Gene Hackman’s 85th birthday is being seized as an opportunity to engage in celluloid nostalgia, and with good reason: few actors have been able to help us highlight societal shifts as much as Hackman has. Hackman specialized in playing morally stringent characters who have the sneaking suspicion that events have left them behind. Popeye Doyle, Harry Caul, and Royal Tenenbaum were all one-man struggles in the fight to stay relevant. But perhaps no movie of his resonates more clearly at present than The Birdcage.
At first glance Hackman is easily lost behind the gay revelry generated by Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, and Hank Azaria. But as the film proceeds and his uneasiness grows, Hackman’s arch conservative Senator Keeley stands out in relief as he struggles to adapt, providing one of the film’s best moments when all he can do at the reveal of Nathan Lane as a man is repeatedly blink and mutter “I don’t understand.” By the end, the Ohio senator whose only major concern had been maintaining his image for reelection is mainly worried that the white dress disguise he’s wearing makes him look fat. In our era of transforming conservative attitudes regarding LGBT rights, Hackman is once again a reflection.