Greatish Performances #42

hackman GP

#42 — Gene Hackman as Royal Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)

Gene Hackman didn’t want to play Royal Tenenbaum. As he recounted, history told him that instances in which a filmmaker had written a part specifically for him usually resulted in creative experiences that weren’t particularly rewarding. If the material was too solidly in territory he’d already trod on screen — and despite the occasional self-imposed layoff during his long career, he was prolific enough to cover a lot of ground over the years — he wouldn’t stretch, he wouldn’t burrow, he wouldn’t make the sort of discoveries that add depth to a performance. There may not be such a thing as a bad performance by Hackman, but there are certainly instances where the work was clearly easy for him, when he was coasting a little. Once writer-director Wes Anderson told Hackman he was always the target in conceiving Royal, reluctance kicked in. It took avid pursuit to get Hackman to sign on. Whether not he felt it was too simple a task when the job began, the acting onscreen is the flintiest, most quietly cunning of the latter chunk of his estimable career.

Royal is something of a cad. He’s certainly a lousy husband and father. Following up the masterful Rushmore, Anderson expanded the scope of his storytelling, essentially crunching the template of a mid-twentieth-century great American novel of familial dysfunction into a cinematic form, albeit the precise and mannered type of movie that unmistakably marks entries in his oeuvre. Accordingly, Hackman carries the significant weight of a character who might have been unwrapped in painstaking detail over hundreds of pages, one aching revelation after another. In his rendering, Royal is a wadded mass of sparking instincts, driven by narcissism, leavened by a welling vulnerability, and shrouded in devil-may-care charisma. He’s a schemer by nature, reintroducing himself to a wounded family unit whose many scars can largely be traced to the blade of concerted dedication to self he once wielded and, to a degree, still swings.

And through it all, Royal, as a character, is entertaining. Hackman could be intense and moving — and both qualities are seen vividly in The Royal Tenenbaums — but what perhaps distinguished him most from his Method-y peers was an innate sense of showmanship, a chuckling camaraderie to his performances that built a certain amount of fun into every role, a testing of how far he could push his personality beyond the border wall of the screen without lapsing into the lamentable state of overcooked ham. Royal himself is regularly performing, constantly calibrating his approach, including when to allow the genuine to glimmer through. Hackman is often quite funny as Royal, but never at the expense of the integrity of the character. He finds the absurdity in individual moments, welds it to truth, then somehow delivers a line reading that conveys both elements. His angry insistence that his cohort Pagoda (Anderson regular Kumar Pallana) should never stab him again is a small miracle of overlapping tones.

In other hands, Royal could be a figure of pure pathos or a cheap caricature of toxic privilege. Hackman includes elements of both, melded with a myriad of other personality layers, all in the service of making the character a multi-faceted whole. He brings gravity to the comic moments and sprightly ingenuity to the dramatic beats. The contradictions are plentiful yet controlled, deeper insight always the result of the shifts undertaken. Anderson’s films always risk being subsumed in intricate whimsy. A performance such as Hackman’s in The Royal Tenenbaum’s provides ballast and, most importantly, humanity.



About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12

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