Newman's Own

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2. Robert Redford, on his great friend:

"Here's old Paul," he said. "He looks great, feels great, has lots of money, gives to great causes, he's in love with his wife, he races cars when he wants to, makes a movie when he wants to, he's incredibly happy and still has that face that looks the way it did when he was 20. God, by the time we got home, I wanted to shoot myself."

3. Paul Newman on himself (from the 2003 Our Town program, in which he's listed alphabetically):

PAUL NEWMAN (Stage Manager) is probably best known for his spectacularly successful food conglomerate. In addition to giving the profits to charity, he also ran Frank Sinatra out of the spaghetti sauce business. On the downside, the spaghetti sauce is outgrossing his films. He did graduate from Kenyon College magna cum lager and in the process begat a laundry business which was the only student-run enterprise on Main Street. Yale University later awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters for unknown reasons. He has won four Sports Car Club of America National Championships and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest driver (70) to win a professionally sanctioned race (24 hours of Daytona, 1995). He is married to the best actress on the planet, was number 19 on Nixon's enemy list, and purely by accident has done 51 films and four Broadway plays. He is generally considered by professionals to be the worst fisherman on the East Coast.

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5. Paul Newman began his film career as a centurion named Basil, in The Silver Chalice (1954). He would quickly move from that forgettable role into films like Somebody Up There Likes Me and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, which better exploited his earthy sensuality, that thin line he so often walked on screen between charm and brutality. Despite this early success, Newman bristled at the easy comparisons critics made to Brando and James Dean (a connection enhanced by Newman's training at the Method breeding ground of the Actors' Studio, of which he would later be president). He icily confronted a journalist from Rolling Stone in 1973 who raised the comparison, saying that every actor had a key attribute; his, he claimed, was not a Brandoesque, wounded masculinity, but rather a "patrician quality." Perhaps, then, his key early role in not in a Tennessee Williams adaptation, but in The Young Philadelphians (1958), where he plays precisely this kind of patrician striver, a morally conflicted, ambitious lawyer who might be the younger version of the man he plays in 1982's The Verdict.

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7. I grew up on Paul Newman because of Robert Redford: my mother was and is Redford's biggest fan, and Butch Cassidy and The Sting were often playing on our family's television. In these films, Newman was the world's coolest older brother: tough, funny, always watching Redford's back. Writing of The Way We Were, Pauline Kael snarked that "it's nice to see Redford with a woman again on the screen, after all that horsing around with Paul Newman." Indeed, their chemistry was such that Butch Cassidy virtually redefined "the buddy movie," taking the structure of the Hope-Crosby Road movies and making it feel hip again: its homosocial masculinity and easy banter can be seen in such descendants as the Lethal Weapon films and the Clooney Ocean's pictures. Is there a better expression of cynical, masculine affection than Redford and Newman's exchange towards the beginning of the movie:



I remember my mom saying that was the moment she fell in love with the movie, which she saw in a Cleveland Heights cinema with my father shortly after they were married. That theater would've been just up the road from the Shaker Heights neighborhood in which Newman was born and raised, the one where my mother worked as a librarian, the one that's only an hour or so away from where I now teach in Oberlin.

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9. At the same time, underneath that charming big brother exterior lay a different man: there's an element of danger, a core of selfishness to Newman's characters in Cassidy and The Sting: indeed, early on in the latter film, his relationship with Redford is contentious, almost as if he's as much a threat to Redford's character as Robert Shaw is (that air of danger and uncertainty makes the final twist in the film that much more effective). Newman's willingness to be unlovable was developed early on in films like The Hustler and Cool Hand Luke, stories of anti-heroes where Newman's dedication to conveying his characters' self-destructive egos meant that the films denied the sentimental mythologizing of the martyr that one might have expected.

This embrace of flawed protagonists found its ultimate outlet in three films. In Absence of Malice, Newman's pared-down cool and controlled physicality became the ironic vessels for a story of a man destroyed, not by a media story, but by the guilt and rage the story releases in him. In The Verdict--a film that George Clooney rightly cited as a big influence on MIchael Clayton-- Newman turns the cliches of the "little guy against the system" courtroom drama inside out: Frank Galvin's antagonist is not James Mason's smooth corporate lawyer, but Galvin's own alcoholism and addiction to doing the wrong thing. As Roger Ebert beautifully put it in his review, ""The Verdict" has a lot of truth in it, right down to a great final scene in which Newman, still drinking, finds that if you wash it down with booze, victory tastes just like defeat."

Twelve years later, Newman would make a film that acted as a grace note to those earlier dramas. In Nobody's Fool, he plays Sully Sullivan, whose childishly alliterative name keys you in to his basic charms: he's funny, smart, self-absorbed and-- for all the ways he must help and/or bamboozle his fellow townspeople-- has never quite grown up. This was the first of two adaptations of Richard Russo novels in which Newman would star (I have not seen Empire Falls, which he did for HBO), and it's less a narrative than a set of character studies, vignettes and setpieces which illuminate the life of a small New England town. It would be easy to say "nothing happens," in the conventional sense of a movie story; but to say that would be to deny the movie's relaxed pleasures, its fascination with ritual and minutiae, and how that ends up re-orienting our perspective: every moment in the movie seems to be saying, "What's your hurry?" In that sense, the style perfectly matches the story, about people who are so sly and quick and scheming that they often fail to notice the life passing right in front of them.

None of this would work without Newman, who, as Sully, gives what might be his best performance: this deceptively simple, stripped-down tale lets him thread together all the moments of his career: early sex symbol, brooding method player, charming anti-hero, aging character actor. There's a lot going on in Sully's life, but Newman's turn is completely effortless, and he conveys complexities with a mere grimace, smile, hunched-over-at-the-bar gesture or piercing glance.This was the performance he should've won an Oscar for, and his talent elevates everyone's game: Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith have never been better, and you catch their excitement at working opposite the screen legend.

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11. Not every Newman movie was a classic-- I've never understood the cult around Slapshot, a mediocre sports movie in search of a third act; Buffalo Bill and the Indians and The Secret War of Harry Frigg are conceptually flawed and manically performed, 'comedies' whose laugh lines echo around a silent theater; and he's completely wrong for Torn Curtain, maybe the worst movie Alfred Hitchcock ever made.

Then there's Cars. I'm not a fan of the film, whose reactionary nostalgia strikes me as both misguided and not more than a little hypocritical, given the state-of-the-art technology that produced it. But as Doc Hudson, the aging race car that runs the local garage, Newman is astonishingly forceful. He has nothing but his voice, the animated form robbing him of the power of those dancing blue eyes, but his voice is all he needs: it's wry, raw, commanding. He takes a silly role in a silly film and through sheer force of talent and will, makes you think he's performing in Shakespeare; whenever his character's on the screen, there are suddenly shadings and colors to the simplistic narrative, and he really makes Hudson a tragic figure. That I am saying all this of Pixar's worst movie surprises even me, but there's a startling force to Newman, and the film acts as a master class in how a dedicated actor can raise a lousy text to something almost resembling art.

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13. More than anything, what I'll think about when I think of Paul Newman are his reactions. For all the good one-liners he had in his career, for all the brooding and occasionally raging physicality of his characters, the quintessential framing of a Newman character is the reaction shot: he listened better than any actor of his generation, and the electricity of those bright blue eyes played brilliantly against the still repose of the rest of his face, as if he was a jungle cat who didn't want you to guess the hunger and danger that lay beneath his calm exterior. Perhaps that quality explains why he often spoke of his pride at playing the Stage Manager in Our Town: that haunting memory play is all about watching, and the danger of watching too much without acting. In his work and his life, that was a problem Newman rarely faced. He observed, he took in, he absorbed: and when all that reserve was finally let loose, he astonished. R.I.P., Paul Newman.

Comments

bill r. said…
Wow, uh...you spent a lot more time on your tribute to Newman than I did on mine. Great job, Brian. I really need to see Nobody's Fool again, and The Young Philadelphians for the first time.

And I appreciate that you give due credit to both Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, two movies I'm awfully fond of, but which, over the years, have been the victims of some sharp critical backlash. Call me cynical, but this backlash seems to stem from the fact that both films were succesful, and people like them.

Anyway. What else can I say about Newman that hasn't been said a million times, and that won't sound like a tired cliche'? He was my favorite actor of his generation, and he was a good -- as great -- as any of his peers. I think he was eventually taken for granted. He didn't burn out, die young, or go crazy. And he was reserved and self-effacing to boot. The idea that those qualities can make people take you for granted is pretty sad, but what can you do? When people spoke of him, it seemed like they spent more time on discussing his looks, philanthropy (not that that's not worth mentioning), and endurance. Somewhere along the line, it seems like his immense talent was, if not forgotten, then marginalized in some way. But he was nothing less than an absolutely brilliant artist. I miss him already.
Brian Doan said…
Hi Bill!
Thanks for the kind words--glad you enjoyed the post. I really do like both BUTCH CASSIDY and THE STING (BUTCH a bit more)-- they have such great chemistry, and even though you can argue that some of the buddy movies that followed in their wake aren't as great, those two films are very sharply written, and have wonderful ensemble casts.

He really was a remarkable talent, wasn't he? There was a grace and economy to both his performances and, it seems, his life that was really admirable. I added a bunch of Newman films I hadn't seen yet to my Netflix queue.
Rick Olson said…
Bill, I like both Butch Cassidy and The Sting.

Brian, this is a very fine post. His talent was as effortless as it was large; as you say, grace and economy characterized his performances. Thanks for the look back.
Brian Doan said…
Rick,
Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. He was a very gifted guy.
dave said…
Great post, Brian. God, what a talent. I love Nobody's Fool and was glad to see you post on that (as well as The Verdict). So many good films.
Brian Doan said…
Thanks, Dave-- Newman really was great, wasn't he? And THE VERDICT is one I'd like to watch again-- I really like it, and it's been too long since I've seen it. With Newman and Mason facing off, you get two great underplayers going at each other.

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