"Unsung" might not actually be the most appropriate word, given that Gene Hackman's work in The Royal Tenenbaums garnered a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy, as well as a Chicago Film Critics Award and National Society of Film Critics Award, but the performance should have received much more attention. I mean, no SAG nomination (not even for ensemble? Damn, that's an oversight), no Oscar nod? Given the performances that were nominated that year, it's difficult to find a way to justify Hackman's exclusion. Russel Crowe in A Beautiful Mind and Tom Wilkinson in In The Bedroom I'll give you, and sight unseen I'm even willing to concede Denzel Washington in Training Day. But Sean Penn going "full on" in I Am Sam or Will Smith doing a glorified impersonation in Ali? I mean... come on. That's just not right.
Hackman’s omission can probably be attributed – at least in part – to the fact that the Academy generally doesn’t have much respect for comedy. To inspire tears is divine, to inspire laughter is crass, or at least that’s the general idea. But there’s more to Hackman’s work as the eponymous Royal Tenenbaum than simply having a way with the words written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson. On the face of it, Royal is a sociopath – he’s self-centered, has no sense of responsibility or guilt, no moral compass, and punishment does nothing to change his overall behaviour. In Hackman’s hands Royal is still a sociopath, but he’s not without heart and, by the end of the film, you do believe that he has found a way to connect meaningfully with the people in his life.
The key, I think, is that Hackman makes Royal charmingly charmless. The heart of the story is a con that Royal is trying to pull on his family, but I don’t think you could ever correctly identity him as a “con artist” because he’s so inept at reading people and so entirely lacking in the ability to tell people what they want to hear and win them over to his side. There is a sincerity to the way that he approaches things that is completely detrimental to his purposes because it serves as a constant reminder to his family of why they haven’t had anything to do with him in years… and yet, he doesn’t see that at all. He thinks he’s going to win them over by saying things like, “I’ve missed the hell out of you, my darlings,” or (my personal favourite), “I’m very sorry for your loss. Your mother was a terribly attractive woman;” or by doing things like teaching his grandsons how to shoplift and dodge through moving traffic (for fun, not necessity), and by taking them to dogfights. He has absolutely no conception of how normal human being interact with each other or why his wife and children (save for younger son Richie, who seems prepared to accept him no matter what) would make him do so much work to get back in their lives when he has consistently shown that there is no one he cares for nearly as much as he cares for himself.
Through the course of the film, the character evolves but only somewhat. “I’ve always been considered an asshole for about as long as I can remember. That’s just my style,” he explains, as if he could be a nice guy if he tried, which I don’t think is necessarily true. The point is that he finally gets it and while his “style” might not change, at least he’s started to understand how it can be off-putting to those around him. Earlier, when Eli Cash states that he always wanted to be a Tenenbaum and Royal responds with “Me too,” it conveys two things. First, that there’s a degree of self-loathing running through Royal and a belief that he’s really not good enough to be a member of his family (and this implied belief is about as close as he ever gets to really complimenting any of them). Second – and this is all in the delivery – that there’s nothing he can do, or could ever have done, about it, as if it’s a desirable but impossible dream.
Hackman is a great actor and there is not a single moment of his performance in this film where he is not totally alive in the role. He brings dimension and nuance to a character that could simply be an asshole and nothing more, and looks like he's having the time of his life while doing so.