Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Somehow, just a few weeks after the fact, the cracked and golden image of Paul Newman keeps reappearing to me, and I can’t ponder the significance of his unarguably solid movie career. A lot of baby boomers (like me) first glimpsed the golden boy when one of the local television stations played one of his earlier films and his image and countenance wasn’t so easily categorized. Not as medium cool or as existentially blank as his counterpart Steve McQueen, he also wasn’t old school tough like Bob Mitchum or as athletically theatrical as Burt Lancaster. As a direct connect to Dean and Brando, he was neither as soft or as curdled as the former or as unhinged and dangerous as the latter. Somehow he became a box office love mate with Robert Redford (who combined a touch of McQueen’s emptiness with a rueful quality that was closer to a mid-range proletariat like Jack Lemon then it was to any of the new kids of the time-Hoffman, Nicholson, Pacino), and they combined for the slick and easy, but fairly entertaining trifle The Sting, and one of the godawfullest Westerns of all, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Although Newman virtually buzzed with insouciant charm throughout George Roy Hill’s sub-Penn, sub-Peckinpah, sub-Boetticher version of the west, and, yup, admittedly he and Redford displayed a near perfect marijuana/Marlboro man chemistry in a genre that virtually never teams males up equally—preferring instead to pair off males as traditional interconnected opposites (white hat-black hat, farmer-gunslinger, lawmaker-lawbreaker, easterner-westerner)—the movie is at best a breezy 60’s road movie disguised as a horse opera. It’s all quick vignette after vignette, perked up by the Newman-Redford coy exchanges, and get dragged down to the driest gulch by the worst sequence in western history (worse than Dale horsewhipping Trigger) when Newman ambles around in dimpled sunlight with earth momma Katherine Ross posing idiotically on a bicycle while B.J. Thomas sings a virtual New Christy Minstrel number in the background.
Newman stands out, and deserves to, as a young acting stud who quick-as-a-wink found himself an icon, a matinee pin-up, a generational representative, yet managed to play around purty vividly within his own well drawn dungaree-wearing, beer-sopping, uncaring-Adonis outlines. Here's mine, a baker’s dozen of Newman’s own. Whattya think?
Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). Newman (grabbing a role meant to go to Dean) gets to Do the Method, as he dance through this explicitly 50’s slice of heightened realism. He hams it up as Rocky Graciano, all marbled mouthed and cartoonish New Yawknees, but it’s the snazzy gumball performance of somebody young, gifted, and, yes, ambitious.
The Left Handed Gun (1958). Another role inherited from dead man driving Dean, an all the more interesting as one posits which way the more slithery Dean would have gone towards inhabiting the tender young psychopath Billy the Kid. (How about Newman as Pat Garrett and Dean as Billy under the tequila splashed lens of Sam the Man Peckinpah?) Neither Newman nor director Arthur Penn had developed the experience to do this real justice, but it remains an intriguing offshoot Western, and Newman’s Kid twitches fairly effectively.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Newman woulda kicked this outta the park on stage, but this high-falutin’ somewhat truncated Richard Brooks’ version of Tennessee Williams allowed Newman-as-Brick to edge slightly closer the homoerotic whiff that always seems to emanate from many of Hollywood’s male idols, and he also successfully connects to that under-the-surface anti-macho, anti-society, anti-ambitious American male figure that so many of his other on-screen characters would push into a recognizable misshapenness.
The Hustler (1961). Upping the kitchen sink ante on the Graciano biopic, this much less Hollywoodized tale of upward mobility and salient loserdom lets the more assured dice-throwing actor come of age with his portrait of Fast Eddie Felson, a mannish boy who’s part fool and part rebel, both self-assured and self-defeated, caught squarely on the cusp between back room stardom and suit-and-tie respect.
Newman goes deep here, creating the sorta sexy cad that only Brando might have pulled off, with Brando’s acidity. Years afterward Newman himself would talk about his disappointment that audiences celebrated what he thought was a throughy unsympathetic figure; never acknowledging that in itself was a testament to his performance.
Harper (1966)/The Drowning Pool (1975). Somehow Newman’s two time turn as Lew Harper (nee Archer) consistently falls under the radar as exercise in Marlowean (Phillip) culture, yet the actor’s private dick has to be the most prescient contempo version of such since this side of Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye. Blissfully cynical but inherently moral, a lone outsider drifting between straightsville and gonzoland during both the 60’s and 70’s, fingernails clean and pants neatly pressed as he leans down to peek through another keyhole—he’s an undercover version of one of Newman’s constants—the lost in the flood American male.
Cool Hand Luke (1967). Newman at his most wounded and his most charismatic, all of it played with barely a quiver of actors’ muscle. A dynamic film and a first class performance.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians…or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)
One of my personal faves, a vastly underrated outing that died at the box office. Robert Altman and the actor plotted together to make his Buffalo Bill a blustery, sad, and lost figure in a movie that subversively utilizes Arthur Kopit’s play about the decline of west and the betrayal of the Indian into a showbiz lampoon, albeit a dark and puffy one. There is a wistful sense of self-knowing at the center of this etching of a false idol, as if the actor felt both connected and repulsed sketching out a weird form of self-portrait.
Slap Shot (1977)
A truly 70’s slice-of-life with some slapdash comic moments, Newman filled out his hockey skates like Bobby Hull’s better looking older brother, all the while nimbly scratching out another one of his wise but empty husks, more masculine promise gone sideways.
The Verdict (1982). An autumnal film that washes over you with a quiet deluge of gray backgrounds, washed-out countenances, indiscernible settings and Newman’s burnt out, lost soul of a living-on-the-edge lawyer. Sidney Lumet mostly sticks with the minor chords in this closed-in redemptive fable, and the well worn actor comes through with his most evocative performance.
The Color of Money (1986). While it certainly wasn’t one of the primary performances that should have brought Newman the Oscar, the Academy tossed it belatedly his way, and he does carve out another subtle caricature, bringing gravity to Marty Scorsese’s gritty yet pumped-up stylings, and accenting the essential shadows of his earlier go at an American hustler, while still resisting any form of big screen grandstanding, a quiet storm at the center of the director’s amped-up ministrations.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)/Nobody’s Fool (1994). A quality twofer. The Coen Brothers film film (The Hudsucker Proxy) is one gliding, stylized, completely artificial riff of a movie-movie and Newman goes full tilt in a character role, comically malevolent and obviously slumming, albeit in high style. The Robert Benton offering (Nobody’s Fool) is a movie length short story with Newman gleefully getting the chance to play Hud all growed up, a twilight reprise of the quintessential good-bad guy, a role enhanced by the obvious twinkle in the aging role player’s eye.