Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman: 1925-2008

If the most revered performer of anti-heroes in American cinema history was Marlon Brando, second on the list – and not by much – was Paul Newman. Brando drew us to his bad-boy personas by offsetting despicableness with heartbreaking vulnerability. For Newman, however, the counterbalance was something else: charm. With his stunning blue eyes and innate sweetness, Newman was unfailingly likeable, despite some of his most famous characters’ best attempts to convince us otherwise. Now, sadly, Newman follows Brando somewhere else: to the list of the departed. Newman died yesterday after a well-known but very private battle with cancer, his modesty in his final days consistent with the dignity that was one of his trademarks.

To think that we can separate what we know of the man off-screen from the character on the big screen is foolish, in any situation. A troubled actor (Mel Gibson, say) can ride through hard times off-camera thanks to the goodwill generated by his likeable cinematic portrayals. Likewise, an actor’s real-life image has a way of informing our instincts about their characters. Newman, who may not have had a single enemy other than Richard Nixon, brought genuine warmth with him to the screen whether he wanted to or not. It was because of all the attention paid to his beauty that Newman began seeking out unwholesome onscreen characters in the first place.

For my money, Newman’s best performance (and I admit there are many I haven’t seen) comes in 1963’s Hud, which earned him an Oscar nomination. The titular role provides him with arguably the most vile character of his career (“The man with the barbed wire soul,” the movie’s tagline assessed), and yet we’re still drawn to him. When a drunken Hud tries to force himself on Alma (an outstanding Patricia Neal), we experience her feelings of betrayal because, like Alma, we didn’t think Hud capable of such a thing, despite evidence to the contrary. Newman’s good-natured spirit is what makes Hud’s actions so revolting, and also what allows us to believe in his remorse after the fact.

As for my favorite Newman film, that has to be Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, one of the many pictures in which he played opposite Robert Redford. No disrespect to Joanne Woodward, Newman’s wife of 50 years who acted with her husband in four films, it was Redford who was Newman’s natural onscreen other-half – the Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire. In their 1969 pairing, Newman is perfectly cast as Butch, the stick-up artist with such an inherent authoritativeness to him that even Sundance is surprised when Butch finally admits late in the film that he’s never shot and killed anyone before.

Newman and Redford were friends off-screen, too. In the onslaught of tributes that we’re sure to see in the next hours and days, keep your eye out for an interview in which Newman, a notorious prankster, details some gift-swapping foolishness involving his pal Redford. I don’t remember who conducted the interview or how the story goes, only that it involves a car (a Porsche, I believe) that the two friends managed to send back and forth to one another – though not always in the same condition they received it. What I’ll never forget is the twinkle in Newman’s eye when he tells the story. You didn’t need to read accounts of Newman’s extensive philanthropic efforts to feel the warmth of his heart.

I close this remembrance with some images from the film that gave Newman arguably his most famous character, Cool Hand Luke, and from Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. The former film, you might recall, ends with George Kennedy’s Drag recounting his final moments with Luke. It’s a description that takes on deeper meaning as we say goodbye to the actor, the race car enthusiast, the humanitarian and the legend who played him. Here's Drag:

“He was smiling. That’s right. You know, that Luke smile of his. He had it on his face right to the very end. Hell, if they didn’t know it ‘fore, they could tell right then they weren’t ever gonna beat him. That old Luke smile. Oh, Luke. He was some boy. Cool Hand Luke. Hell, he’s a natural born world shaker.”


Mark said...

Nice touch, Jason.

Richard Bellamy said...

"We all die. It's only a question of when." - from "Hombre" - 1967 - my favorite Newman film in which he plays John Russell, a white man raised by the Apache, my favorite Paul Newman anti-Establishment rebel role. (These are the character's last words before one of the briefest but, I think, the best shootout in any Western.) Paul Newman certainly had charisma.