We’ve Lost Him: Paul Newman, 1925-2008

It’s hard to speak of Paul Newman’s entire life. There were too many parts to it. He drove race cars and sponsored Newman-Haas, one of the most successful Indy-league teams in sports history. He began Newman’s Own out of a few jars of salad dressing whipped up as Christmas gifts and turned it into a multi-million-dollar corporation that has provided satisfying work and healthy working conditions for thousands of employees, and turned $250M over to charities. He started out as an actor but rapidly grew into a director of some ability, a producer, and even a writer.

But it was as an actor that I knew him first, and it’s as an actor that he’ll be remembered by most us.

If Marlon was the Giant, the pioneer, the trendsetter, the larger-than-life prototype for all who followed, Paul was the one he opened the door for. If Brando was an earth-shattering explosion, Paul was the guy who came later and used the hole as the foundation for a hospital.

Newman always claimed he was a character actor in a leading man’s body, and over the years, especially his later career, he proved it. He was as dedicated to his craft as any artisan, and it was Newman who proved to the doubters of The Method, the ones who said Brando and Dean were exceptions, that Stanlislovski’s technique could bring depth and desire to even the 2-dimensional illusion of film. Brando may have finally given acting the cachet of art, but it was Newman who gave it the stability and honor of craft.

The first time I saw him was as Billy the Kid in Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun. (It should have been the world television premiere of Somebody Up There Likes Me on Saturday Night at the Movies but my father wouldn’t let me stay up that late for some trash about a low-life boxer.) I didn’t know who he was, in fact I don’t think I knew anybody in the movie, and, being 12 or so, I got hung up and the left-handed thing. Was Billy the Kid really a leftie? (No, he wasn’t. That was Penn making a point; at 12, I didn’t “get” point-making. I was very literal.) For some reason I don’t remember, I found that terribly fascinating.

My first real encounter with Newman wasn’t Butch Cassidy or Henry Gondorff, and it wasn’t in a movie theater. Once again, it was television, and it was Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I wasn’t even watching it for him. I was watching it for Elizabeth Taylor in a slip. (I was 14. Gimme a break.)

But it was Newman’s brooding bad boy that kept catching my eye. (There was only one slip-scene, so I had lots of time to look around at other things.) Taylor was incandescent. As an actor, it was one of her finest performances. And here was a guy – good-looking and all that but even so – who could shove her off the screen without moving, without saying anything.

Once a film buff friend of mine praised Pacino’s performance in a certain part of The Godfather by saying, “He doesn’t look like he’s doing anything but his eyes are dead. Just dead.” Newman’s eyes weren’t “dead” in Cat but they had a stillness, a quiet in that deadly way you feel just before a storm breaks over your head. There was a feeling of tension, of a magnificent eruption just around the corner if people didn’t stop pushing him.

I could relate.

When I got my first part, the lead in my high school production of William Inge’s Picnic, it wasn’t Bill Holden I copied but Paul Newman in Cat. It wasn’t the smartest choice given the differences in the roles, but I was too inexperienced and, frankly, dumb to know that. What I cared about was trying to achieve that dangerous stillness. I thought it was, you know, cool.

But eventually it dawned on me (although it took several years) that you couldn’t find that kind of place by acting. It looked phony, stagey, like a silent melodrama villain. To find it and make it look real, it had to be real. Thus was I introduced to The Method.

That was the kind of response Newman evoked in actors. There was indeed something otherworldly about Brando and Dean, something beyond craft, something you had to be born with. It wasn’t that Newman didn’t have an innate spark, he did, but he made much more out of it. He inspired actors where Brando and Dean intimidated them. You couldn’t, you felt, ape originals like Brando and Dean, but you could find the originality in yourself and work it, shape it, mold it, develop it, maybe even perfect it. You could be as good as the work you were willing to put in, you could be a damn good actor if not a great one and if you couldn’t quite inject a divine spark into the characters you played, you could at least do them justice.

In most of Newman’s roles, that’s what he did: justice to his characters. In Absence of Malice, with Sally Field, there is a moment when Field’s reporter, who has become, um, personally involved with Newman’s liquor distributor, suspects him of using her to spin the story in his favor. She’s trying to pretend she doesn’t, and he’s sensing that she does. It’s a beautiful scene, played to perfection by two masters. The truth is in the air between them but neither one can cop to it for different reasons.

As Newman’s character, Michael Gallagher, becomes aware of Fields’ suspicion, there shows beneath the skin of his inceasingly polite but distant response, anger, frustration, surprise, and, finally, a sad recognition and acceptance of the inevitable wall between them. Field doesn’t – can’t – know that she is being unfair to him. Newman maintains Gallagher’s honor by wringing him through all the stages of a wronged man’s reaction to injustice and bringing him out the other side, unscathed.

On the other hand, Newman could be just as effective being honest about the sliminess of a cad, as he did in Hud. Hud Bannon’s immoral selfishness and callous disregard for anyone but himself is an almost iconic picture of an American ideal: the tough, realistic businessman who lets nothing get in the way of his success. When Bannon is explaining the uses and abuses of manipulation as a fundamental balancing of the scales of justice, his righteousness may have a leer in it but it is nevertheless passionate and genuine. Like all ruthless men, Hud isn’t pretending that he’s been slighted to justify his riding roughshod over everyone in his path, he truly and totally believes, in that moment at least, that he is the victim, righting ancient wrongs.

So convincing is Newman’s portrait that Bannon becomes damn near sympathetic, not because we believe he’s been put upon but because Newman makes us feel the deep-seated pain that causes or even creates people like Hud Bannon. We can identify. We’ve been there. In the hands of a Ralph Meeker, Hud would been pure evil, unsubtle, almost inhuman. In the hands of a Cary Grant, he would have been a charming rascal, irrisistable if cold.

Newman made him human, a man whose morality had been defined by its loss, whose bitterness came from some experience deep in his past that we could guess if not know.

If I’ve been too personal in this essay it’s because that was one of Paul’s greatest gifts, a gift I suspect he didn’t even know he had: he got under our skin, first as an actor and then as a man who actually did what many of us wish we could do. He was almost casually inspirational. It was a by-product of who and what he was, not something he worked at. When Pauline Kael reviewed Hud, she hated almost everything about it.

Except Newman. Her response was personal, as responses to Newman always were.

There are some men, Kael wrote, who “project such a traditional heroic frankness and sweetness that the audience dotes on them, seeks to protect them from harm or pain.” Mr. Newman did that for Kael, enough so that she was inspired to write about her own past and the California town that she “and so many of my friends came out of” — and, here, I think she means girlfriends — “escaping from the swaggering small-town hotshots like Hud.”

What’s striking is that what got Kael going wasn’t the actor or his performance but the man, who, because he seemed to offer up an intangible part of himself, something genuine and real, something we could take home, became a true movie star.

We may have copied Marlon’s style but we aspired to Paul’s bravery and work ethic in developing his craft. We might have been in awe of Marlon but we loved Paul, and honored him.

We still do.

My Newman faves
Let’s take Butch Cassidy and The Sting as givens at the top of almost everybody’s list and go from there. Mostly this is in order of preference.
  1. The Hustler
  2. The Verdict
  3. Cat on a Hot tin Roof
  4. Nobody’s Fool
  5. Rachel Rachel (as Director)
  6. The Glass Menagerie (as Director) – brilliant direction, a whole new angle beautifully realized
  7. Hud
  8. Cool Hand Luke
  9. Absence of Malice
  10. The Left-Handed Gun
  11. Harper & The Drowning Pool (w/Joanne)
  12. Paris Blues
  13. Twilight
Of course there are more. Almost everything he did would be on the list for one reason or another, but these are the ones I found myself going back to again and again.
But before I give up on this, I just want to mention a couple of Paul’s movies that were under-rated and urge you to get a DVD or whatever and watch them.
  1. Fort Apache, The Bronx
  2. The Mackintosh Man (an overlooked Huston)
  3. Mr and Mrs Bridge
  4. Torn Curtain (an overlooked Hitchcock)
  5. Blaze
  6. Fat Man & Little Boy
  7. The Life & Times of Judge Roy Bean
  8. Buffalo Bill and the Indians
  9. Sometimes a Great Notion (also Dir, from a novel by Ken Kesey)
  10. WUSA (also Dir, w/Joanne, a powerful if at times incoherent political satire)

6 responses to “We’ve Lost Him: Paul Newman, 1925-2008

  1. I’m so glad you mentioned Malice b/c I think that that film was underrated. I thought it was good and that Fields and Newman were especially so. I haven’t missed a performer this much since Phil Hartman died. Of course, his was a much more tragic death.

  2. Pingback: Necessary links « The Mississippifarian

  3. Very nice, Mick, and no apologies needed for the personal approach. How else do we talk about an artist like him and what his work meant to us?

    One niggling point (sorry): the title “The Left-Handed Gun” isn’t from Arthur Penn, but the author of the original screenplay: Newman’s close friend, Gore Vidal.

  4. Niggling response (no apology required): I could be wrong but as I recall it Vidal’s title came from a famous contemporary photograph that showed Billy with the gun on his left. Vidal thought it was interesting that no one had picked that up.

    Penn, however, when he was preparing the film, mentioned it to a Western historian who told him that the photo plate had most likely been reversed in printing and that there was no contemporary evidence that Bonney was a leftie. Penn decided to keep both the title and the left-handedness to emphasize that, like lefties everywhere, Billy was an outsider.

    Of course, film history being what it is, it could just as easily have happened t’other way ’round and the symbolism of the left-handed gun might have been cooked up after the fact. That’s just the way I happened to get it.

  5. I have always admired Paul Newman for putting his money to work in such productive ways… his Newman’s Own line is high quality stuff and the proceeds go to good causes too, it’s a win-win

  6. Paul Newman is a legend for his work in movies, and he’s a stud for all his work outside of movies

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