Paul Newman: A Talent to Savour

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By Roderick Heath

It was Paul Newman’s exquisitely hewn face that first commanded attention—the Romanesque nobility of jaw line and nose punctuated by blue eyes sharp enough to cut paper. Then his voice—sturdy, clean, rich, yet utterly compact in its character, resonant of the American Midwest in its most pleasant contexts, its most manifold gifts. Yet he dodged being identified as a mere beefcake idol, a perception that his sometime costar Robert Redford never quite defeated. No, his eyes communicated a restless awareness too bold in a contemplation of the fault-lines in the world’s fabric, his physique pitched with an insouciance that refused to be merely ogled. He sharpened his mind, his will, his body to a fine edge of commitment and was at his greatest playing men with a raging will to win over something, anything, even if it was purely illusory. He played many men who felt their souls spilling out of their flesh despite all their efforts to keep it hidden within.

He began on stage and in television, and then hit the movies with a monumental embarrassment—the garish 1954 Biblical epic The Silver Chalice, in which only Jack Palance’s Simon Magus made its torpid shenanigans even briefly intriguing. Newman had broken into cinema at nearly 30 years of age in an attempt to make him the next Victor Mature or Robert Taylor—a pitiable fate if ever there was one.

But he was, of course, a New York method actor. Like his forebearers Clift and Brando and his contemporary Dean, he exemplified a new concept of screen actor—gritty, tough, often perverse, slightly dangerous, no longer centred by clichéd machismo, febrile in their manly poses. Unlike these actors, he never seemed to mind the business of being a movie star. He could play a part for laughs, take a pay-cheque role and still turn in a solid job, without guilt eating at his soul. Also unlike them, he didn’t make as quick or big a splash, but he lasted far longer, in far better shape. His view? He told Rolling Stone in 1973, “A plus about making pictures is that you learn something new on every one, whether it’s a good one or a stinker.”

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The decline of the studios in the mid 1950s created an atmosphere unkind to many emerging movie stars. Some, like James Garner and Clint Eastwood, had to retreat into television, or, like Anne Bancroft, run back to the stage until times improved. So, too, did Newman, for a short spell, but he returned to movies two years after his disastrous debut in Robert Wise’s Rocky Graziano biopic, Somebody Up There Likes Me, a film to which Sylvester Stallone owes royalties. Newman went to town in the role of street-hardened delinquent who grows into a boxing champeen, all the while never losing his gauche, somehow innocent charm. The film sported spectacular acting from Newman—probably too spectacular. His Graziano is a more athletic version of Ernest Borgnine’s Marty—the previous year’s Noo-Yawk Italian hero—a sentimental rendering of a type combined with dashes of Jimmy Cagney’s neighborhood toughs. Rocky rises to become a champion, but remains buffeted by forces beyond his comprehension.

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Newman moved on to The Long, Hot Summer (1958), a corny Faulkner adaptation. During the course of shooting, he cemented his attraction to costar and final wife Joanne Woodward; when they draw together into each other’s arms at the end, it has the unmistakable ring of the truly pleased. Newman then appeared in Arthur Penn’s debut, The Left Handed Gun. As in Summer, he’s a shiftless outsider without trust or favor, driven to gnaw frantically but hopelessly at the edges of the firmly ensconced power of ignoble men. His Billy the Kid expanded on original writer Gore Vidal’s concept as a range-riding edition of a contemporary juvie-hall escapee, dogged by his Eastern accent, his wide eyes glittering with problem-child attitude, his body contorting with oversized anger, avenging his murdered paternal substitute with a righteous fury that seems to have no checks, no mercy. If Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950) began the age of the adult Western, Penn’s film was the first post-Western, forerunners of his own works like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Missouri Breaks (1976). Billy is like a tantrum-possessed child, and yet also a cold, precise-minded killer. He erodes the life energy of the people close to him, their fidelity, their moral standards, and is finally gnawed to virtual suicide by his realisation of what he’s achieved, or rather failed to achieve. In the most vital scene, he confronts a shifty marshal during a celebration over amnesty for veterans of a range war; on the pretext of inspecting the man’s gun, he removes the bullets, and then has his grim expectations confirmed when the marshal draws on him. He drops the bullets on the floor with a glowing-eyed wrath that seems almost like a possession.

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In his first few defining parts, Newman acts with his whole body—twitchy, mumbly, trying too hard to be the next Brando. It’s stagy, almost a satire on his master’s mannerisms, and works against Newman’s fundamental energy. Working at the tail end of Hollywood’s first, brief obsession with rebellious young men, Newman would retain his fascination for rebels, but he would also take it his rebels into slightly different territory. Playing Brick Pollitt in Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Newman was suddenly all there, giving his first truly great performance. Brooks might claim some responsibility for this, as he also drew out some of Elizabeth Taylor’s least mannered acting. Newman’s Brick is a less showy creation than his earlier angry young men, and though a character as equally tortured as Rocky or the Kid, Newman now displays his soul through eyes raw and bold, trying frantically to express what the world wants him to hold in—the desperate love he had for his best friend, and the stark terror he’s facing of being unable to transfer that love to his wife. Though playing a man still cast in the dependent role of son and heir to Burl Ives’ Big Daddy, Newman here nonetheless actually plays a man and not an overgrown boy. Newman soon became sublime at playing characters for whom the men they have become and the men they should be, are a terrible distance apart. Brick is self-loathing and self-pitying, but he’s also in the process of working up the will to become a self-directing adult—something the gauche, likeable, boyish Rocky and the borderline psychotic, self-destructive Billy never did.

Newman revealed a rare willingness, for a straight leading man of the time, to expose his nerves for the sake of Tennessee Williams’ complex, lacerating studies in homoerotic aesthetics. Yet it suited Newman’s ironic perspective on his own good looks to play Williams’ fetishised male beauties in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). In the latter film, he plays a gigolo in the process of being ground up by the unbounded, vampiric appetites of tyrannical patriarchy, female vanity, and a society obsessed with beauty and youth.

Antihero was a word used often with abandon at the time. Sometimes it meant characters who did heroic things whilst not fitting heroic moulds, or men who occupied the centre of a narrative, but who actively refused to do anything heroic. Newman, Brando, Clift, Douglas, Lancaster, Mitchum, Eastwood all came to specialise in this brute species. Sometimes they could be out-and-out bastards.

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After the stilted start of The Long, Hot Summer, Newman reunited with Martin Ritt for two terrific films where he played unlikable, even swinish men. In Paris Blues(1961), he delivered Ram Bowen, a jazz trombonist and hard-sell womaniser temporarily tamed by a school teacher played by Woodward. He’s a bellyaching, often boorish jerk with a compensating factor—he’s riven with anxiety over his artistic worth and eventually chooses to commit himself to growth, rather than retreating into a romantic bubble. The number of taboos the film shatters is startling, all the more so for being blithe about it: Newman and Woodwared leap into a sexual affair, though only after Newman has made clear his preference for Diahann Carroll. As a portrait of the artist as a young prick, it’s formidably accurate. The other, Hud(1963), was an adaptation of a Larry McMurtry novel—a brutal assault on the Western by the modern world, a realm of beaten-up pick-up trucks, fragile-nerved waitresses, dust-swept diners, and the caddish Hud himself. The bland Brandon DeWilde, cleverly cast nonetheless as Hud’s younger foil, reverses the finale of Shane; DeWilde walks away from Newman, refusing to bow to his shit-kicking nihilism.

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Paris Blues was well overshadowed by another Newman film that came out the same year—Robert Rossen’s The Hustler. This film represents his greatest part, greatest performance, and greatest film—a near miracle in fusing melodrama with a kind of bitter poetic realism to which modern American cinema owes a great deal, whilst also tipping its hat to the literary traditions of Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, James Jones. Fast Eddie Felson particularly resembles one of Jones’ philosopher everymen. Like Brick, Eddie is defined by clashing qualities of youthful athleticism, great physical talent and beauty, but also a deeply ingrained self-loathing, a violent internal struggle with his own contradictions and the world’s evil. As with Brick, Eddie is consumed by a clash between his own need for love, stability, and fulfillment on his own terms and the identification of these desires as weakness by a rapacious, viciously macho culture that pays off users and vampires with far more readiness than warrior-poets like Eddie. Like some of Brando’s heroes, he has strong masochistic tones; unlike many of Brando’s, he is, at the core, articulate. Brando preferred figures who can only tangentially explore themselves; Newman liked to play men who know themselves and don’t always like what they know.

The film’s core scene, Eddie’s explanation of his delight in pool to girlfriend Piper Laurie, was rewritten at Newman’s request. He told Rolling Stone that “The way it was originally written, I thought it was a nothing scene—it just wasn’t there, it had no sense of specialness. So I told Rossen he ought to somehow liken what Eddie does to what anybody who’s performing something sensational is doing—a ball player, say, or some guy who laid 477 bricks in one day.” Eddie’s esoteric skill thus could be alchemised to represent talent in all its forms, the drive to use it, but also to respect it, and the clash that often occurs between these two urges. Eddie is sufficiently hardened in the end to win in the terms of the culture about him, but is finally disgusted by it. Rather than take the laurels of that culture, he insists on a victory purely on his own terms. In this period, Newman went from strength to strength, and even initiated his own superstition regarding playing in films with ‘h’ in the title. The Left Handed Gun. Hondo. Hud. Harper. Hombre. Cool Hand Luke. They all seemed to stand for an omnipresent Him—both Newman, but also the type of fractured males he was drawn to play.

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In Otto Preminger’s Exodus (1960), he played one of his most effective heroic rebels, a rare figure with a specific cause, culture, and identity to fight for—Ari Ben Canaan, former British soldier turned Zionist warrior for the Hagenah organisation. It was also the only film in which half-Jewish Newman ever played his native ethnicity, and once more made slyly clever use of his appearance as anything but the classic caricature of a Jew. In his confrontation with bigoted British officer (the atrocious Peter Lawford), after the officer has sworn he can tell a Jew by looking in his eye, Canaan invites him to do just this. Newman inhabits Ari with a hardened purpose that stops short of inhuman fanaticism. His attempts to retain a conscious grip on his humanity whilst still keeping an iron-willed refusal to be bossed around for political expedience force him to maintain a cold rigour, as he tries consciously not to indulge himself looking at shiksa Eva Marie Saint whilst conducting his war of nerves with the authorities. In a pointed finale, he leads his soldiers off into eternal battle – not merely a nod to the ever-fractious Israeli status, but to the concept of freedom itself requiring eternal vigilance.

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One of Newman’s most perfectly relaxed and entertaining performances came in Mark Robson’s Hitchockian romp The Prize (1963), in which he played party animal Andrew Craig, the youngest-ever Nobel laureate in literature whose challenging early works were commercial flops, forcing him to write trash and drink much. The situation is hilarious and rich enough to be the film’s subject, but Newman’s Craig is soon drawn into the usual shadowy conspiracies, contending with a vividly ironic, yet rather dogged heroism, and some terrifically sexy byplay with Elke Sommer and Diane Baker. This film was certainly preferable to the actual Hitchcock film he made at this time, Torn Curtain (1966), possibly the nadir of both men’s career.

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Two of Newman’s most popular and facetious parts came in the late ‘60s. In Cool Hand Luke (1967), he virtually embodied the paranoid, clumsily directed spirit of a nonconformist age, dabbling at the edges of society and seeing his paltry attempts at protest against an unfeeling society punished with force. This punishment is, of course, what he wants: this brand of outsider wants the gloves taken off, the mask removed,from the silent war between outsider and insider. Luke is broken finally, by the chain gang authorities, and Newman’s usually upright frame reduced to a shambling, kowtowing monkey before he regains his last surge of bravery. But he only earns a squalid death. If Cool Hand Luke was a rather morbid, exaggerated portrait of regional, period-American fascism linked by underground wires to the counterculture anxiety, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) represented its transformation into commercialised froth. Designed as a pseudo-satirical deconstruction, it ended up more as a hokey flower-child music video with the customary downbeat finale for false gravitas. It did, however, unite him with Redford as the defining buddy-movie duo, a complementary twining of talents. Redford had a suppleness that Newman had never approached, and Newman had a gravity Redford couldn’t quite grasp.

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If the period from 1958 to 1969 had been a powerhouse era for Newman, the early ‘70s saw his golden touch decline briefly. His collaborations now with John Huston (in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and The Mackintosh Man, 1973) and Terence Malick (writer of Pocket Money, 1972) produced little fanfare. In 1974, he took a role in Irwin Allen disaster epic, The Towering Inferno, top-billed alongside Steve McQueen, who had been trying to chase down Newman since debuting in a small role in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Newman played Doug Robarts, the architect of the ill-fated Glass Tower, tallest building in the world, studding the San Francisco skyline like a contemporary Babel. Newman’s design is good—it’s the corner-cutting construction that results in disaster, prompting Newman’s desperate efforts to prevent a holocaust of aging movie idols and cheesy TV stars. As some purely mercenary parts can manage, it exemplifies Newman’s on-screen persona: introduced as a triumphant knight of vision, indulging in an afternoon delight with girlfriend Faye Dunaway, he soon finds his success is quite literally built on rot—the low-grade wiring that Richard Chamberlain’s corrupt contractor has filled the tower. Newman sheds his golden allure in favour of angry self-recrimination: “What do they call it when you kill people?” he demands of the Tower’s owner (William Holden). Later in the film, he finds another perfectly complementary male partner in McQueen as they join forces to save the day. Regarding the smoking ruin in the end, Newman muses, “Maybe they should leave it the way it is – kind of monument to all the bullshit in the world,” A more salutary line he rarely uttered.

Newman was aging now. Always a bit older than her looked, his golden hair was now flecked with grey, his face stiffening, his voice huskier. His persona altered again—now his men became old hands, urgently trying to make one last score before inevitable degeneration. As with Martin Ritt, his second two films with George Roy Hill achieved a kind of perfection on a rough sketch: The Sting (1973), a floridly entertaining Depression lark—a contradiction in terms integral to the film’s drama—that saw him play “the great Henry Gondorff,” as he’s contemptuously described when discovered by Redford’s Johnny Hooker sleeping off a drunk in a bathtub. The film makes us cheer a mob of criminals without hesitation as they take on a far worse one, as well as a world that rewards voracious cruelty and greed while leaving everyone else scrabbling in the filth.

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The third film was Slap Shot (1977), one of the few authentic comic classics of the ‘70s, a shot of neat bourbon amidst the low-cal soft drinks in the modern comedy pantheon. Written by Nancy Dowd, it captured like virtually no film before or since the peculiar, individualist insanity of a medium-sized, working-class town—the tomboy girls, the foul-mouthed, brutal sensibility that can disguise a rich tolerance and multiplicity of lifestyles. Slap Shot possibly had as much or more impact on modern American indie film as films like The Hustler or Hud. It’s hard to imagine a The Full Monty, a Friday Night Lights, or any of Will Ferrell’s straining attempts to reproduce blue-collar comic value without it. Newman’s Reg Dunlop was the last of his heroes of great physical prowess, now waning, caught inelegantly between the young stud he was and the sad old guy he sees himself becoming.

Dowd’s script is still utterly contemporary in many ways, taking aim at the insecurities of a town seeing traditional values disintegrate and papering over sexual anxieties and false social rituals by concentrating on bloodlust. Dunlop is defined by his impatient bark, his willingness to ignore fragile civility and go for the jugular, when the moment is right, as in the film’s most hilariously gauche sequences. After he listens with bewildered equanimity to a girlfriend’s account of a lesbian orgy with fellow housewives, he will, of course, rock right up to her husband, captain of an enemy team, and declare, to provoke a fight, ‘Your wife’s a dyke!’; or later, when he cuts down the snooty, dismissive owner of the team, by stating; ‘Your son looks like a fag to me!’ It might not be sensitive, but it still seems like some of Newman’s most purely heroic moments in its the refusal to allow a retreat into politeness or euphemism in heartland America.

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Entering the 1980s, having gone entirely white-haired, Newman did not actually lose his looks so much as ease into them at last. Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (1982) saw him in one of his finest elder parts, a pathos-inducing ambulance chaser who seems to have arrived at middle age having barely registered the period since leaving college as anything more substantial than one long advertorial. His rediscovery of moral impetus, and the shocks he receives along the way, are presented with uncommon rigour both by Newman and Lumet. Extending the reach of courtroom drama—doing much the same thing for the genre that Coppola did for the gangster film—they invested the film with a careful visual and rhythmic shading that gave it rare dramatic depth. Newman finally gained a proper Oscar in 1986 for The Color of Money, his reprise of the part of Eddie Felson which I’ve written about in-depth before. It wasn’t equal to his best performances, but neater star turns are still hard to come by.

After The Color of Money, Newman did not go into decline exactly, but almost inevitably, his starring roles became fewer, and the films in which he did appear were box office misfires, like the eminently forgettable Blaze (1989) and Message in a Bottle (1999). Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) was a sticky, not exactly truthful account of the Manhattan Project, though Newman did good work in projecting the steely, unpersuadable Gen. Groves. Two of his last films of prominent billing were Nobody’s Fool (1994), which gained him an Oscar nomination in competition with the likes of John Travolta and Morgan Freeman, and Twilight (1998). Both films were directed by Robert Benton, an authority of middle-brow cinema. The Road to Perdition (2002) presented him in full Grand Old Actor mode working in an inferior project, a state in which one often finds former greats. It’s a dangerous area, for so often what looks like just another part can be an accidental career-capper. What can we say of Newman here? He presents a performance remarkable in its restraint, his blue eyes now seeming as grey as his hair, frigid with a lifetime of contemplating, not backing away, from moral terror or harsh necessity.

Surveying his career, there many more parts and films worthy of looking at in depth: The Rack; The Young Philadelphians; Winning; WUSA; The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean; Buffalo Bill and the Indians; Quintet; Fort Apache, the Bronx; Absence of Malice; Mr. and Mrs. Bridge; The Hudsucker Proxy. And his films as a director, like Rachel Rachel and Sometimes a Great Notion, his badly underappreciated adaptation of Ken Kesey’s first novel, betray a careful, mood-aware craftsman at least as talented as Eastwood behind the lens. For once, surveying Newman’s career is not a task of saving gems from a disordered career, or regretting wasted talent, but of accounting talent savoured virtually to the last drop. l

  • movie fan spoke:
    13th/10/2008 to 9:26 am

    I have always admired Paul Newman for putting his money to work in such productive ways… he set up a real win-win situation with his Newman’s Own line too, it’s high quality stuff and the proceeds go to good causes

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