Before he retired in 2004, Gene Hackman built an estimable cinematic career based on two concepts: 1) he was a consummate actor dedicated to honing and perfecting the craft of performing on film and 2) he really would act in anything. Hence, the same career that includes Academy Award winning performances in The French Connection and Unforgiven, as well as equally remarkable work in The Conversation, Hoosiers, Mississippi Burning and Young Frankenstein (arguably the film’s funniest five minutes) also includes schlock like Full Moon in Blue Water, Loose Cannons and Company Business. He may not have been discerning in his choice of projects, but he was always Gene Hackman and he never phoned it in.
One of my favorite Hackman performance was on display in 1991’s Class Action. The film would be the first in a group of legal thrillers starring Hackman that would include The Firm, The Chamber and Runaway Jury. But here, he plays his most intriguing character of the four. Hackman stars as Jedidiah Ward, a legendary civil rights lawyer who marched on Washington and is ready to battle for any underdog. As the film starts, he is literally “holding court,” grandstanding during opening remarks for a client being sued by a formidable chemical company.
Across the way, we meet his daughter Maggie Ward (played by the equally estimable Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who is earning her keep as an up-and-coming litigator for a corporate law firm (cue the hisses). Fate (and convention) would have this estranged father and daughter pairing face off in the form of a class action suit filed against an auto company over an allegedly defective turn signal that has caused explosions and deaths.
Politically speaking, there are not lot of surprises in this showdown of Dad’s liberal beliefs vs. Daughter’s burgeoning conservative agenda. The surprise comes with how thorough the film is both in terms of legal proceedings and in the way that we get fully formed characters from both Hackman and Mastrantonio. Director Michael Apted (the Up series, Gorky Park, Gorillas in the Mist, Nell) deserves his fair share of credit for establishing this believably dense background. But the actors are key.
Hackman’s Jedediah is a tireless seeker of justice but has plenty of skeletons in his closet in the form of adulteries and clients that he abandoned. Mastrantonio’s Maggie is a bright and ambitious go-getter who found a way to reject her father’s ideology while becoming the only thing he would ever respect: a first-class lawyer.
Caught in the middle of this triangle is Joana Merlin as Estelle Ward, Jed’s long-suffering wife/Maggie’s steadfast defender. In just a few scenes, we get the sense that she will always love Jed because of the ideals that he believes in defending, even if means having to weather his romantic betrayals. We do get a cute scene where Hackman describes meeting Merlin when she was “subliminally” protesting at the infamous McCarthy hearings.
But the heart of this film is in the scenes between Hackman and Mastrantonio. The best scene of the film has the two trying to reconcile their differences early on at a private dinner. Things seem to be going fine and you get a sense of an undeniable lifelong bond. But then things take a turn (as they often do) and old hurts are reignited. It’s a master class watching Hackman slowly defeated by the best weapon in Mastrantonio’s arsenal: the truth. Watching her break down while recalling his most hurtful infidelity is the definition of heartbreaking.
Overall, Class Action is a very engaging courtroom/family drama. As I mentioned throughout, Hackman and Mastrantonio are at the top of their respective games. And while Gene Hackman has stayed true to his retirement, I do hope film producers can find a reason to get Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio back on the big screen. From Scarface to The Abyss to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to The Perfect Storm, she is effortlessly commanding and endlessly engaging. Consistent TV work in Grimm, Limitless and Blindspot is nice, but isn’t nearly enough for this cinephile.