When Gene Hackman retired after the 2004 flop Welcome to Mooseport, he left behind a body of work to rival that of any actor. From his beginnings in the New Hollywood era to his blockbuster entries in the 2000s, Hackman had done it all: indie films and superhero movies, crime flicks, and sports epics. During that time, Hackman worked with some of the most important filmmakers of several generations, including Francis Ford Coppola, Mike Nichols, William Friedkin, and Wes Anderson.
Hackman ruled the screen with a screen persona that could be terrifying and cuddly, often at the same time. His signature laugh could inspire an Indiana teenager to play better basketball or could bully a gunslinger into submission. One of the few actors who could control the screen without just a wink, Hackman brought Old Hollywood gravitas to modern-day cinema. Check out this ranking of the 25 best Gene Hackman movies, ranked from worst to best.
25. Downhill Racer (1969)
The sports flick Downhill Racer doesn’t give Hackman the most glamorous role, relegating him to the gruff coach who clashes with talented but arrogant racer David Chappellet (Robert Redford). Worse, director Michael Ritchie uses a realistic style that downplays the conflict between the two, focusing on Coach Claire mostly when he’s hustling money for his Olympic Team or talking to the press. To his credit, Hackman doesn’t break the movie’s reality, avoiding the histrionics he could easily do and letting Claire’s anger simmer below the surface. Hackman makes the character surprisingly grounded, a welcome change from the usual beats of a sports movie.
24. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)
Yes, you read that right. Superman IV makes the list, but Superman: The Movie does not. Look, there’s no denying that the first two Superman pictures starring Christopher Reeve outdo his last appearance as the Man of Steel, in a sloppy outing that put an end to the franchise for more than a decade. But because this is a Gene Hackman list, The Quest for Peace makes the cut thanks to a jaunty, affable turn for the legendary actor. Whether it's the lower stakes of a Canon Picture compared to a major studio blockbuster or a change of perspective during a fallow period, Hackman seems less stressed and more fun in this minor superhero movie.
23. A Bridge Too Far (1977)
The war epic A Bridge Too Far wants very much to be a serious film, but it can’t help but feel like a bunch of famous people playing dress-up. For all of its frank depictions of violence and massive battle scenes, the audience never believes, say, Sean Connery, Ryan O’Neill, or Robert Redford as soldiers battling for their lives. Hackman doesn’t completely transcend this problem, owing to the ludicrous accent he uses to play Polish Major General Stanislaw Sosabowski. But the weariness in Hackman’s eyes convinces even the most cynical viewer.
22. Scarecrow (1973)
An update on Of Mice and Men, Scarecrow pairs Hackman’s angry ex-con Max with Al Pacino’s mentally challenged jokester Lion in a cross-country adventure. The script by Garry Michael White gives Pacino the flashier scenes, both in the big comic set-pieces and the emotional moments. But director Jerry Schatzberg wisely limits Hackman’s acting to lend weight to the sometimes treacly story. Combined with Vilmos Zsigmond’s warm, realistic cinematography, Hackman helps Scarecrow steer clear of schmaltz and earn its emotional moments.
21. The Firm (1993)
“He was decent … corrupt, and unhappy.” So says Jeanne Tripplehorn’s character of Avery Tolar (Hackman), a lawyer who mentors hotshot young lawyer Mitch McDeer (Tom Cruise) in the John Grisham thriller The Firm. Where basically every other character in the flick falls pretty cleanly into good guy and bad guy territory, Tolar has shades of gray for Hackman to explore. Eventually, Tolar gets unceremoniously dismissed from the film, making way for Cruise’s intense and principled hero, but Hackman brings a welcome depth to the movie until then.
20. I Never Sang for My Father (1970)
Based on the play by Robert Anderson, I Never Sang For My Father scored Hackman his first Academy Award nomination, for his supporting turn as a college professor dealing with his aging, overbearing father (Melvyn Douglas). Director Gilbert Cates never overcomes the contained feeling of the stage adaptation, and lets his actors engage in big, boisterous monologues. But there’s no denying the power of Hackman’s clashes with Douglas, especially when his voice cracks to betray hints of sorrow in a son who can never please his father.
19. Get Shorty (1995)
Hackman usually gets to play the heavy, and that’s exactly how Hollywood producer Harry Zimm thinks of himself. But as the Elmore Leonard adaptation Get Shorty unfolds itself, Zimm learns exactly how precarious his power is, especially compared to that of star-struck hitman Chili Palmer (John Travolta) and mobster Bones Baroni (Dennis Farina). Hackman gets in on the joke, emphasizing the buffoonish nature of a guy who isn’t half as tough as he thinks he is. But he never winks at the audience, grounding Harry in reality, even as director Barry Sonnenfeld lets things around him get zany.
18. Enemy of the State (1998)
Throughout the 1990s, Will Smith seemed to be bringing back the old-school movie star, the type of actor who disappeared during the New Hollywood era in which Hackman thrived. Enemy of the State can be seen as an attempt by Smith to raise his credibility as an actor, especially given the nature of Hackman’s character. Former NSA agent Edward Lyle bears more than a passing resemblance to Harry Caul, Hackman’s character from The Conversation (more on that soon). Channeling a role from a different age, Hackman lends a sense of gravity to a Tony Scott thriller.
17. The Package (1989)
Detractors might dismiss The Package as a trial run for director Andrew Davis’s best movie, The Fugitive. After all, the 1989 thriller follows Sgt. Johnny Gallagher as he chases an escaped disgraced soldier (Tommy Lee Jones) who is much more than he appears. The Cold War setting raises the stakes of The Package, as Jones’s escapee threatens to disrupt disarmament talks between the U.S. and Russia, but Hackman keeps things grounded as a smart, powerful man who does not like being kept out of the loop.
16. Runaway Jury (2003)
Runaway Jury might be Hackman at his most cartoonishly evil. Yes, even more so than Lex Luthor. As a high-powered jury fixer, Hackman stands in a control room barking orders to a team of super-spies using state-of-the-art equipment to ensure that a gun control case goes the way of their wealthy clients. Ridiculous even by John Grisham standards and suffering from far too slick direction from Gary Fleder, Runaway Jury still entertains, thanks to Hackman chewing scenery against John Cusack, Rachel Weisz, and Dustin Hoffman.
15. Hoosiers (1986)
After a miracle run in the 70s, Hackman floundered for a bit in the 80s, with a few mediocre flicks and bit parts. The chip that developed on Hackman’s shoulder served him well in Hoosiers, an otherwise traditional sports movie about a struggling Indiana basketball team. Dennis Hopper got most of the awards attention, playing an alcoholic who regains his self-respect as an assistant coach, but the entire movie rests on Hackman’s quiet strength, never overdoing the inspirational speeches or the anger at the townspeople who resent the coach’s newfangled approach.
14. Absolute Power (1997)
By 1997, Hackman had played many powerful and cruel men, but as the President of the United States, he took it to the extreme. Hackman establishes himself as a threat early in the film with a nasty attack on his mistress (Melora Hardin). During the investigation that follows, jewel thief Luther Whitney (Clint Eastwood, who also directs), who happened to be inside the mistress’s home at the time of the attack, becomes the chief witness, driving him to take down the duplicitous president. Eastwood’s no-nonsense direction downplays some of the more outrageous elements of William Goldman’s script (based on a novel by David Baldacci) without sacrificing the power of Hackman’s performance.
13. Postcards From the Edge (1990)
Hackman rarely got the chance to play gentle, but there’s no better word to describe his character in Postcards From the Edge, director Lowell Kolchek. Kolchek has some tough words for actress Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep), the stand-in for writer Carrie Fisher, who based the story on her addiction problems and struggles with her mother Debbie Reynolds. But director Mike Nichols lets Hackman deliver his lines with little more than a whisper, a softness made more meaningful by the power of the actor’s presence.
12. Mississippi Burning (1988)
Mississippi Burning gives Gene Hackman his most morally complex role since the end of the New Hollywood era. Set in 1964, Mississippi Burning follows an FBI investigation into the disappearance of three civil rights workers in Mississippi. Set against Willem Dafoe, playing a young and idealistic agent from the North, Hackman uses charm and intimidation as an older agent trying to get the truth out of his fellow Southerners. Director Alan Parker and screenwriter Chris Gerolmo sometimes ignore the agency of Black characters to focus on the white characters, but Hackman uses that attention to explore the layers of his agent.
11. The Quick and the Dead (1995)
When it was released in 1995, people had no idea what to do with the Western The Quick and the Dead. Directed with cartoonish kineticism by Sam Raimi and starring the oft-under-appreciated Sharon Stone, The Quick and the Dead imagined quick draws as a fighting tournament, filled with colorful characters. Hackman’s outlaw John Herod never gets as broad as the other gunslingers he fights, but that lived-in approach lends pathos to even the most outrageous scenes.
10. Prime Cut (1972)
In 1972, Hackman joined the ensemble cast of the bloated disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure. But the more exciting Hackman release of the year is the gritty crime movie Prime Cut, in which Hackman faces off against the always-intimidating Lee Marvin. Reteaming with Downhill Racer director Michael Ritchie, Prime Cut lets Hackman develop his signature screen persona, a man both frightening and cheerful. When Marvin’s enforcer Nick asks Hackman’s corrupt meat packer Mary Ann if he eats guts, the former looks up at the older actor and winks. “Yeah,” he barks, “I like ‘em.”
9. The Birdcage (1996)
When Hackman took the part of conservative congressman Kevin Keely for the Mike Nichols comedy The Birdcage, most expected him to make use of the menace he always has brimming below the surface. But instead of emphasizing the cruelty Keeley hides under family value rhetoric, Hackman acts the buffoon, a self-righteous doofus who doesn’t realize that his future son-in-law’s parents are in fact two men, played by Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. The framing of Keeley by Nichols and writer/former comedy partner Elaine May gives The Birdcage a more hopeful ending, paving the way for the bigot’s redemption.
8. Crimson Tide (1995)
Hackman’s secret weapon has always been his smile. As welcoming and kind as his crow's feet may appear, his chuckle always conveyed a threat. Director Tony Scott uses that smile to great effect in the submarine movie Crimson Tide, casting Hackman as a beloved veteran captain who nearly starts World War III. Hackman doesn’t avoid grandstanding when debating his idealistic commanding officer (Denzel Washington), but his intimidating smile never lets the audience forget the danger he presents.
7. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Although he already had a few film appearances under his belt, Hackman first broke out in the New Hollywood classic Bonnie and Clyde, written by Robert Benton and David Newman and directed by Arthur Penn. Hackman co-stars as Buck Barrow, explosive older brother to Clyde (Warren Beatty), who joins the gang, much to the annoyance of his wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons). At times gregarious and reckless, Buck serves as a frightening foil to his brother, showing the murderous intent under Clyde’s good looks and charm.
6. Young Frankenstein (1974)
As this list demonstrates, Hackman rarely did in comedies. But somehow, his single-scene performance in the Mel Brooks classic Young Frankenstein stands out as the best part of one greatest comedies ever made. As a hermit who befriends Frankenstein’s Monster (Peter Boyle), Hackman spoofs the 1931 original and its 1935 sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, in the best possible way, retaining all the pathos and dignity of O.P. Heggie’s hermit in Bride. By playing the kindly straight man to Boyle’s flustered monster, Hackman adds depth to the slapstick.
5. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Where director Wes Anderson uncovered the drama in Bill Murray’s comic persona for his breakout Rushmore, he does the opposite for Hackman in the follow-up The Royal Tenenbaums. Hackman seems like a lovable, goofy grandpa, returning to the lives of the three gifted children he abandoned. But as the children — played by Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwyneth Paltrow — express their frustrations with their father, Hackman’s patriarch Royal Tenenbaum reveals the deeply fallible and fully human truth under his gregarious personality.
4. The Conversation (1973)
Even in 1973, audiences knew Hackman as an actor who takes up space, a towering figure who controls the screen. So it’s something of a miracle that Francis Ford Coppola makes Hackman seem small, even fragile, in The Conversation. As surveillance expert Harry Caul, Hackman emphasizes the fear behind what appears to be precision. Caul works hard to protect himself from the outside world, and Hackman portrays the full horror that follows when those efforts break down. It ranks as one of the best Gene Hackman movies, and one of the most unusual.
3. Night Moves (1975)
One expects a neo-noir to be messy, but few become as unpleasant as Night Moves, written by Alan Sharp and directed by Arthur Penn. Hackman plays pro football player turned low-life private investigator Harry Moseby, a man pretty happy with his unglamorous job and devoted wife (Susan Clark). But when a search for a missing starlet (Melanie Griffith) coincides with the dissolution of his marriage, Harry comes face to face with the worst the world has to offer. Hackman deftly tracks the slow deterioration of Harry’s confidence, never overplaying the emotions, even as the detective’s world sinks into the depths of despair.
2. The French Connection (1971)
More than the thrilling car chases or international intrigue, William Friedkin’s masterpiece The French Connection succeeds because of Hackman’s screen presence. A less talented actor would bungle the balancing act needed to play crooked cop Popeye Doyle, overdoing his cruelty and turning the audience against him or simplifying his motives to make him an easy hero. But Hackman stays in complete control of his performance, knowing when to defuse the situation with an easy grin and knowing when to chill the viewers with a deadly chuckle.
1. Unforgiven (1992)
Unlike most of his New Hollywood compatriots, Hackman only occasionally dabbled in the Western genre, making him a surprising choice for Clint Eastwood’s elegy for the revisionist Westerns he pioneered. But Hackman turns in his most remarkable performance in Unforgiven, written by David Webb Peoples, who also co-wrote Blade Runner and 12 Monkeys. Hackman portrays Little Bill Daggett, a totalitarian sheriff who never questions his devotion to the law, especially as he beats and kills others. Never descending into stereotypes, Daggett gains humanity and even sadness through Hackman’s choices, making the sheriff all the more terrifying.