Don’t Talk To Me About Gene Hackman

I’ll have a warm bath
I’ll have a bottle of wine
I’ll put myself to bed
And I’ll feel just fine
But don’t talk to me about Gene Hackman

Robyn Hitchcock, Jewels for Sophia (bonus track)

Okay, go back in time a few years….  a few more…. (angry blush) a few more… there.  Now hitchhike to Westbury, New York, and you will see my mother sitting between my sister and me in a movie theater, watching Marooned.  I am old enough to follow the plot, but not old enough to recognize the all-star cast of Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, David Janssen,  Mariette Hartley, James Franciscus, Lee Grant, and Gene Hackman.

The plot of Marooned is simple:  Three astronauts (Crenna, Hackman, Franciscus) go into outer space.  Stuff goes wrong.  Ground control tries to make it right.  More stuff goes wrong.  Ground control tries to make it right.  More stuff goes wrong.  Etc…  The main problem they had was that they were running out of air, and in Space, you couldn’t just open the window and get more – you only had what you brought with you.  At one point, the space travelers were told to take their “relaxation pills” but Gene Hackman…. didn’t!  And then, later, when the astronaut’s wives got to go on video-screen to talk to their husbands, Gene got nervous and panicked:

“We’re all gonna die!  We’re all gonna die!   We’re all gonna die!”

As you can imagine, this did not go over well with Karen and me.  We liked our heroes strong, thank you very much.  His hysterics did not only mean he was a coward, they used up precious air, and as I have pointed out, one should not use up air when in a place where it is running out and hard to get more.   Five-year-olds and their fourteen-year-old sisters have one ability in common – they can hate far more intensely than people of any other age.  And in that moment, Karen and I instantly loathed this overly-nervous crybaby.  Karen began hissing the epithet  “Nervo” at him when he came on screen, and I followed suit.

I don’t think you understand the meaning of hate, when I put it in red like that.  It is an emotion that forced us to blame him for everything that went wrong for the rest of the movie, and to be vocal about it.  For example, Ground Control was going to launch a rescue rocket.  But… Oh! No! a massive hurricane was approaching.

GREGORY PECK: Dammit, what do you want now?
DAVID JANSSEN: I just got off the phone with the meteorologist. Hurricane Alma is headed straight for us!
KAREN: Nice going, NERVO!

On second thought, perhaps you understand how my sister and I felt.   My mother certainly didn’t.  Finally, she yelled at us, right in the theater.   “HOW CAN YOU TWO BE LIKE THIS?  TO TOTALLY DESPISE A MAN JUST FOR GETTING NERVOUS!”

Karen and I were neither sympathetic nor repentant.

Now I want you to stay in the theater, but go forward about three years.  Be quiet, because The Poseidon Adventure is showing.  There’s Doug, Mom and Karen (cynical and seventeen) in the same seats…  and the music has finished… a New Years Eve party is on the big screen, and there’s Gene Hackman! 

KAREN: Oh great. NERVO.
MOM: Don’t you DARE!

It was one of the funniest upside-the-head smacks Mom has ever given.  And it worked, in that neither Karen nor I taunted Nervo out loud.  But she was thinking hateful thoughts at him, and so was I, because I wanted to be just like her.  We scowled at him. Nervo.

You can leave Westbury now.  Karen and I did.  Then we got older.  Then we got even older.  Then Karen died.  Then I got older by myself.  Come visit me in Minneapolis, in the mid-nineteen-nineties.  I’m on an IRC chat room, before web-based chat was popular, watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 with my friend Serge in Boston and my friend Jessica in New York City.   Mike and the Bots are featuring a Gene Hackman movie called “The Space Travelers,” and it reminds me of a movie I remember from when I was a little boy.  And when Gene Hackman comes on the screen, suddenly my lips form the words, “Why hello there, Nervo” and a long-forgotten memory seems to shoot from the year 1969 like a heat-seeking missile – no, small and sharp – like a guided jet-engine hot needle.  As I tell Serge and Jessica about what I just remembered, I find myself tearing up, as Mike and the Bots make fun of a scene where the wives of the travelers are brought to a video-screen to talk to their husbands…

…yeah.  It was Marooned.  They just retitled it.   “We’re all gonna die.  We’re all gonna die.”

And of course, all I wanted to do was to call Karen and ask her if she remembered calling Gene Hackman “Nervo.”  I’m sure she didn’t, for the same reason that I couldn’t call her.

Since then, I’ve seen The Birdcage with Kathy; Enemy of the State with Laurel; the Royal Tenenbaums with Earl and Laurel (soon); and rented Bonnie and Clyde with Brian.  Whenever Gene’s made his first appearance, I’ve made a very mean face, and said, “Oh, great.  NERVO.” 

My friends ask why I hate Gene Hackman.  It’s hard to explain that when I say that, I’m not hating Gene Hackman; I’m loving my big sister.