Paul Leonard Newman
Alright, as far as I am concerned, Hollywood can just pick up its toys and go home – Paul Newman is gone. And without his presence, la-la land has pretty much lost the last bit of its lustre. In an industry now dominated by prissy, couch-trampling, metrosexualised pretty boys, Newman was a cowboy, a man’s man who, in his fifty-year movie career, consistently and defiantly subverted the expectations shaped by his impossibly blue-eyed, square-jawed all-American good looks. How easily he could have gone the Rock Hudson route, playing himself in rom-com after rom-com, but Newman took the path less travelled, instead essaying rogues, cads, bounders and all manner of deeply flawed characters, all searching for redemption but not necessarily finding it. Even when handling lighter fare, he brought an edge, a complexity to his characterization that was mesmerizing, not to mention that could charm the spots off a leopard. By the time of his self-imposed retirement in 2005, Newman was revered not only as one of filmdom’s most versatile and powerful actors, but also immensely respected as the quietest, most non-grandstanding of philanthropists who, through his various charitable projects, gave away millions and millions in aid to the needy. Along the way, he also raced cars and earned further admiration for his enduring marriage to actress Joanne Woodward whom he had wed in 1958. He was Hud, he was The Hustler, he was Harper, and there will never be anyone like him again. A look back at some of the highlights of a gloriously rich career:
Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)
Newman’s breakthrough role after a miserable debut in the risible Roman epic The Silver Chalice, a film and performance he was so embarrassed about, he brought out an ad in Hollywood trade paper Variety apologizing for it. His performance as former middleweight boxing champ Rocky Barbella/Graziano was near-perfect penance. In a part originally meant for James Dean who was killed in a car crash before filming could commence, Newman sports a cocky, New York hood accent and shows no fear in essaying an irredeemably awful man who, in true Hollywood style, is of course nevertheless redeemed by – what else? – the love of a good woman.
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Though much of the controversial sub-text was removed for this cinematic adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ stage play, Newman still positively smolders as tortured Brick Pollitt, a Southern alcoholic black sheep at odds with his father and locked in a battle of wills with his desperate housewife Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor). Taylor’s dazzling roller-coaster of a performance is well-complemented by Newman’s subtler, brooding tones.
The Hustler (1961)
The first of Newman’s signature anti-heroes, as well as his best performance in a decade full of gems (and that’s saying something) – ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson, pool hustler extraordinaire but loser at life for whom the love of a good woman is not quite enough to save him, but the loss of whom could allow him the opportunity to earn back a little dignity. Although Newman himself would pick a few holes in his performance over the years, the fact remains that it is also the first of his roles that are completely his – Newman is Eddie Felson, and no one else could ever be. In fact, so indistinguishable from the character did he become for some people, they would be surprised when they realized that Newman couldn’t actually shoot pool as well as Fast Eddie.
Another role that came to be synonymous with Newman, Hud Bannon is at once repulsive and electrifying, a vile, womanizing opportunist – and in Newman’s hands, you can’t take your eyes off him. He sizzles up the screen in his scenes with actress Patricia Neal who, playing salty housekeeper Alma, declares wistfully that she would happily have bedded down with him, had he not already tried to molest her. When one critic complained that the problem with Hud was that his face didn’t look lived in, Newman responded, “That’s exactly what made the bastard dangerous. The whole point of the character is that he has a face that doesn’t look lived in.”
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
“What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Newman may not have uttered the quotable quote from this chain-gang-set dramedy, but his interpretation of the defiant-to-the-end anti-hero of the title is the very definition of cool. Them boys in blue may be able to lock him up, but they’ll never take his freedom, nor break his spirit. Along the way there’ll be that boiled-egg eating contest, which is probably one of the best comic sequences in a dramatic film ever created.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Newman and real-life friend Robert Redford play so well off each other in this flawless classic that Katharine Ross as the latter’s love interest is almost unnecessary. They are the quintessential screen team and together make the light-hearted bio of the legendary 19th Century bank robbers larger than life. Where Redford chills out as the strong-silent Sundance, Newman has fun with Cassidy, bringing to him an irresistible, roguish charm, especially when he bicycles to the immortal ‘Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head’.
The Verdict (1982)
Delivering what has often been deemed the greatest performance of his career, Newman plays Frank Galvin, a down-and-out lawyer reduced to alcoholism and ambulance-chasing, who gets that one chance for redemption in the form of a medical malpractice suit that he can’t possibly win. Or can he? Newman again makes a character so completely his own that it’s virtually impossible to not be moved; his Galvin is poignant yet not sentimental, seeking not absolution but salvation from his own demons. Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi may have won the Best Actor Oscar that year, but for many, the statuette had Newman’s name written all over it.
The Colour of Money (1986)
Newman finally got his Oscar gold (though he wasn’t there to collect it) for reprising the role that had got him his first nomination – Fast Eddie Felson, in this sort-of sequel to The Hustler. With Martin Scorsese directing, the now-elder statesman of Hollywood pretty much wiped the floor with his younger co-star, Tom Cruise, delivering a nuanced portrayal of Fast Eddie twenty-five years on – older but not necessarily all that much wiser.
Nobody’s Fool (1994)
In many ways, Newman’s penultimate role as construction worker Sully in Robert Benton’s underrated drama is the natural conclusion to all the earlier characters he has played, one could even say he is the cinematic pater familias to the Huds and the Eddies and the Chances. Selfish, willful, stubborn, and still disarmingly attractive (at 69!), Newman etches a fascinating portrait of an imperfect but sympathetic man, more through nuance than words – truly the actor’s forte. He received another Oscar nomination, but by this time, seemed well beyond the realm of trinket-lite awards and accolades. The legend was well in place.
And now there it will stay.
R.I.P. Paul Leonard Newman, 1925-2008