Gene Hackman: The French Connection & The Conversation

This year’s winter project featuring a classic male actor I am sketchy about is Gene Hackman. Based upon recommendations, I’m starting off with a strong pair that many have remarked were Gene’s best-known or favorite performance.

Competing against The Last Picture Show at the 1972 Oscars, The French Connection won the major awards of the night: Best Picture Philip D’Antoni, Best Actor in a Leading Role Gene Hackman, Best Director William Friedkin, Best Adapted Screenplay Ernest Tidyman, and Best Film Editing Gerald B. GreenbergRoy Scheider was nominated for Best Supporting Role, but he lost to Ben Johnson (LPS).

I have read that this was a film that set a precedent in police dramas or at least led the charge in portraying cops of dubious morality as the anti-hero. In the 1970s, television shows continued the trend to supply squeaky-clean officers catching the bad guy, but films such as Dirty Harry(1971), Serpico (1973), and The Seven-Ups(1973) show tainted cops ruthlessly taking charge of their urban backdrop. In the case of The French Connection, New York City never looked rawer or more treacherous. In this way, the buddy pair, Popeye (Hackman) and Cloudy (Scheider) fit right in chasing down gangsters, druggies, and deadbeats of the city. 4/5

What stood out:

1. The filming of the ugly alleys, subways, and desecrated buildings of NYC and the beautiful seaside port of Marseille, France was a fine contrast.

2. Roy Scheider’s bubbly performance was his second-best. (All That Jazz, #1)

3. Popeye’s obsession with catching the French kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) drew me in and held my attention.

4. The disgusting building where the climax was shot. The echoes, the shadows, and the reflections–you could smell the mold, feel the contaminated, cold air seep into your skin while Popeye sloshed around the debris. What a visceral experience.

5. Based on a true story, it was an intriguing, albeit, dreary story.

The Conversation is a 1974 American mystery thriller film written, produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and included a fantastic supporting team by John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford, Teri Garr, and Robert Duvall. 

Gene Hackman has the reputation for playing characters that were hard-shelled jerks over his career. His voice is icy to listen to, his jaws set, and his characters won’t budge. Gene Hackman does this well, but I prefer his characters when they have a vulnerable side. Gene Hackman was perfect in this role as the surveillance expert, Harry Caul. He can’t help the fact he must live a lonely life, isolated and inadequate around others, unable to commit to friendships or relationships with females. His eyes suggest he was a product of the system, and his dislike for himself bubbles to the surface, and that’s a tricky acting job. 4.5/5.

What stood out: 

  1. Francis Ford Coppola‘s direction. The opening shot of the San Francisco city Union Square with happy citizens soaking up the midday sun, the mime leading your eyes, and the fuzzy conversation between Ann (Cindy Williams) and her lover Mark (Frederic Forrest).
  2. The ending shot of Harry Caul’s stripped apartment that suggested Caul’s paranoid demise instigated by his own obsessions.
  3. The jazzy piano score composed and performed by David Shire.
  4. The stellar supporting cast by everyone. It was great to see Harrison Ford as the young, smug executive. Teri Garr as the probing, sweet lover of Harry and the sad dance in the parking garage by the ambitious floozie Meridith by Elizabeth MacRae. Robert Duvall’s role was small but powerful as the jealous husband, “The Director”. Hotel toilets take on a new, repugnant level in cinema.
  5. The surprise twist at the end. Francis Ford Coppola’s script was smart and his narrative compact and interesting.  I was surprised how much I liked this film.

Jack Lemmon and Steve Carell

No. Steve Carell isn’t a better actor than the late, great Jack Lemmon, but he might be a contender. Their talent is similar enough for me to make the connection; if I had the inside ear of Mr. Carell, I would advise him to step up and follow Jack’s path and fight for more dramatic roles, because once an actor is associated to their Golden Age counterpart, it amps up the brightness of their star power. Consider George Clooney and Cary Grant. Tom Hanks and Jimmie Stewart. Brad Pitt and Robert Redford. Meryl Streep and Katherine Hepburn. Michelle Pfeiffer and Lauren Bacall, Naomi Watts and Grace Kelly–pairings I associate when I watch either one.

Steve Carell has deviated from comedic roles and branched out to flex his dramatic muscles. Carell’s got a gift for comedic timing playing dorky, clueless, good-hearted men. Frequently he is the butt of the joke or the rag-doll of the Gods. I’ve been laughing at his voice, his expressions, and his situations for almost twenty years. He had a cult following for seven years as Michael Scott, the principal character in the television series, The Office. In films, he grew away from the sophomoric comedy and turned to dark comedy. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) was an indie-great. Then he surprised many with his dramatic portrayal of creepy John DuPont in Foxcatcher (2014). Carell was convincing in the A-list ensemble cast of the comedy-drama, The Big Short (2015). When I watched him in Woody Allen‘s Café Society (2016), I was impressed with Carell’s role as the uncle whose mistress broke the heart of the protagonist, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg). In 2017, according to Indiewire, LAST FLAG FLYING a Richard Linklater film, is a “spiritual successor” to The Last Detail (1973). That should be good. Another intriguing role Steve Carell will play in 2017 is the comedy/drama, Battle of the Sexes as Bobby Riggs and Emma Stone as Billy Jean King. In fact, it seems as though a new genre is blossoming. What was once labeled a dark comedy is now a “comedy/drama”. Please, what’s the difference? It’s the perfect stage for Steve Carell who is the new King.

There are not many actors today who can pull off comedy and drama. Jack Lemmon was an expert at both. I can hardly think of another actor who had his breadth of talent. Nominated 8 times and winning 2 Oscars (Best Actor: Save the Tiger (1974); Best Supporting Actor: Mister Roberts (1956), Jack Lemmon was highly esteemed by everyone in the business. He was a nice guy. A ham who wasn’t afraid to show humility and a sharp mind.

When I consider Jack Lemmon’s career, his younger roles, his goofy antics and energetic bursts, it is a type of stoogy-sidekick, the butt-of-the-joke character that Carell has played numerous times. It’s when Lemmon expanded his repertoire and included dramatic roles like the drinking-buddy tragedy, Days of Wine and Roses (1962) or the frustrated Bud Baxter in The Apartment(1960), it tempered the wacky expectation from viewers. Over time, he became ambidextrous, balancing comedy with drama with precision. Some of my favorite roles Jack played were as older men. Characters where time had passed them by. Desperate workers and discarded human beings who had lost their purpose in society. The older Jack Lemmon conveyed multiple emotions in a single performance. He was never wooden.

Steve Carell is in his early 50s; Jack Lemmon passed at 76 and worked to his final days. If Steve Carell chooses scripts that allow him to stretch his acting potential, I doubt he’d catch up to Jack’s 8 Oscar nominations and 2 wins, but who cares, right? Jack has a legacy, and Steve is bankable. Let’s see if Carell has the longevity that bypassed several of his contemporaries.

A Dozen Perfect Films

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How would you define a perfect film? I would argue there’s something worth remembering about every film if you focus on its parts. When I size up a film, I concentrate on thirteen aspects. Some films have several qualifiers; however, it is rare that a film consists of the following thirteen factors:

1. The line.  Here’s Looking at You Kid. 

2. The scene.  Ada gets her finger chopped off in The Piano. 

3. A smart script.  Dogma

4. A satisfying ending.  Papillon

5. The character transcends the actor.  Lincoln

6. Sound effects affect or the score inspires.  The Birds.  The Magnificent Seven

7. The production design/setting transports.  Lord of the Rings.  Out of Africa

8. The cinematography is innovative or artistic.  Inception.  Citizen Kane

9. Costumes are exquisite or perfectly show the culture.  The Aviator

10. Suspension of disbelief. I am “in” the movie.  The Science of the Lambs

11. The climax is clearly evident and startling.  Psycho

12. The ensemble cast around the major character is a blended microcosm. The Deer Hunter

13. The opening and ending shot. The Searchers

There are many good films to choose from, but are they perfect?  In no particular order, here are my dozen: 

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Apocalypse Now, “The horror, the horror.” 

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Black Swan, Natalie Portman’s performance was supreme. 

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Dances with Wolves, the flip from soldier to warrior. 2099_tn

Alicia: There’s nothing like a love song to give you a good laugh.

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On the Waterfront, Father Barry’s homily as he rises up out of the ship. 

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Survival story bar none. The sound of the water becomes an adversary. Who can forget the dueling banjos? 

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Cold Mountain, a great example of an ensemble cast. 

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Elizabeth, a perfect period film with breathtaking costumes. 

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The Matrix is still a fun mind-bender. 

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Impressive set design and Brad Pitt’s best performance. 

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Joel Gray. Liza Minnelli. Great opening and closing sequence.  

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My favorite Film Noir. 

Is your definition of perfection different from mine? Maybe you would have added editing? If scores aren’t important to you, your list will be quite different. Also, Pixar’s Finding Nemo is a perfect film even though they aren’t wearing costumes, their animated scales and skin are exquisite.

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