Gene Hackman did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite winning a Golden Globe as well as a couple Critic Awards, for portraying Royal Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums.
I suppose it is no secret that Gene Hackman is one of my very favorite actors. I've covered several of his performances from his amazing subtle work in The Conversation, to his chilling yet humane performance in Unforgiven, but I have not covered any of his performances in comedies. Although to be sure this is not a pure comedy by any means as it has more than its fair share of dramatic moments, but Hackman does get ample opportunity to show off his comedic chops here. In fact it is pretty easy to say that his performance and character is what really puts this film much more on the comedic side than it would be otherwise, as his character always seems to look at the lighter side of things.
In the opening montage of the film we see the childhood of the Tenenbaum children with Royal as their rather self indulgent father who seems quite insensitive to all of their needs going so far as to even shooting his own son with a BB gun because hey that's just Royal does. I could see how so many actors could easily have gone the wrong way with Royal into just an unlikable mess, but this is Gene Hackman so he nails the character from his first scene. Hackman is such a delightful presence to behold and he knows how to play the role with an energetic glee that can pretty much override the character's despicable nature to make it so we can laugh right along with him.
Hackman is a genius here because well he doesn't avoid being unlikable yet he never stops Royal from being compulsively likable. He doesn't just fall on one facet of the character exactly, and it is quite interesting the way Hackman is able to show exactly what Royal did with his children yet not make us feel the alienation like the children. A great moment is when he first witnesses his daughter's play at her birthday party and only criticizes it rather bluntly. This works because Hackman is just so unabashed about it, and he doesn't play it like Royal is being purposefully sadistic in his method, rather Hackman is able to portray the selfishness of mind that keeps Royal from even fully realizing what he is doing at times.
Like all my favorite actors Hackman is able to be simply fun to watch act, and this is definitely true in this case as Royal Tenenbaum throughout and every scene is only made better when he has something to do in them. There is a great number of scenes in the middle where Royal is launching his scheme to attempt to get back in his family by pretending that he is dying. Hackman is terrific as Royal acts as if he really cares about everyone well still not away from his usual self obsessed schemes as well. Hackman is so wonderful in his little moments as we see that same old Royal, and has some comedic gems he brings whenever he can. Sometimes it can be a slight reaction, like when Royal is astonished by a game room he has not been into for sometime, and Hackman makes it comedic gold.
The role of Royal does have quite a change through the film as he seems not particularly redeemable in his behavior early on yet he changes quite a bit by the end the film. This of course can be done rather poorly even by someone like Jack Nicholson who failed to be fully believable in his try to bring the curmudgeon around in Its As Good As It Gets. Hackman also has quite the task but doesn't make any of the mistakes that Nicholson did in his performance. Where Nicholson was far too sudden in his approach and not at all natural, Hackman knows how to properly maneuver through the change appropriately. One of the important aspects of his portrayal is the way he eases into the change in Royal, he never rushes it, and just as importantly he never loses that joy in Royal's behavior found before his change.
During the period of faking that he is dying Hackman although always suggests the game Royal is playing there is a certain caring in him particularly when Royal tries to connect with his grandchildren. Hackman never forces it showing there still is that imp at least partially in his manner even when he tries to be entirely earnest with his children. He works toward it in a brilliant fashion though and the moment where Royal is found out about his lies we see the change finally in Royal. The moment where Royal finally says what the family really does mean to him by saying his days with them have been the best days of his life is made so poignant as Hackman does not just leave it to the narration to say it, he shows the mixed bitter sweet moment in Hackman's expression when Royal realizes how important his family really is to him.
After Royal finds himself on the outs again with his family Hackman is so good in showing that Royal can't go back to his old ways completely, although importantly he still has some nice funny moments still never losing that primary characteristic of Royal which is that he loves life. Royal manages to be brought back in by a real family crisis and Hackman is very moving as he portrays the changed Royal attempt to make things right. What works so beautifully about Hackman's performance is that Royal is entirely genuine in his attempts to bond with his family, yet what works is that he shows a struggle in Royal. Hackman doesn't have the struggle to be a good man, but rather struggle with just his lack of experience. What is so effective is that Hackman conveys the honest effort Royal puts in as he tries to connect with his children despite his numerous shortcoming, making it much more powerful when he finally does.
This is another excellent performance by Hackman in every respect. He is a comedic force through the film always making a situation quite hilarious even no matter what the situation might be. He doesn't avoid being the unlikable father to self absorbed to care about his family, no instead he absolutely relishes in that fact and gets such great moments by this approach. He is consistently funny and it is a delight to see Hackman succeed so effortlessly with humor as he managed to do in his earlier far more dramatic performances. Of course there is drama here to and Hackman knows exactly how to handle that as well. He connects right with the comedy side of the role. They are one and the same, Hackman excels in the role seamlessly combining all that is Royal winning when it comes to creating laughter with his performance, and moving when he needs to express the more soulful moments. All I can say is that I love this performance.