Saturday, May 10, 2008

Sibling Assignment #62: I'd Be Gene

I assigned this prompt to me and my sisters. It's pretty simple: "If you could act in the movies like anyone, who would it be and why?"

You can find InlandEmpireGirl's wonderful homage to Sally Fields here and Silver Valley Girl will post hers, I'm sure, once she's done skiing with John Kerry and Bruce Willis at Sun Valley.

I've been cast in four plays since 1995 and each time I was cast in a minor role. Being able to play a small role means focusing intensely on the gestures and speech that the character will express in a brief amount of stage time. If the character is to be memorable and believable, those gestures must be performed with energy and efficiency.

If I could act like one character actor in the movies, it would be Gene Hackman. But, Gene Hackman is a leading actor, too. He brings the discipline and efficiency of drawing a character memorably and believably that if often thought of as a character actor's forte to leading roles, making his performances unforgettable and, for me, inspiring.

I'm not going to try to explore the whole of Gene Hackman's career, so I'll point out two of his leading roles that epitomize, for me, his acting.

In between directing the first two Godfather movies, Francis Ford Coppola directed a jewel of a film, The Conversation. It's the story of an audio surveillance expert, Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman.

Harry Caul works as private investigator. I guess he'd be called a private ear. The work has deadened him. He claims indifference to the things he hears and the tapes he makes. His concern is with his art, not with the content of his art.

This indifference carries over to his private life. He lives alone and the only intimate contact he has with anyone is with a lover he has sex with on occasion. It's not passionate sex. It's functional. It has little content and gives him little joy.

The content of his work has affected him, though. He's paranoid, walled off, as if he's living a life under surveillance himself, so he gives little of himself to those who work with him, let alone his lover.

But, as The Conversation develops, we witness Harry Caul unable to keep his distance from the content of one conversation he's recorded. Gene Hackman portrays the slow dropping of Harry Caul's veil, as gradually Harry Caul can no longer bear the pressure of his isolation and he gets involved in the details of a case he's investigated, beyond electronic eavesdropping.

Harry Caul confronts a deep existential crisis. The man he has presented to the world and the man he has believed himself to be turns out to be add odds with who he is when faced with a situation that he cannot distance himself from. The situation, however, deepens his paranoia, painfully portrayed as the movie comes to its enigmatic and unsettling conclusion.

I've acted, but I've never been a basketball coach.

I fantasize a lot about coaching basketball. In my daydreams, I picture myself as Coach Norman Dale, as portrayed by Gene Hackman in Hoosiers.

Hoosiers could have been a cliched movie as it documents the improbable rise of Hickory High School's boys' basketball team from rural obscurity to state championship in Indiana.

Gene Hackman's performance keeps it from being a cliche. As in The Conversation, Hackman plays an outsider, a volatile coach at the end of his tether, who is hired at Hickory as a favor from the principal, old old friend of Norman Dale's. Dale's volatility cost him his collegiate coaching career and he's in Hickory, in part, to redeem himself.

Hackman creates Norman Dale as a man who carries the indignities of his past, but who will not bend to the will of the people of Hickory and coaches the Hickory team with methods the Hickory citizens regard as insane. But, Dale is a tender man. Hackman's Dale rides his players hard, imposes strict rules and disciplines them hard. At the same time, he opens his heart to his players, draws upon deep intuition, and wisely knows when to be soft and minister to his players' insecurities and difficulties.

Hackman took what could have been a sterotyped ex-military basketball coach and creates a character of passion not only for basketball, but for serving the players and people of Hickory.

Hackman's Norman Dale ministers to others, but he's not sentimental. When he reaches out to the town drunk, former Hickory basketball star, and father of a current Hickory player, Shooter Flatch and tries to help him dry out by making him his assistant coach, it's vintage Hackman. Norman Dale disguises his compassion by offering Shooter the position in an indirect way, as if he really needs assistance, when, in fact, his purpose is to help Shooter regain dignity and possibly reconcile with his son.

I think of all the roles I've seen Gene Hackman play and I'm astounded by his versatility and breadth. But most of all, it's his dependability and his solidness that impress me.

His characters come alive from the inside out and Hackman does what the great character actors do: he dives deeply into his characters, gives them physical life and a full indentity, and always makes them memorable.

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