10. Bonnie and Clyde
Hackman got the first big break of his career with his role as Buck Barrow, Clyde Barrow’s older brother, in the classic 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. Although he met a gruesome end in the movie, critics took note. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
9. The Royal Tenenbaums
The Royal Tenenbaums enjoyed great critical and public acclaim, thanks in large part to Hackman’s lead role in the comedy-drama. Without playing spoiler here, Hackman’s actions as the insensitive family patriarch Royal Tenenbaum is painful to watch for Hackman fans used to seeing him play heroic roles, or even villains, rather than this heartless role. He won several awards for best actor in 2001, including the Golden Globe.
8. Get Shorty
Hackman is perfectly cast as a sleazy movie producer who gets caught up with criminal elements. John Travolta enjoyed top billing in the 1995 film, but Hackman and several other actors turned in fine performances that made the film a success.
Many movie critics raise their nose at roles such as the one Hackman tackled as the villainous Lex Luthor in the 1978 flick Superman. Some would call his performance campy, or criticize his over-the-top acting, as the archenemy of Christopher Reeve’s Superman. Whatever the critics thought, the movie was a box-office hit, thanks in large part to Hackman’s efforts.
6. The Poseidon Adventure
Hackman didn’t register on most film critics’ radar for his role in the Irwin Allen disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure. The movie-going public, however, loved the film, making it the No. 1 box office hit of 1973. Hackman plays an outspoken reverend who shepherds a group of survivors to safety after a cruise ship is capsized by a tsunami.
5. Crimson Tide
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Gene Hackman got out-performed by Denzel Washington in Crimson Tide, but Washington’s role as the sympathetic underdog who perhaps saves the world with his actions detracts from a very strong performance on Hackman’s part as Captain Frank Ramsey of the USS Alabama. That might explain why the movie, and Washington, raked in several nominations and awards, but Hackman was shut out. Still, it was one of Hackman’s finest performances.
Based on the true story of a small-town basketball team that improbably won the Indiana state championship in 1954, Hoosiers is a classic sports film that is a favorite of critics and fans alike. In 2005, the American Film Institute ranked the movie No. 13 all time on its list of “100 Years . . . 100 Cheers: America’s Most Inspiring Movies.” Hackman didn’t get a single award or even nomination for his lead performance as coach Norman Dale. Nevertheless, his performance earns a spot on his Top 10 list just for being associated with such a classic film.
3. The French Connection
Hackman already had a couple of Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor when he took on the role of NYPD Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle in the French Connection in 1971. That resulted in his only Best Actor Oscar, sending his career to another level. But was it the defining role of his career? No. Despite the Hollywood hardware, Hackman was better in a couple of other performances.
2. Mississippi Burning
The 1988 movie was based in part on the infamous case of three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964. Playing the lead FBI investigator in the case, Hackman had a sympathetic role virtually guaranteed to earn critical acclaim. He did just that, earning Best Actor Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations.
Hackman won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as a crooked Western sheriff in the 1992 film Unforgiven. This was the role Hackman was born to play. He certainly wasn’t hurt by the movie’s overall success (four Oscars, including Best Picture) but Hackman’s performance created one of the most memorable villains in the history of Westerns. Watch the film’s climactic scene again, when Hackman’s Little Bill Daggett faces down Clint Eastwood’s character in a bar. It’s great cinema and an epic career moment for Hackman.