bette Davis. The nuances, the body language, and her loveliness were exceptional. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen by a female performer. But wait. What about Gene Hackman? As brother Buck to Clyde, he gave an enthusiastic, convincing performance as did the rest of the cast, but no one surpassed Faye Dunaway. Fifty years later, the film still stands.  4/5.5  

If you like crime history, here is information about the FBI case of Bonnie and Clyde.

What stood out:

1. Gene Wilder‘s bit-part facial expressions. “Step on it, Velma!”

2. Blanche (Estelle Parsons) screaming; a most annoying character and perfect antithesis to independent Bonnie. Parsons won the Oscar for her role. I love her final scene when the Sheriff coaxes information with false sympathy. She is blind and bandaged and clueless til the end. Awesome role.

3. The opening sequence with Faye Dunaway, bored, restless and naked. Bonnie and Clyde sizing each other up in a matter of minutes, each cool and confident.

4. The famous ending directed by Arthur Penn. I liked the hard cuts, the montage that revealed the final thoughts of Bonnie and Clyde, and the sequence of events to their end.

Scarecrow (1973) 

What is best about the script of these unlikely friends is the 180 degree flip-flopping of their characters. (Lion) Al Pacino and (Max) Gene Hackman are allowed the space to give full-bodied performances. While the story-line was dull at times during its first half, it more than made up for any lags by the last half. Lion’s phone call to his estranged wife Annie was heartbreaking, and the anticipation of Lion’s fall was painful. Max goes from an unlikable character to someone who has benefited from a sincere friendship. It has been compared to Of Mice and Men; if Steinbeck’s classic engages you, you would no doubt enjoy Scarecrow.  4.5/5. 

What stands out:

  1. Watching a young, kindhearted Pacino (instead of later scene-chewing roles) teach the irascible Max a better philosophy of life even though the script seemed heavy-handed at times.
  2. Watching Hackman’s Max change. Usually Hackman is hard and mean and stays that way. It was great to see such a fine transformation. I smiled broadly when I found out why he slept with the shoe under his mattress. When Lion asks him why he picked him to be his partner since he trusts no one, Max responds, “Because you gave me your last cigarette. And you made me laugh.” The chemistry between the two characters was real and showcased great acting .
  3. I loved that open scene with the stormy sky and gold wheat field. The across the highway exchange was wonderful.

Are You Not Entertained?

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I was. Here continues a monthly series featuring the music, the books, and the movies that occupied my time.  

MUSIC

Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos epitomized the Baroque period. Introduced to them twenty years ago, and despite my leaning toward the passionate Russian romantics, I learned to appreciate the symmetrical beauty of Bach’s piano works. In the 1950s and 60s, no one denied Glenn Gould the title of genius when performing them. A quirky man in a world of his own, humming on his own recordings, I highly recommend the unusual, artistic film of 32 vignettes by Director François Girard (The Red Violin) and Colm Feore starring as Gould.

And then, for a musical treat, I got a kick out watching an old television program which featured some fabulous icons–Leonard Bernstein, Glenn Gould, and Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky. You can watch Glenn Gould play around the 18:00-minute mark.

BOOKS 

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It’s been all about Steve McQueen in my house this past month. For the winter project, I’ve immersed myself in Marshall Terrill’s biography. As a cultural icon of the 1960s and 70s, I was reminded how free-flowing the sex, drugs, fast cars, and fashion mattered. McQueen loved it all and was an international star, commanding at his zenith almost a million dollars a film. In 1980, he died at the age of 50 of Mesothelioma from his days as a Marine, scraping asbestos off the walls of a ship. Did I like Steve McQueen after reading all about him? Not particularly, but he was cool to watch on the screen, and the biography was fast and fun, just like the man. 4/5.

MOVIES (TV)

st-vinyl-vol-1-front-cover_3000Stranger Things, the Netflix series starred a shrilled, hyperventilating Winona Rider, an ensemble of geeky pre-teens, stereotypical high schoolers, and two actors whose characters were interesting: Chief Hopper (David Harbour) and the fantastic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) who reminded me of a young Natalie Portman. Nostalgic, dripping with Steven Spielberg tricks, it is my new guilty pleasure. 4/5

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Controversial director, Roman Polanski, has a gift for making beautiful films, and this political thriller is no exception. You may think you are on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, but not so. The sand dunes, bulbous gray clouds, and windy spray was located on the North Sea island of Sylt. The Ghost Writer matched style with substance. Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan lead a fine ensemble cast with enough twists and turns to keep you engaged. And that closing shot is one of the best I’ve seen in a while.   4/5.

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Quiz Show(1994). Directed by Robert Redford. Stars Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Rob Morrow, and Paul Scofield. It’s funny. It’s smart. Based on true events, Ralph Fiennes plays Charlie Van Dorena WASP, a professor of literature, whose ivy-league-Brahmin-of-a-father has basked in fame and respect for decades and junior sets out to make a name for himself. Unfortunately, his moral dilemma piques the journalistic interest of a brilliant investigative reporter played by Rob Morrow. The acting is outstanding and Paul Attanasio‘s adapted screenplay is an English major’s dream. Who wouldn’t want to sit at the family picnic table with academian greats and listen to them recite Hawthorne and Shakespeare while munching on corn on the cob? Okay, well, I would. Robert Redford warns us of television’s manipulative power, run by executives, who will do anything for ratings. Sound familiar?  Mark Van Doren: Cheating on a quiz show? That’s sort of like plagiarizing a comic strip.”  4.5/5. 

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For the Love of Spock (2016). Even if you aren’t a Star Trek fan, I forgive you; everyone should watch this outstanding documentary for the cultural-historical relevance (breaking television boundaries with interracial mixing and science fiction influencing the leading scientists of today) and insight as to why Star Trek fans are a loyal bunch. On Netflix, it’s perfect entertainment during a work week evening when you are loafing on the couch with not much going on. Nimoy’s son chronicles his father’s life with balance and grace. I vividly remember as a girl lying on the floor in front of the TV mesmerized during all 79 episodes. Then came the movies. That’s a lot of emotional bonding and why creator Gene Roddenberry and Leonard Nimoy are tops in my book. 4.5/5 

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The Innocents (2016). At first, I wondered if this was a remake of the 1961 Jack Clayton film with the same title starring Deborah Kerr during Victorian England. Looks great! However, this is not the case. This French film directed by Anna Fontaine is about a young French Red Cross doctor (Lou de Laâge) who is sent in 1945 Poland to assist the survivors of the German camps and discovers several nuns in advanced states of pregnancy during a visit to a nearby convent. It is a fantastic based-on-true-events effort by Fontaine.  My only criticism is the space between the doctor and the nuns. The nuns remain “others” and in spite of the intimacy of delivering baby after baby; the nuns remain foreign entities other than a couple of brief conversations. On the plus side, I thought it a good call in the script to avoid flashbacks of the rapes. 4/5.

 A Man Called Ove (2016) This Swedish gem directed by Hannes Holms and his screenplay adapted from Fredrik Backman‘s novel of the same name was a surprise treat. This dark comedy affected me to tears which I wasn’t expecting. The grumpy old man, Ove, (Rolf Lassgård) who can’t come to terms with his wife’s death, discovers there’s still meaning in life. He seems like the dull model of mediocrity, but his love story told through flashbacks about his beautiful wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll) provides depth and surprises. The grumpy old man stereotype turns into a complex character when the people in his present like the Middle Eastern young wife (Bahar Pars) who helps him realize that life has a purpose even when you think you’re done with it. Touching and beautiful. 4.5/5.

 

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