Monday, September 29, 2008 at 7:11PM
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.