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Remembering Paul Newman: His Top Five Performances

You can truly weigh the measure of someone once they're gone. In the case of Paul Newman, there has been unanimous praise for a life lived out of the spotlight, as he chose to avoid the trappings of stardom in favor of real substance. His charitable work outshone his professional achievements in the last 30 years of his life, and he no doubt preferred it that way.

Newman was not the best actor of his generation, but what he did nobody else could emulate. He had something that isn't learned or transferred or faked. Make no mistake: Paul Newman was a very talented actor, but it went beyond that, both on the screen and off.

It's rewarding to hear so much praise for his contributions to his fellow man in the days after his passing. Colleagues and admirers have been pointing to his friendship, his gentle nature, his generosity, and his involvement. Few have taken the time to laud his performances.

But there is plenty to remember about Paul Newman in the movies. Ten Academy Award nominations aren't for nothing, and there are a few more that he probably deserved. Limiting ourselves to his five best performances is difficult, proof of how gifted he was. In truth, there are very few misfires in his career, especially at its height. These just happen to stand out above the rest.

1 - Cool Hand Luke

There are a couple of roles in Newman's career that kind of transcend their eras. They're timeless and unique. Cool Hand Luke is the quintessential Newman film, because he's a movie star through and through, but there's obviously something beneath the surface.

His humor is on proud display, but with a flip of a switch, he delivers undeniable dramatic strength. There are a great deal of memorable scenes in this film - more than its fair share, frankly - and it forever established Newman as a kind of anti-hero. Hereafter, he would shy away from playing a lilywhite hero. There were always angles, always different ways to look at his characters. Even if you liked them, there were things to hate about them. And that always made him more interesting.

And only Mr. Cool could play Cool Hand.

2 - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

When Hollywood tries to make a buddy movie, this is what they're going for. Newman and Robert Redford in one of the great "new" Westerns. The film is loaded with so much non-movie dialogue, and I mean that in a couple of ways. First, there's a great deal of conversation that just doesn't qualify as exposition.

Movie characters rarely talk. They always talk about something. Secondly, there's a dialogue between Newman and Redford that lasted 40 years. Their off-screen friendship was the real star. And man, that ending...

3 - The Verdict

When most sex symbols reach their 50s, they usually go quietly in another direction. Newman, though, still commanded leading performances, was believable at all times, and in this Sidney Lumet-David Mamet collaboration, was absolutely ferocious as a lawyer fighting for his own respectability.

4 - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Newman's first Oscar nomination came in this Tennessee Williams adaptation opposite Elizabeth Taylor. He was playing, essentially, a gay character, or so it has been believed for decades. Brick is not expressly described as gay, but particularly through a contemporary lens, it's pretty hard to ignore. That's quite a risk for a young movie star on the rise, but Newman delivered one of the best performances of his early career.

5 - Nobody's Fool

Paul Newman was well known for his passion for auto racing. It's a young man's game, but Newman stayed behind the wheel into his 80s. There's a lot of that attitude in Sully, the irascible old guy who still wants to play a young man's game. He flirts with his son's daughter and gives the establishment the bird.

On a technical note, Newman had always been a rather nuanced actor, but here in Nobody's Fool, he has a lot more gestures than we're used to, proof that he's still feeling his way through his craft.

See? Limiting ourselves to five is not easy. There's his sensational work as Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler and The Color of Money, plus Hud, Absence of Malice, The Road to Perdition, and many more. The truth is, you can't go wrong with any of them.

Unless, of course, you decide to rent The Silver Chalice. True to his humility, Newman once famously denounced his work in the 1954 film by taking out a full page ad in Variety apologizing for his performance.

Paul Newman will be missed. For a great many reasons, perhaps the least of which is his remarkable body of work as an actor.


Reader Comments (9)

Paul Newman, a great actor, a great humanitarian, a real person with weaknesses and strengths which we all have to make us better then we are. It's not reality but the suspension of disbelief that lets us make heros out of people who can move us with their talent and their kindness. We call him Paul thinking we know him as a friend. There are a few, like Paul, we knew so well. The loss is immeasurable.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBob

Yeah, five is too short. Slapshot and The Sting need room to be on.

Newman is one of the very few stars who's absence I will notice as we go on.

I will miss you Mr. Newman.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKUPD's Smartest Listener

the hustler for me is the apex.a truly realized tragedy and one that radiates every time.a personal favorite of mine is hombre.

Monday, October 6, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterscott wannberg

A good list. Since his passing, I've been re-watching (or, in some cases, watching for the first time) Mr. Newman's films and have been reminded of his stellar performances. I agree that The Hustler would top my personal top five. I re-watched The Verdict just now and was completely blown away. I loved his performance in Slap Shot, as well...a movie that is easy to unfairly dismiss. I guess my top five would be The Hustler, The Verdict, Cool Hand Luke, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Hud. But I've still got to re-watch Absence of Malice and Nobody's Fool, so things could change...thanks for a good read.

Saturday, November 22, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKen

I think Newman's performance in Somebody Up There Likes Me is among his very best. He's pure lightning in that film, almost as if he's on speed throughout. Even his accent, which is hard to get used to at first, ultimately proves itself to be one of the great vocal performances in film history.

You can read my thoughts on many of his films on my film review blog

Brian's Film Review Blog

Sunday, November 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Dunn

Paul Newman was my all time favorite actor. The 1st movie I saw him in was The left Handed Gun
Also my favorite movie. I have watched it at least a hunderd times. He gave so many great.
movies to enjoy. John Wayne was asked what he thought of Paul Newman. He said he could
have had more to offer if he wouldn,t always play such an anti-hero. I feel Paul always play
his characters realistic. Wouldn,t that have been a movie to see Paul & John Wayne or with
Robert Mitchum. I would have wished i could have spoken to him to tell how much I appreciated
his work. I will miss him.

Saturday, July 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJames A

Actually, Paul's character in Nobody's Fool never flirted with his son's daughter. (Which would be really creepy, btw, flirting with your granddaughter. Ew.) He did, however, flirt with young women. Namely, a woman who was his sort-of bosses wife.

Monday, July 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

No mention of "The Sting"?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterbill

Paul Newman is one of the best one actor in the history, so I think that he need Generic Viagra because he has been in many movies where he needed a lot of force, so his best movie is Road to Perdition! 22dd

Wednesday, February 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterpepe cadena

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