This past weekend when I heard of the passing of Paul Newman, who died of cancer at the age of 83 on Saturday, I felt a definite sadness, of course, but also the sense of a life well spent, a life as easy to celebrate in the living as to mourn in the dying. Newman was, in addition to being a certified movie star and a well-respected actor, a philanthropist whose line of Newman’s Own products, including spaghetti sauce, popcorn, lemonade and salad dressing, all benefited multiple charities to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. His was also a life of celebrity lived below what might now be thought of as the TMZ line—he maintained an East Coast lifestyle that mostly eschewed the spotlight (he wasn’t even in the building when he finally won an Oscar for Martin Scorsese’s Hustler sequel, The Color of Money), and the marriage he shared with Joanne Woodward lasted 50 years, a gold standard for enduring Hollywood relationships. Newman was also active in many liberal political causes and political candidacies—his support of presidential hopeful Eugene McCarthy in 1968 even snared him a high-profile spot on Richard Nixon’s infamous enemies list.
But when I think of Newman the actor I don’t gravitate to the performances that have been mentioned most often in this past week of remembrances and tributes. I think it’s wonderful and all too appropriate that this man, whose passion for racing was well documented, should have made his terrific voice work in Pixar’s Cars his final screen role, and the force of his turn as the titular antihero of Cool Hand Luke is undeniable. But movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, The Color of Money, Absence of Malice, even The Hustler, have never ranked high on my list of great movies, and they would rank about as high on my list of great Newman performances as well. Especially in the ‘80s, when he began gravitating toward the kind of roles that mixed sleazy morality with righteous indignation (I’m thinking less here of The Verdict, a solid film, than Absence of Malice, somewhat less solid) I began to lose interest in him as an actor and a screen persona. His Oscar win for revisiting the role of Eddie Felson in The Color of Money was a career-achievement award given after he’d won an actual career achievement award. The role, as written, seemed less an investigation of a man at the later stage in a misspent life than a chance for an actor to cruise on his star power in a role uncomfortably similar in range and effect to Absence and The Verdict and even his conflicted cop in Fort Apache the Bronx. (And in a way Newman’s win mirrors the Best Director award Scorsese himself would score nearly 20 years later for The Departed.) Yet his adventurous late-career work in movies like the two he did for Robert Benton, Nobody’s Fool and Twilight, proved that he had more left in the tank besides the desire to coast off into the sunset.
The Newman performances that honestly made the greatest impression on me all came in movies that, to one degree or another, challenged my perceptions of Newman the star (unflappable, virile, righteous, self-righteous) and what those perceptions meant. They all depended greatly on the actor’s considerable charm, of course, but they were almost always also willing to make it harder for audiences to accept that charismatic quality blindly—they didn’t mask the characters’ amorality behind those blue eyes but instead used them to investigate it. And each of the roles on my list made either overt or covert connections to that beer-drinking, blue-collar bravado that seemed, to some of us in the audience who never knew him personally, closest to Newman himself.
Hud (1963; Martin Ritt) Newman exposed the seductive center of gravity of an alienated youth pitched in battle with his moralistic father (Melvyn Douglas) with chilling humor and the cumulative effect of very few punches pulled. But rather than making an argument for the wounded vulnerability of a generation a la James Dean, Newman (and the movie) trafficked in uncomfortable character truths that threw both youthful narcissism and the supposed wisdom of the aged into stark relief against a beautiful, brittle background of modern-day cowboy iconography.
Sometimes a Great Notion (1970; Paul Newman) As Hank Stamper, owner with his father Henry (Henry Fonda) of a renegade Oregon logging business, Newman brings surprising empathy to a role that could have boiled down to simple stubborn pride. But he finds an interior through line that connects Hank’s desire to live up to the standards of his bullheaded father with his own desire to keep the Stamper logging business thriving through a hard-fought coastal lumber strike. Newman the actor, and the director, find common ground with Ken Kesey’s mythic perspective without ever tipping the movie into grandiose bombast and overarching sentiment.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976; Robert Altman) Newman ended up batting .500 for Robert Altman. His glazed-over work for the director’s glacially confused sci-fi chamber piece Quintet was as frosty and interior as the director’s work was obtuse. But these two cinematic icons inaugurated their two-film collaboration by serving up a deliciously satiric treat for the American Bicentennial—a sharp-eyed, hilarious, and hugely underrated critique of American celebrity served up through the smoky glass of historical revisionism. Newman’s Buffalo Bill is a fool haunted by the demons of his own insecurity, his own knowledge of his inability to even come close, as a man, to the epic shadow he has already begun to cast over the nation’s view of itself. The actor’s piercing blue eyes have never seemed as haunted as they do peering out from the bewigged leonine visage of Bill Cody in full performance regalia, as he simultaneously embodies the full bluster of American manifest destiny and cocks an ear toward the voices echoing in his head that will constantly remind him, in the night, of the bitter truth behind that bluster.
Slap Shot (1977; George Roy Hill) The actor drank deep of the nasty knockabout comedy in Nancy Dowd’s famously foul-mouthed script-- about a once-great hockey coach who resorts to lowdown tactics on the ice to help save a minor-league team from extinction-- as if it were a tall glass of water, or an ice-cold beer, set down in front of a man dying of thirst. He seemed to get a charge out of showing off the uncensored side of his personality in Hill’s uncharacteristically ragged, rough-edged movie, as if modeling a corrective to the safe movie star aura he had solidified with Butch Cassidy and The Sting. This raucous movie features Newman at his loosest and funniest.
Blaze (1988; Ron Shelton) Having about as much fun as he did in Slap Shot, Newman brought salty, crackling life to Earl Long, the aging, still flamboyant governor of Louisiana who struck up a torrid, plenty public affair in the 1950s with stripper Blaze Starr (Lolita Davidovich), despite the difficulties it raised for implementing the politician’s relatively progressive racial policies. Newman elevated a potentially cantankerous cartoon to the level of emotional truth even when the tone of Shelton’s film faltered, and in the process created a vivid portrait of political wisdom coexisting with sexual appetite (and love) that anticipated the Clinton era with the kind of sympathy and good humor that was in short supply on talk radio during much of that president’s second term in office. Of all the actor’s late-period performances, it’s this one that is seemingly least remembered and most direly in need of rediscovery.
Make no mistake: Paul Newman was also great in The Left-handed Gun, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, Harper, Hombre, the aforementioned Cool Hand Luke, WUSA, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Drowning Pool, The Verdict, Nobody’s Fool, Twilight, Cars and, of course, The Hudsucker Proxy.
Rest in peace, Mr. Newman, and many condolences to your family and friends.