Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award, per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Philip Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.
It’s unfathomable that Gene Hackman hasn’t made a movie since winning the Cecil B. deMille award in 2003. But what a career he had!
He turned his back on acting because he didn’t like the business. He liked being on the set when as he put it, “it was cooking,” but he always preferred the solitary life, and for the past sixteen years he’s done just that, satisfying his artistic needs by writing novels and returning to his early goal, which was to paint.
After serving four years in the Marines, he joined the Pasadena Playhouse where he met and became friendly with still an unknown Dustin Hoffman. Ironically the two of them were actually voted “least likely to succeed,” which must have encouraged them to move to New York where they shared an apartment with another unknown actor, Robert Duvall. Between the three of them, they’ve won no less than seven Golden Globes.
Despite discouragement, Hackman found work off-Broadway while doing guest spots on TV series. Appearing in the Sandy Dennis hit play Any Wednesday. he was noticed by Hollywood talent scouts and got his first movie role in Robert Rossen’s Lilith, but it was three years later that Warren Beatty remembered him from that and cast him in his career-making role in Bonnie and Clyde.
Even though the film became an instant classic and he was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting role, he had to wait three years this first starring role in I Never Sang for my Father for which again he was Oscar-nominated this time as best actor. In between, he supported Burt Lancaster in Gypsy Moths, Robert Redford in Downhill Racer, and Gregory Peck in Marooned.
Given his first leading role, he created his unforgettable tough cop Popeye Doyle in William Friedkin’s The French Connection, which won both the Golden Globe and the Oscar as best picture and earned him both awards and screen immortality. From then on, he never looked back.
He had starring roles in Cisco Pike and (with Lee Marvin) in Prime Cut, and he carried his first blockbuster The Poseidon Adventure, which became one of the top grossers of the decade.
He now had the pick of projects. Scarecrow with emerging Al Pacino, Zandy’s Bride with Liv Ullman, and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation for which he and the picture were again nominated for Golden Globes.
But after that, it was back to serious acting, in one of his best movies the underrated Night Moves which introduced a 17-year-old Melanie Griffith in a brilliant performance.
He secured his economic future with potential blockbusters like Bite the Bullet, Lucky Lady, A Bridge Too Far, March or Die, Superman I and Superman ll, yet always insisting on A-list directors like Richard Donner, John Frankenheimer, Stanley Donen, Stanley Kramer, and Richard Brooks.
His best movie of this period was another underrated failure All Night Long with Barbra Streisand.
He made a guest appearance in Warren Beatty’s Reds (he owed him) and starred in Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka and Under Fire, both films vying for year’s best honors. Unfortunately, Eureka ended up a disaster that nobody saw and Under Fire though voted the best film of the year by the New York Critics got no love from either the HFPA or the Academy, but it did earn him a Golden Globe nomination as best supporting actor, his fourth nomination.
Hoosiers is arguably his best-loved movie, it came from nowhere, quickly found a following and is now considered one of the best-loved sports movies of all time. Although it was Dennis Hopper who ended up with Oscar and Golden Globe recognition. Hackman supported Kevin Costner in his career establishing No Way Out, was part of an ensemble in Woody Allen’s Another Woman, but then was given new life with Mississippi Burning, for which he earned his fifth Golden Globe nomination as best actor. But that was to be his swansong as a leading actor.
He supported Meryl Streep in Postcards from the Edge, Costner again in Wyatt Earp, Tom Cruise in The Firm, John Travolta in Get Shorty, Robin Williams in The Birdcage, Hugh Grant in Extreme Measures, Chris O’Donnell in The Chamber, Paul Newman in Twilight, Will Smith in Enemy of the State, Keanu Reeves in The Replacements, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts in The Mexican, John Cusack in Runaway Jury, but always delivering stand-out performances.
In between he got to play two great roles, as the bad guy in Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Unforgiven for which he again won both the Oscar and the Golden Globe, this time as best supporting actor. It might have been his last hurrah but he had one other award-winning role up his sleeve playing the patriarch in Wes Anderson Golden Globe-winning best comedy The Royal Tenenbaums, for which he won his first Golden Globe as best actor in a comedy.
After that, he made one more film, the poorly received Welcome to Mooseport, but then he hung up his spurs and he hasn’t acted since. But what a career! His classic performances, too many to name, but we’d settle for The French Connection, The Conversation, Hoosiers, and Unforgiven.