Gene Hackman is our greatest living actor. To celebrate the icon’s 93rd birthday, here are our five favorite Gene Hackman performances. A patron saint of Alleged Beef, these lists could have been Top 25 favorite performances without too much effort.


Matt Rob


A US Senator and his wife look on in confusion while a nervous and shoeless butler stands behind them.

5. The Birdcage (1996)

Hackman had an amazing run in the 90s. A script by Elaine May and Mike Nichols and an insanely talented cast and crew make this one of my favorite movies of all time. Hackman takes his standard bad guy mode and subverts it to great comedic effect. He’s a moral conservative Senator here who is more worried about his image than anything else. What a perfect buffoon to be thrown into one of the great dinner parties in movie history (right up there with The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001) and My Dinner with Andre (1981)).



A US Naval sub captain, near retirement, yells at his second-in-command while they disagree over an order to fire a nuclear weapon

4. Crimson Tide (1995)

I miss Tony Scott, maybe the greatest stylist of movie thrillers in history. Crimson Tide is as tense as it can be, as a decorated sub captain receives a garbled order to fire a nuclear missile, and his second-in-command believes that they should find a way to restore communications and confirm the message before they risk nuclear war. The rest of the crew fall in on one side or the other, leading to a truly tense battle of wills. Hackman is brilliant as the brittle captain, used to decades of command and unwilling to be seen as wrong or weak.


3. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

One of the great scoundrels, Royal Tenenbaum has burned every bridge in his life and spent his vast wealth. Now he must crawl back to his family and make amends. Is it for genuine human reasons, or because he needs somewhere to stay? This, Wes Anderson’s best film, tackles very relatable human frustrations and desires at every life stage, from the little grandsons up through the elderly Royal, who may or may not be dying of cancer. Effing masterpiece.


A movie director with a broken jaw and a neck brace sits next to a world-famous movie star at a brunch table.

2. Get Shorty (1995)

I think that there are exactly two great Elmore Leonard adaptations (this and Jackie Brown (1997)), a handful of decent ones (like 52 Pick-Up  (1986) and 3:10 To Yuma (1957, 2007)), and a bunch of bad ones (like Stick (1985) and The Big Bounce (2004)). Both of the great adaptations lean into Leonard’s distinctive dialogue, although Get Shorty is an outright comedy and Jackie Brown is intermittently very funny but mostly dark and resentful.

Hackman plays a Roger Corman-esque independent B-movie producer/writer/director named Harry Zimm. He is shameless, sleeping with his business partner’s wife when he needs money, borrowing other money from gangsters to pay that back, delaying projects while he blows that money on sports betting, and above it all, holding firm to a belief that he can bullshit his way out of trouble.

Get Shorty is very funny and has a deep cast of veteran comedy performers, from Rene Russo to Danny Devito to James Gandolfini, David Paymer, Delroy Lindo, and Dennis Farina. Hackman holds his own in every scene, with this weasel of a human always on the grift but still believing that he can move away from producing Slime Creatures sequels and into mainstream entertainment.




A middle-aged Wyoming sheriff hands a pistol back to a beaten man. The pistol barrel has been bent in half.

1. Unforgiven (1992)

Little Bill isn’t explicitly a villain. Throughout the movie, he believes that he is doing the right thing. His problem is his myopia: Little Bill values peace in Big Whiskey, Wyoming above all other things… more than justice, more than the welfare of the citizens. He wants to build his house and retire in it in a quiet place.

So when a sex worker is beaten, he doesn’t punish the offenders. He writes it off as boys being boys in the heat of the moment, and asks them to bring some ponies back as recompense in the spring. Is it right? Bill thinks so, because he thinks that arresting or whipping a cowboy will mean more trouble down the road from the aggrieved cowboy’s coworkers and friends. When a famous gunslinger arrives in town, Little Bill has him beaten the minute he steps off the stage, and sends him off a defeated man. The man did nothing wrong, but Bill knew that the man’s penchant for attention would cause a problem at some point.

So it is against this figure of Little Bill that the story is set. The sex workers put out a ransom on the heads of the two cowboys, and former killers arrive to collect the bounty. Everyone is wrong and no one is right and justice is twisted this way and that. It takes a performer like Hackman to be at the center of the story as a character who doesn’t want the attention any more: he wants to finish his career and retire in peace, even if it means turning a blind eye to get there. One hell of a performance!





Two spies, forced to work together from East and West, figure out a way to escape Berlin after being framed for a murder.

5. Company Business (1991)

I enjoy Gene Hackman in likeable mode. He and Mikhail Baryshnikov have great chemistry and this is a pretty fun late Cold War spy outing. P.S., I love spy movies.



A sound technician prepares a listening device in a bathroom.

4. The Conversation

It is so twisty. I love it. You have never seen Gene Hackman playing such a nerd. He makes it believable that he is meek. I also love the analog technology of the recording gear. P.S., this is probably why Duke Silver exists. 🙂


An LA private detective with a mustache looks despondent.

3. Night Moves (1975)

Melanie Griffith’s young age aside, there is something great about a mystery in a swamp. P.S., I’m on a boat.


A New York police detective stands in the cold and eats a slice of pizza.

2. The French Connection (1971)

One of the best car chases in movie history (other good car chases include To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and The Driver (1978)). I like how Hackman can be really likeable sometimes… and then he can be really unlikeable like here as Popeye Doyle. P.S., I like Popeye’s little hat, of which I have one myself.



A scoundrel races mini carts with his two grandsons.

1. The Royal Tenenbaums

Even though Royal has a lot of money, he has a lot of regrets as well. I think that everybody has some. He seems to be trying to make up for it, even if it is in a flawed manner. I think that everyone can relate to that. P.S., tracksuits are back, baby!