I’ve always found it odd that all the warm
words, all the retrospectives, the long in-depth articles about a star come out
after they’ve gone. Why aren’t our dwindling reserves of genuine icons
celebrated a whole lot more while they’re still with us?
With rumours about his ill-health abounding I
just hope it’s all hogwash and that Paul Newman outlives us all.
Newman is more than a star, more than good
actor, more than an accomplished director, more than a great looking embodiment
of all-American optimism. He is the quintessential Hollywood
artist. He personifies all that the American movie industry strives so hard to
achieve and rarely succeeds.
There is doubtfully a man or woman under 40 who
does not admire Newman in one way or another, either purely physically or for
his on-screen charisma, or his acting ability. Even his lauded salad dressing,
with all proceeds going to charity, has to be admired, although it has provided
some confusion with some younger people. Apparently, when one 20 year old who
was using one of his dressings was asked which Newman movie she liked best, she
replied “He’s making movies now?”
His 50+ year career has produced nary a whiff of
scandal, and his body of work is such that it just has to contain at least one
film from anyone’s top 20. You don’t think so? Let’s just dip into the obvious:
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,
The Sting, The Hustler, The Towering Inferno. The not-so-obvious: Harper, Pocket
Money, Hombre, Sometimes a Great Notion, The Verdict, Road to Perdition,Nobody’s Fool, Fort Apache- the Bronx, The
Young Philadelphians, Slap Shot, The Drowning Pool. Even some of Newman’s
misfires are worth catching: Fat Man and Little Boy, The Prize, Winning, The
Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.
Trying to put into words the universal appeal of
Newman is tough, if not impossible. It’s certainly more than the sum of the
parts as so many competent actors have come along with at least one of his
attributes, but have only been a fraction as successful. To boil it down into
its constituent elements is a study in futility; but I’ll try.
That’s certainly a strong one. When Newman smiles it’s an all encompassing
joyful thing to behold, and he looks like he means it. May as well mention his
looks. As a comfortably heterosexual male I’m happy to celebrate the fact that
Newman in his day was one of the best looking guys in the business. Even though
he despised being defined by his blue eyes, it can’t be denied that part of his
appeal laid in his physicality. Good looking without being intimidating,
typically male without being muscular, he is perhaps the dictionary definition
of the hackneyed phrase “the man men want to hang out with and the women want
to go to bed with”. His mannerisms. Not an obvious one but there are
typical Newman gestures we are all familiar with, perhaps unconsciously. For
instance, the moment in Hud when he throws his arms out in frustration
and looks off into the distance – that’s an oft repeated motion. Rolling his
eyes in resignation. That sudden, winning smile. The voice- gravelly, deep,
perfectly modulated, instantly recognisable. His acting style: so natural its
barely noticeable, but, especially in his early days, very studied, very
Method. Any debits? Sure. Although often amusing in himself, seldom comfortable
in out and out comedies, a tendency to mug. Not a typical action hero type,
just not convincing in fare like When Time Ran Out. Not choosy enough in
his roles. For every Cool Hand Luke there’s a Secret War of Harry
Frigg, for every Hud, a Torn Curtain.
Try and break it down and the essence just dissipates. Certain films, certain
performances then. Butch Cassidy is textbook Newman, smart but
self effacing, heroic but practical, wisecracking but wistful, tough but
tender, all the things that make Newman what he is can be found here. It’s
tempting to give all credit to Goldman’s superlative script, but it’s more than
that. Newman, and Reford too, elevate the material to near cinema perfection.
It’s one of the best non-comedic double acts in screen history - a near miss
though, as McQueen was vying for Sundance, then he dropped out and Newman was
going to play Sundance opposite Redford’s
Butch. But then it all just gelled. Although only 43, Newman happily relaxed
into the elder, wiser mentor to Sundance, allowing Redford, whose breakout film this was, to
shine. But in so doing, Newman was able to relax into the less showier part and
fully inhabit the role, and bring to it fifteen years worth of experience. His
Butch Cassidy is possibly as close to the proto-typical Newman performance as
is possible. Perhaps the single most emphatic example of the
Newman-as-fallible-hero exemplar is the movie’s oft-repeated line “Who are
The quintessential Newman performance: Hud
recaptured the magic, but there was too much emphasis on plot and not enough on
the easy rapport of the Newman/Redford verbal sparring. However it succeeds for
the same reasons as Butch Cassidy. The father figure/young buck
relationship is even more emphatic here, and Newman enjoys himself immensel,y
with the added factor of being able to riff on Henry Gondorff being a
borderline alcoholic. Again, the vulnerability of the two characters is what
makes them such a winning duo; Says Redford’s Johnny Hooker to Gondorff,
referring to Robert Shaw’s villainous Lonegan “He’s not as tough as he thinks’
he is”. Replies Gondorff, “Neither are we”.
Harper coasts on pure Newman charisma.
Another Goldman script that gives Lew Harper, a seen-it-all jaded PI plenty of
scope for ironic wisecracks and weary put downs. What is essentially a routine
crime thriller is lifted by Newman’s easy charm. The sequel, The Drowning
Pool, fared less well, as, like The Sting, it relied too much on a
convoluted plot, and a slightly more downbeat vibe to be as fully likeable as
the first instalment.
Hud is a remarkable film in Newman’s
canon as it contains his only out-and-out shit. It’s a good benchmark film to
examine as it eschews most of the characteristics that Newman usually exudes to
winning effect. Newman’s Hud Bannon only cares for one person – Hud Bannon. His
cynicism, misogyny, self-loathing, and just plain narcissistic mean streak cuts
right through Martin Ritt’s brilliant 1963 modern day western.
superficially ironic then that the image of Newman in the films poster – in
faded jeans, cowboy boots, white Stetson, staring moodily down at us, is one of
the most iconic images there is of the star. Tellingly, Tony Manero, another
narcissistic screen “hero”, has this image adorning his bedroom wall in Saturday
witty repartee in Hud, no easy smiles, just anger, frustration, and
barely suppressed violence. There is however Newman’s inherent charisma. Ritt
must have cast Newman in part to help counter Hud’s basic unlikable persona. In
Newman, we are able to instantly recognise why Brandon de Wilde’s Lonnie Bannon
looks up to his uncle as some kind of hero. If he’d been played by, say, Lee
Marvin, he would have come across as a totally abhorrent monster, without a
word of the script having to be changed. Our understanding of de Wilde’s
hero-worship would have been compromised. Having Newman in the role however,
allows us to empathise with Lonnie’s predicament. He idolises Hud, but
gradually comes to despise him as his selfish actions mount up throughout the
film, and the scales fall from his eyes.
all the cards stacked against him, and with no obvious scope to win our
sympathy, how come the character of Hud still comes over as charismatic? This
is why it’s hard to genuinely nail down Newman’s appeal. There is no obvious
answer. His aggressive, cynical, sexual predator is superficially appealing in
purely cinematic terms, but that should wear thin very quickly. We should
despise him in the same way we despise Dennis Hopper in Paris Trout, or
Ed Harris in Alamo Bay, or Tom Berenger in Betrayed, all of them
charming sociopaths, but we don’t. We don’t because it’s....Paul Newman.
winning trait is the fact that, on screen, he’s nearly always self-effacing.
That’s a strong card. So many stars lack that, and thus fall short of truly
universal appeal. Charles Bronson didn’t have it, Coburn didn’t, and McQueen
certainly didn’t. But Newman was never indestructible, never infallible, even
in nominally heroic parts such as Butch Cassidy or Lucas Jackson. There’s
always a streak of vulnerability in his star roles, even cardboard cut-out
action parts like the Doug Roberts role in The Towering Inferno.
A word here
about Newman and McQueen. Superficially similar in that they were physically
alike, and both superstars, the major difference was, and this also is a link
to the Newman success formula, is that while Newman was always comfortable with
his place in the Hollywood pantheon, and never suffered from insecurity, and
thus was able to take chances with his persona, certainly in later years,
McQueen was riddled with self-doubt and massive insecurity, especially when it
came to Newman, whom he regarded as his arch-rival professionally. Ever since
the two appeared in Somebody Up There Likes Me in 1956, McQueen always
gauged his success against Newman’s. Referring to Newman privately as Fuckwit,
he was delighted to play opposite him in The Towering Inferno, only to
sit down and count his lines, then count Newman’s, then demand that writer
Stirling Silliphant add to his part to precisely match Newman’s tally of lines.
The subject of billing was then brought up and because of McQueen, the then
novel idea of Newman’s name appearing first, but McQueen’s name appearing higher
was first introduced. For the record, Newman didn’t care a jot about any of
Newman with Robert Vaughn in the 1974 blockbuster The Towering Inferno
that Newman’s forays into comedy don’t work. Lady L, What a Way to
Go, A New Kind of Love, The Secret War of Harry Frigg. All duds.
When you observe Newman in these films he is trying way too hard. As I
mentioned, he literally mugs for the camera. Any comedy is forced and obvious.
Compare his comedic flair in films such as Harper, The Prize, Butch
Cassidy, and The Sting, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that he
could easily play straight comedy, but it seems that trying for laughs is much
harder than allowing the humour to emerge from the character.
Newman goes, and let’s hope it’s not for a long while, we’ll be cutting ties
with a major part of Hollywood’s
Silver Age. I doubt we’ll ever see a star of this importance again. It’s highly
naive to be upset when someone you’ve never met passes away. But nevertheless I
know I’ll be sad. The last time I was genuinely upset with a star’s death was
in 1980 when McQueen went, but that was more to do with him going too young. No,
there’s more to it with Newman. I’m 47 so his films have woven in and out of my
cultural make-up since I was born. It’s that whole idea of your subconscious
mixing up reality and unreality, and the line between perceived and actual
In terms of
the million facets that make up a person’s cultural benchmarks, Paul Newman is
an undeniable influence on that fabric. I’ve never met him, yet I’ve seen his
likeable presence emote in front of me, seen him gradually grow older, and
somehow the undeniable fact that not only haven’t I met him, but my experience
is shared by millions of others somehow short circuits its way out of my
rational thinking. So, for whatever illogical reason that it may be, I’ll be
he’s still here, I’d just like to simply say, for the films, for the
performances, for that likeability and consistency over the years, “Thanks
Paul, I owe you ”.