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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Gene Hackman’s one-man war on The Royal Tenenbaums

With the release of The French Dispatch, his 10th feature film, Wes Anderson has continued to mark out a distinct spot for himself as Hollywood’s most eccentric major director. His films are based around esoteric subjects and influences, from the novels of Stefan Zweig to the life and career of the art dealer Joseph Duveen, and they find A-list stars queuing up to work with him – just for the pleasure of being part of this strange and literate universe. 

Yet it was his third picture, The Royal Tenenbaums, that fully established both his unique aesthetic and tone and saw him move from cult success into mainstream acceptance. After the critical (and modest financial) success of 1998’s Rushmore, which began working relationships with Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman that have persisted throughout his career, Anderson was now given a larger budget and a starrier cast

He co-wrote a script with his regular collaborator Owen Wilson that dealt with an eccentric upper-class New York family and their complex and intertwined personal relationships, and drew on influences that included everything from JD Salinger to the filmmakers Louis Malle and Orson Welles. But it was his lead actor who proved both the film’s most contentious, and lauded, aspect. 

By 2000, Gene Hackman had established a lucrative career for himself as Hollywood’s go-to actor for stern, often villainous, political and military figures. After winning a second Oscar for Unforgiven in 1992, he moved away from the more demanding roles that he had pursued as a younger actor, such as Popeye Doyle in The French Connection – which had won him his first Oscar – and the surveillance expert Harry Caul in The Conversation. Instead, he appeared in films both excellent (Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State) and lacking (The Chamber). What he had not been given in nearly a decade was an opportunity to stretch himself. 

Anderson, who idolised Hackman, created the film’s lead role of Royal Tenenbaum, an energetic but deadbeat patriarch who attempts to worm his way back into the lives of his estranged family, with the actor in mind. Anderson commented, only half-jokingly, that “it was written against [Hackman’s] wishes.” 

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