Saturday, 5 October 2013

Alternate Best Supporting Actor 1978: Gene Hackman in Superman

Gene Hackman did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for Bafta, for portraying Lex Luthor in Superman

Although Lex Luthor is the main villain of the film, and his evil plan does involve the deaths of many many people his scenes mostly consist Gene Hackman having the time of his life while giving a largely comic performance as "the greatest criminal mind of our time". Although he may be as good as he says this Lex Luthor, while making his plan to make his worthless land on the west coast worth a fortune by making a new coast line, lives in an underground mansion while dealing with his ditzy girlfriend Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) and his bumbling henchmen Otis (Ned Beatty). It is a tricky role to have the main villain be this comic but if someone can pull it off look no further than the great Gene Hackman.

This is a rather different performance from Gene Hackman when compared to his other output from the 70's that I have covered not only because he giving a supporting performance, but also in terms of style. This is a far more flamboyant turn by Hackman, but like all the greats if you can play it reserved, like he did so perfectly in The Conversation, you can go flamboyant like he does here. I won't beat around the bush, I love this performance, as it is just a treat to see Hackman just have this much fun with a role. He is playing a villain without reservations about the fact that he is a villain and Hackman definitely makes the the most of this fact.

All the Lex Luthor scenes are just hilarious, and Hackman's has a perfect chemistry of sorts with Perrine and Beatty. Hackman is a great egomaniac as Luthor because he always keeps a comic edge to it especially in his mockery of his companions but he's also great because he does manage to make Luthor honestly seem that smart all at the same time. Hackman is able to have his cake and eat it to because he says everything absurd thing Lex Luthor says with just the right sort of ridiculousness attached to it, and right along with that gives it a strange sincerity since Hackman does really make Luthor seem like "the greatest criminal mind" all the while.

Hackman handles all of his scenes with such gusto and even oddly enough a certain charm that we strangely can have fun right along with Luthor as he sets up his plan to kill millions of people. Hackman makes every insult that Luthor sing in such an enjoyable way, and he is quite entertaining in the humorous way he reacts to the stupidity of his henchmen. Hackman mixes it just right with his open hostility over the dumbness of Otis but his more passive style against Miss Teschmacher. One of my favorite moments is when Luthor explains kryptonite to his two "students" and when looking for some sort of worthwhile comment is left with inane chatter, and Hackman's exasperated reaction is just brilliant. 

Of course Lex Luthor is the villain, even if most of his time he spent being comical, and Hackman slowly builds to the point where the true villain comes out by still having an underlying menace even during his comic moments. The true evil does not come though until Superman pays Luthor a visit, and Hackman continues to be great in the role showing his ability to switch to a more vicious presence on a dime. One of his best moments comes just as Superman arrives asking where Luthor's fake poison pellet is. Luthor says the existence is fake and Hackman still is being funny. When Superman inquires if he Luthor gets his laughs from planning the deaths of innocent people, Hackman switches so naturally to being exceptionally chilling with Luthor's response "No, by causing the death of innocent people.".

The suggestion of Luthor's evil is always there in the earlier scenes but the true sinister nature of the character does not completely come out until Luthor springs the Kryptonite on Superman which allows him to gain the upper hand. Hackman is terrific as he reveals really just how evil Luthor is as he shows just how much malicious joy Luthor derives from getting the upper hand against Superman. In a moment he turns Luthor from a mostly comical curmudgeon to a truly menacing villain. There is nothing lost in the transition and it is the same character, as Hackman still finds still finds some room for humor during the scene. Lex Luthor is a difficult role as being the comic relief and the main villain is not an easy trick to pull off. Gene Hackman  makes it look easy though and is thoroughly entertaining with just the right dose of intimidation thrown in.

13 comments:

Kevin said...

Hi Louis, great review! Just asking for your opinions, what did you think of the 2006 version Superman Returns and Kevin Spacey's portrayal of Lex Luthor?

Louis Morgan said...

I did not much care for its strange pseudo-remake style. As compared to the original it falls short in every way and there is no excuse that it is longer then the original film when the original film covers much more material. The worst parts of the film is the original material they came up with such as stalker superman and the son of superman.

Almost all the performances are lesser versions of their 1978 equivalents. Having said that Kevin Spacey is the best part, even if he's no Hackman, as I did find him somewhat entertaining but not enough to save the film.

Anonymous said...

Spacey was a terrible Luther in my opinion, Hackman combined menace with comedy. Pure brilliance.

Anonymous said...

By the way Louis, do you prefer Hackman to De Niro and Pacino. I think hes every bit as good as those guys but he'll never get the praise they get. Its sad that hes retired because he's sorely missed on the screen, very few actors today can match his screen presence and charisma.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: You must be new here. Hackman is one of his very favourite actors.

Anonymous said...

And mine, I think hes the most complete actor I have ever seen. There isn't anything Hackman cant do.

Edward L. said...

Great review! I love Hackman in this, and for all the qualities you pinpoint. It's one of those performances where it's not just the lines that are fun to quote, it's his delivery of the lines. One of my favourites is when Superman bashes his way into Luthor's lair, and Luthor says calmly "It's open - come in" and then, a few seconds later, "My attornery will be in touch with you about the damage to the door." But yes, as you say, he's also properly menacing when he needs to be. Excellent work from a great actor.

Edward L. said...

Also, I agree with you on Superman Returns. Awful film. A charmless Superman, Not enough Clark Kent. Not enough story or humour. The only bright spot is the first couple of minutes, and even then it messes up the iconic credits by doing them too quickly. I haven't seen Man of Steel because I fear it will be as bad...although Costner, Adams and Crowe may be worth it.

Michael McCarthy said...

@Edward I personally think Man of Steel was pretty so-so. Henry Cavill was definitely better than Routh of course, but he wasn't given the opportunity to showcase his talent very much until the last few scenes. Costner, Crowe, and Lane are all quite good, and Shannon has good moments. Adams is pretty good at the beginning but becomes less interesting later on, and everything in that movie is so underwritten especially the relationship between superman and Lois lane. Kinda the opposite of my problem with SR, which is that it was overwritten.

Louis Morgan said...

Anonymous: I should clarify my feelings toward Spacey slightly. What I liked was that he was clearly having some fun in the role unlike the very dour performances given by the likes of Routh, Bosworth, and Frank Langella. He does go into the wrong type of ham territory and say he gave that performance in the 78 film I might consider him terrible, but in Returns he at least brings some energy to the proceedings.

Anonymous: I'll take Hackman over Pacino and De Niro any day of the week. I really wish he had come out of retirement for Nebraska.

Edward L.: "OTISBURG!"

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

Man of Steel is what I'd call an honorable failure. Unlike most, I found the shaky cam interestingly implemented and the cinematography beautiful at times. Costner and Crowe rose above the rest of the cast, though Shannon was entertaining as usual. The problem was the redundant fight scenes that derail the second half of the movie. I've seen less confusing and hyper fight scenes on Dragon Ball Z. It didn't reach the heights it wanted to, but I can't blame them for trying.

Edward L. said...

Michael and koook160: I guess I'll give Man of Steel a try. If Costneer and Crowe are good, that will get me through.

Louis: "Why is the greatest criminal mind of our age surrounded by utter nincompoops?!"
"I'm back, Mr. Luthor."
"Yes, Otis, I was...just talking about you."

Anonymous said...

Its funny because Hackman, much like Nicholson in Batman, gets criticised for being to jokey and cartoony in this, but this style of acting fit the film. He had way more charisma that Spacey's dull characterisation.