Friday, October 16, 2015

Hair-Raising Suspense!

As most visitors to this site know, The Poseidon Adventure (1972) is a Top 5 favorite movie of mine, one that had such an impact on me as a youngster that it impacted my life more than a little. I'm not alone, for the film has inspired many fans to become obsessed with it, holding screenings, events, writing stage versions, making action figures, you name it! And the cast of the film (so long as they have lived, at least!) embraced the hysteria over this beloved disaster flick, with Shelley Winters, Stella Stevens, Carol Lynley, Pamela Sue Martin and occasionally Red Buttons and Ernest Borgnine taking part in many interviews and occasions pertaining to it.

One person, though, has been conspicuous in his absence and has even been reluctant to talk much about a movie that was a tremendous box office hit and a trend-setting pop culture touchstone, that being its chief star Gene Hackman! I've only heard him talk about the film one time (though I certainly might have missed other instances along the way) and that was to James Lipton on a 2001 installment of Inside the Actors Studio. It just couldn't be avoided when running down Hackman's list of career achievements.

When producer Irwin Allen and director Ronald Neame built the cast of Poseidon, they stacked the deck with performers whose acting ability had been validated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Ernest Borgnine had an Oscar for Marty (1955), Jack Albertson one for The Subject was Roses (1968), Red Buttons one for Sayonara (1957) and Shelley Winters the recipient of two! One was for The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and a second for A Patch of Blue (1965.) (I'm told by someone who knows that Winters was VERY proud of this fact and even had "2Oscars" as her car license plate!) Director Neame had himself been nominated thrice (Yay! I got to use the word thrice!) while Allen had one on his mantle for Best Documentary.

In a brilliant, prescient move, Gene Hackman was selected for the leading role of fiery, driven, heroic Reverend Scott, though he bore almost no resemblance to the character as described in the Paul Gallico source novel. In it, the character was a more athletic, strapping, blond sort of hunk. (This is basically the reverse of what is most often done in page-to-screen adaptations!) Nevertheless, Hackman delivered a committed, at times blistering performance. And, during the filming of the movie, he won an Oscar of his own for the crime drama The French Connection (1971)! Thus, there was now a quintet of winners headlining the film and a cake was brought in to celebrate (with Neame seen here scolding Shelley for wolfing down a piece before anyone else could get his!)

So why, if the movie was a huge success and his acting career was fully validated was the leading man so "Hack"-ed off and resistant to acknowledging it? If Stella Stevens is to be believed, the problem stems from the fact that stylists on the film decided to try to make the most out of Hackman's thinning, albeit lengthy, hair by teasing it into a frizzy bird's nest/SOS pad. In the early-'70s, practically no one was bald except Telly Savalas and Yul Brynner. Every sort of comb-over, toupee and camouflage was enlisted to preserve the illusion of hair for those who were facing premature losses. In 1978's Superman, Hackman refused to be seen more than fleetingly as the legendarily bald villain, Lex Luthor! He had the character wear wigs throughout.

This problem on Poseidon is not something that Hackman could exactly march up to the producer and complain about, for Allen had virtually the same look going on his own pate! It's even possible that Allen somehow saw in Hackman an extension of himself and could imagine vicariously living out this daring, water-logged adventure through the actor with his very own hairdo...

In any case, it's a shame that Gene Hackman feels ashamed of the movie for whatever reasons he has. No, it's not some sort of deeply-meaningful drama or landmark story, but what a crowd-pleaser it was with legions of devotees. Today, of course, the whole male cast could have had shaved heads (and the requisite goatees to go with, of course!) and no one would have batted an eye!


Anonymous said...

You are right. Gene Hackman said in an interview that he didn't like his look in The Poseidon Adventure:
“When I was working on it, I was kind of ashamed of myself,” Hackman told Edelstein, claiming that he still hadn’t dared to watch the movie. “I had to have my hair poufed up at the end and slicked over. And the producer, Irwin Allen, was one of those guys who used to comb his hair from one ear across the top of his head, and I just didn’t want to look like him.”
Some critics didn't like his performance, either, so maybe he felt this movie wasn't his proudest moment? The movie is a classic on many levels. He should relax and enjoy it!

Poseidon3 said...

It was utterly fascinating to read that article and see in print from Hackman something I was conjecturing about to some degree! (Particularly the Irwin/Gene resemblance!) Hard to believe he never even saw the movie EVER!! I do think he is very bombastic in the movie and little too slick and hip in some ways, but think of the era... I can understand some folks not loving what he did with the role, but I can't imagine anyone watching him cradle Shelley in his arms - a string of real spittle stringing from her head to his mouth - and say he "sucked." He was clearly all in and giving it everything he could. I think in some ways he was unforgettable, bringing a lot of attitude and passion to a genre that could be rather anemic when it came to performances. Thank you so much, Armando, for unearthing that interview and linking it!

joel65913 said...

Geez Poseidon I don't check in for a few days and you become a posting machine!! Not complaining just delighted to see so much to review.

Well Hackman's not alone among actors who haven't liked a particular film or piece of work they've done and never seen it. I've heard several different actors/actresses give that response when being interviewed about a certain film. I seem to remember Bette Davis stating that some of her early films were so atrocious that she knew better than to watch them for fear of being discouraged.

Be that as it may, and that article was very interesting, it's a shame Gene holds the film in such disdain. I can't agree with the writer of the article however about Hackman's performance. He might be over the top at times but that only makes the performance more involving and it suits the situations. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Poseidon3 said...

Bette had one film, "The Bad Sister" that she used to screen for young hopefuls who were wary of making it in the biz. She'd say that if she could overcome that, they could overcome whatever was in their own way! What a captivating personality she was, full of contradictions (I mean, do you think she'd lay down and take it, if, say, someone else besides her was running the film for laughs?!)

And I agree, of course, about Hackman. His passion fuels the intensity of the scenario. Just watch Michael Caine lumber drowsily through the sequel for comparison...

Dave in Alamitos Beach said...

I think that The Poseidon Adventure is my favorite disaster movie from the 70s. In fact, I don't know if there is any competition really. Airport possibly?

In any case, Gene Hackman, and that reviewer/commenter, are nuts. Hackman was terrific in this movie and really gave it the energy it needed. Hammy perhaps if it was in a different movie, but this isn't The Conversation for heaven's sake.

Poseidon3 said...

Right on, Dave. I worship this movie, but I am also heavily drawn to "The Towering Inferno" and "Airport '77." But, hell, I could watch most of them over and over again. I actually have to force myself not to so that they'll remain ever so slightly fresh upon each viewing! (Although I almost could recite "The Poseidon Adventure" along with the screen....)