Is Hackman the greatest actor ever? Chris Nashawaty remembers ''Scarecrow'' and other movies that suggest he just might be

By Chris Nashawaty
September 28, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Scarecrow: Kobal Collection
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Is Gene Hackman the greatest actor ever?

By the time Gene Hackman landed his first big movie role, he already seemed like an old man. In 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, he played Warren Beatty’s outlaw brother Buck. But Hackman, with his sour puss and receding hairline, could’ve easily been Beatty’s dad. Hackman was 37 at the time. And already, he gave off the mothball-and-hard candy scent of someone who’d been used up and spat out.

Before Bonnie and Clyde, Hackman had bounced around the New York theater world and had turned up in a mishmash of forgettable TV shows with leaden titles like Hawk and The F.B.I. But beginning with Bonnie and Clyde, he kicked off a brilliant run of films that would put any actor not named Nicholson, Redford, or Pacino to shame. He put pretty-boy Redford in his place in 1969’s Downhill Racer. He snagged a Best Actor Oscar as the hair-trigger narc Popeye Doyle in 1971’s The French Connection. He had the range to play both the paranoid, twitchy surveillance expert in The Conversation and the blustery, hambone alpha-male preacher in The Poseidon Adventure. He was Lex freakin’ Luthor, for crying out loud!

But there’s one Hackman movie from that period that always seems to get lost in the shuffle: 1973’s Scarecrow. Hackman’s sad-sack turn as the ex-con drifter Max is, hands down, one of the great lost performances of the ’70s. And, in my opinion, his second richest character next to The Conversation‘s Harry Caul. Not to mention the fact that he steals the movie from costar Al Pacino — a feat that would seem almost mathematically impossible.

Kicking off like a dust-bowl Midnight Cowboy, Scarecrow traces the unlikely friendship between two lost souls who meet while hitchhiking. Hackman’s Max, dressed in layers and layers of clothes like a hobo with the stub of a cigar jutting out from his bottom lip, has a temper. He’s fresh out of the joint and anyone who looks at him sideways is dead meat. He’s been wronged by the world and wants a little of the payback he feels is his due. He’s headed east to Pittsburgh to retrieve some money he has stashed so he can start a car-wash business. Pacino plays a mousy cutup nicknamed Lion. He’s a glass-half-full kind of guy, who’s constantly goofing off. He’s headed to Detroit to see the son he’s never met. Under his arm is a white gift box with a red bow containing a child’s lamp.

Soon, the two hatch plans to travel together — first to Detroit so Pacino can see his kid, then to Pittsburgh to go into the car-wash business as partners. You could say nothing really happens in the film…or everything happens. Scarecrow is one of those movies they don’t bother with much anymore that are about characters. To watch Hackman simply order breakfast in an Okie diner is like watching a master class in acting. As he boozes in dive bars and gets into fights, Pacino defuses the tension with his silly little slapstick. And it reminds Pacino of the story of the scarecrow: He says that the reason the crows stay away from the scarecrow isn’t because they’re scared, but because they’re too busy laughing their asses off at it. Just like that, he boils their two approaches to life down to its gooey reduction.

Hackman and Pacino jump freight trains, sleep in fleabag motels, pick apples for money, and cook beans over railyard bonfires. Like I said, though, not much happens. And yet there’s one little scene that convinced me that Gene Hackman may be the finest actor alive. Hackman and Pacino pay a visit to an old female friend of Hackman’s in Denver. The friend’s roommate, played by Ann Wedgeworth (whom you may remember as the horny, va-va-voomish upstairs neighbor Lana on Three’s Company), is flirting up a storm with Hackman. Meanwhile, Hackman’s just sitting at the dining room table eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and drinking beer. Slurring his words, licking chicken from his fingers, talking about his car-wash dreams, and making sloppy advances on Wedgeworth, Hackman gives the only convincing portrayal of being wasted I’ve ever seen. There’s a chance he was actually smashed when he filmed the scene — maybe a good chance. I have no idea. Either way, he makes any other actor who’s ever tried to act drunk look like a bad Foster Brooks impression.

Which brings me to my top five underrated Gene Hackman performances. Remember, this isn’t a list of his best performances. It’s merely a rundown of five that maybe you haven’t seen and are worth checking out:

Downhill Racer (1969)
Hackman plays the U.S. Olympic ski team coach as a blowhard and ass. Sweet mod ski outfits, though.

Prime Cut (1972)
Hackman costars with tough-guy Lee Marvin in a sick, twisted tale about a sadistic rancher who grinds his enemies into sausage. No joke.

No Way Out (1987)
A twisty bit of high-stakes espionage at the close of the Cold War. Hackman is the jealous Defense Secretary with the hots for Sean Young.

Twilight (1998)
Hackman. Newman. Garner. Like you need to hear anything else.

Heist (2002)
A sly and twisty David Mamet puzzle box. Right up there with Mamet’s House of Games.

What’s your favorite Gene Hackman performance?

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