Paul Newman 1925-2008
One of Hollywood’s most popular and admired stars for 50 years, Paul Newman died Friday from cancer. He was 83.
Newman was the kind of actor who gave celebrity a good name. An activist who worked to support environmental causes and sick and disadvantaged kids, he launched his own brand of salad dressing in 1982, promising to donate all the profits to charities; more than $200 million to date.
The images come flooding back. There are the obvious ones, like riding a cycle in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Stomaching 50 eggs in Cool Hand Luke. Or passing on a lesson in the art of the hustle to Tom Cruise in Color of Money. Then there are the many overlooked treasures in such a long and rich career: his gentle flirtation with Melanie Griffith in Nobody’s Fool. Screwing with his boots on for extra traction in Blaze. Taking the offensive and swearing up a storm in Slap Shot.
With his famous blue eyes and mischievous smile, Newman radiated charm and intelligence. He captivated audiences across several generations. His oldest fans will remember him as one of the misfit heroes who seemed to dominate Hollywood in the wake of James Dean and Marlon Brando.
He made his first film in 1954, looking silly in a short tunic in The Silver Chalice, but had more success in New York on live TV shows. He inherited the role of boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) from Dean, and he had truly arrived. Two years later he consolidated that hit with The Long, Hot Summer; The Left Handed Gun and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, for which he earned the first of ten Academy Award nominations – he won only once, a sentimental victor for The Color Of Money in 1987. In fact he deserved the prize the first time he played pool shark Fast Eddie Felson, in The Hustler, in 1961.
Fast Eddie had the hunger and arrogance of youth, and he paid the price for it. Newman wasn’t afraid to play a bastard, or show the ugly underbelly that can go with charm and good looks. His rebel roles (Hud; Cool Hand Luke) were charismatic but unreliable, you could never be sure where he was going to come down on the hero/anti-hero divide.
His 60s films are variable – the studios were losing their grip on the audience and persisted in treating Newman as a kind of bland Tyrone Power type. Harper (1966) and Hombre (1967) are two of the best (Newman joked that “H” names were his lucky charm), but he was obviously ill at ease in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s worst films, Torn Curtain (1966) and many forgettable efforts.
Then at 44 he scored his biggest hit to date, costarring with Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and found a whole new lease of life. It was the first time he proved how funny he could be – opening up new avenues like The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean, The Sting, Slap Shot, Blaze, The Hudsucker Proxy and (another gem) Nobody’s Fool.
Newman aged well, kept looking for good material, and proved a sensitive, thoughtful director with Rachel, Rachel (1968), Sometimes a Great Notion (1971) and, more recently The Glass Menagerie (1987). Not coincidence that his favourite actress was Joanne Woodward, his wife since 1958. (His second, incidently.)
When his pal Robert Redford passed on The Verdict in 1982 Newman grabbed the part of the alcoholic lawyer Frank Galvin with both hands and posted another indelible performance. Though he became choosier in later years he still worked regularly on stage, and continued to race sportsCars right up to and including his 70th birthday. His gangster boss in Road to Perdition (2002) proved he had lost none of his power to hold the camera and dominate a scene. Before he died he left his mark on yet another generation, supplying the voice of wisdom as Doc Hudson in Pixar’s Cars (2006).
“Butch Cassidy” screenwriter William Goldman – not one to pull his punches where movie stars are concerned – had this to say in his book “Adventures in the Screen Trade” (you will have to forgive the present tense):
“Newman is the least starlike superstar I’ve ever worked with. He’s an educated man and a trained actor and he never wants more close ups. What he wants is the best possible script and character he can have. And he loves to be surrounded by the finest actors available, because he believes the better they are the better the picture’s apt to be, the better he’ll come out. Many stars, even most, don’t want that competition… Newman is, in all ways, the best American star I’ve ever worked with.”Tom Charity
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