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