MARTIN MORROW’S GLORIOUS REFLECTIONS ON PAUL NEWMAN
I must admit that PAUL NEWMAN’S death has hit me HARD.
I was a big fan. But I had no idea how much his passing would affect me.
I look actively for various news of different kinds for the site. Generally twice a day. But nothing has come up that has any real importance or is terribly urgent.
So I am dedicating CINEMATIC PASSIONS to the memory of this wonderful man for the time being. We’ll just see how it all shakes out. The series of articles that I’m about to post may be the last words on this heartbreaking subject. I may find more later on in the day. Or tomorrow.
I won’t rule anything out. But I will only publish things that are relevant and that I personally feel are sufficiently fascinating to be up here.
So there may be more. Or not.
I’m capricious and willful at the best of times. (Just ask any of my exes.)
So you’ll have to hang on until the light comes streaming through the end of the tunnel.
First up is a gorgeously written, exquisitely evocative piece from MARTIN MORROW of CBCNEWS.ca
It was all too appropriate that one of PAUL NEWMAN’S first films was titled SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME.
As a movie star, he seemed to have been blessed by God.
Not only was he a paragon of physical beauty, with a sculpted face worthy of MICHELANGELO’S chisel and the dreamiest of dreamy blue eyes. He was also one hell of an actor and he left behind a string of vibrant dramatic performances – from THE HUSTLER to HUD to THE VERDICT to THE COLOR OF MONEY – in a career that spanned six decades.
PAUL NEWMAN seemed to appreciate his good fortune. In return, he shunned Hollywood’s temptations – living quietly in Connecticut with his wife of 50 years, the actor JOANNE WOODWARD – and used his fame to create a line of popular food products whose profits went to charity.
In the parallel world we live in as filmgoers, there are some actors we get to know so well over such a long period of time that they become like old friends. PAUL NEWMAN was like that for me.
I’ll never forget the first time I met him, on the screen of the lone movie theatre of a small Saskatchewan town. I was a small boy and he was in his prime: lean, wiry and cocky, with those blazing blue eyes, in COOL HAND LUKE.
My dad had taken me to see the picture – a little bit of father/son bonding – and for its two hour running time, I was lifted out of my dusty Prairie surroundings and into a sultry deep south of chain gangs and bloodhounds, mirrored sunglasses and thick drawls.
PAUL’S incorrigible antihero – beaten to a bloody pulp by GEORGE KENNEDY but refusing to give up – had a lot of resonance for a kid just getting into his first schoolyard scuffles.
COOL HAND LUKE was one of the classic guy movies that he became famous for. If he wasn’t working on the chain gang or hustling pool, he was slinging a gun or pulling off a big con in BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID and THE STING respectively. In those two hits, he was paired with the young ROBERT REDFORD, whose incredible beauty matched his own.
Growing up with those movies and other PAUL NEWMAN vehicles of the time, I at first dismissed him as just another macho star. Off screen, I heard, he chugged Coors and raced cars.
Then, one night in my teens, I happened to switch on the television and caught him in the 1962 film of TENNESSEE WILLIAMS’ SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH. As Chance Wayne, a former pretty boy going to seed, he was miscast. He was so gorgeous, that when the other characters said he was losing his looks, you had to laugh. Yet when he spoke Mr. Williams’ lyrical dialogue, he made it sing.
It was a revelation.
I found he was even better as Brick, the alcoholic ex jock in the 1958 film of TENNESSEE WILLIAMS’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. Once again, he was handsomely dissolute, clinking the ice as he told ELIZABETH TAYLOR’S sexually frustrated MAGGIE THE CAT to take a leap and find herself a lover.
PAUL NEWMAN had come to film via the theatre and it showed. The opposite of the classic iconic American leading man, his way with lines was as electrifying as those blue eyes.
He often played rebels and outlaws, drifters and losers, but they were seldom inarticulate. His characters spilled their guts, launching into tirades or rhapsodies delivered with a rugged, fierce eloquence. His characters could be explosive – but then no actor had a sweeter smile.
At times, his immense natural charm was at odds with his intentions. As the selfish, womanizing rancher in 1963’s HUD, he meant to give us a detestable heel. Instead, audiences were seduced by his cheerful insouciance and made him an icon of cool. (It’s telling that in MIDNIGHT COWBOY wanna be stud JON VOIGHT sticks a poster of PAUL NEWMAN as HUD on his hotel room wall.)
PAUL hated that misinterpretation – just as he hated his first film role, as a Greek sculptor in 1954’s THE SILVER CHALICE, a dopy biblical epic. (Years later, when the movie appeared on television, he took out an ad asking people not to watch it.)
He made up for that false start quickly, playing boxing champ ROCKY GRAZIANO in his next film, SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME. He then starred as the cunnning Ben Quick in the FAULKNER based 1958 drama THE LONG HOT SUMMER opposite JOANNE WOODWARD. They married the same year and would appear together in ten films.
PAUL NEWMAN, despite several noteworthy directorial efforts, never made a full transition to that profession. I wish fervently that he had done more acting in his later years.
In the 80s, he gave a couple of great performances, as the washed up, anxiety riddled lawyer Frank Galvin in SIDNEY LUMET’S courtroom drama THE VERDICT and as aging pool shark Fast Eddie Felson in MARTIN SCORSESE’S sequel to THE HUSTLER, THE COLOR OF MONEY – the role that won him a belated OSCAR.
The 90s saw him costar with JOANNE WOODWARD as a pair of repressed WASPS in MERCHANT IVORY’S MR. & MRS. BRIDGE and as a crooked corporate honcho in in the COEN BROTHERS’ comedy THE HUDSUCKER PROXY.
More recently, he received critical plaudits and a TONY nomination as the stage manager in the 2003 Broadway revival of OUR TOWN. His final movie role was as the gruff voice of a 1951 Hudson Hornet in the 2006 animated comedy CARS. No doubt it was a kick for the auto buff. But it wasn’t quite the swan song we were hoping for.
Thanks to film, PAUL NEWMAN is immortal. We can still see him at the height of his beauty and power as Hud, Butch or Eddie and relive our memories of him. Not long ago, I revisited COOL HAND LUKE for the first time in a decade and that long ago night in a small town cinema came rushing back. It’s not my favourite film of his, though.
The one I’ve returned to the most is THE HUSTLER, from 1961. Maybe it’s because that picture, directed by ROBERT ROSSEN, combines the thrill of the sports based guy movie with a strong dramatic narrative. Maybe it’s because it boasts a truly great supporting performance: JACKIE GLEASON as Eddie’s nemesis, the elegant Minnesota Fats.
Certainly it’s because of PAUL’S magnetic screen presence as Eddie, the gifted but reckless loudmouth whose path to maturity is strewn with failure and heartbreak.
There are few scenes more intense than the final showdown between Eddie and Fats. Sadder but wiser, PAUL’S lithe young hustler, fuelled by cold anger, circles the pool table like a merciless bird of prey.
In the end, a crestfallen Fats has to concede defeat. “I quit, Eddie,” he says frankly. “I can’t beat you.”
PAUL NEWMAN, no one could beat you….