Gene Hackman can be very funny onscreen (rewatch The Birdcage or The Royal Tenenbaums or his sole scene in Young Frankenstein for a reminder). Yet if there’s a trait that I most frequently attribute to the two-time Oscar winner, it’s intensity. Few actors display it in the way that Hackman does. We can see it in The French Connection or Crimson Tide and Unforgiven.
Nowhere is that hair raising intensity more potent than in a barbershop sequence in 1988’s Mississippi Burning. A historical drama based on real events, the pic recounts the investigation into the murders of three activists in 1964. It casts Hackman as an FBI agent who cut his teeth as a sheriff in the title state. He’s paired with a younger agent (Willem Dafoe) and the two don’t exactly see eye to eye when it comes to interrogation tactics.
This is most evident during the aggressive questioning of Brad Dourif’s small town deputy. Hackman’s Agent Anderson does so with by employing close shave methods and I’m confident Dourif didn’t have to act much to look as terrified as he does. It is my favorite example in his long and impressive filmography as to just how menacing Hackman can be. This time around, you’re rooting for him. The scene also expertly shows (in that brief glimpse of when Dafoe tries to enter the business) the difference between the two protagonist’s means to their ends.
Mississippi Burning earned seven Oscar nominations and is notable for being Frances McDormand’s first nod as Dourif’s abused wife that Anderson assists. He’s not in the mood to help her husband in that barber shop. He’s out to scare the daylights out of him and the whiskers off his racist face. It’s a sequence that’s Movie Perfection due to Hackman’s brilliance and I smile just thinking about it.