PAUL NEWMAN (1925-2008)
It’s easy to talk about the films and I do that below, but it should also be mentioned that Newman used his star power to help people in a way that few celebrities do. I saw him interviewed on 60 Minutes a few years ago. They were at his HOLE IN THE WALL GANG camp for children with cancer. He proved to be a guy who really made a positive difference in this world. Many of his other causes weren’t mine, but when it counted his money went to something that really mattered. I hope to enjoy his salad dressing and spaghetti sauce for years to come.
SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME (1956) – Newman’s breakout role as boxer Rocky Graziano was originally supposed to star James Dean, I once read. He was already 30 years when he made this, but he looks so young in comparison to the roles you remember that he seems much younger. Newman became quite a good actor over the years, but that Actor’s Studio style is evident and annoying here.
THE LEFTHANDED GUN (1958) – Newman is Billy the Kid. The film has a decent enough reputation helped by the direction of Arthur Penn, but it was not particularly memorable for me. I saw it the same week I saw Arthur Penn’s PENN AND TELLER GET KILLED, showing that the auteur theory is still somewhat debatable.
LONG HOT SUMMER (1958) The first film he made with Joanne Woodward also stars Orson Welles. While neither Welles nor Newman seem believable as a southerners to me, Woodward is believable in most anything. Newman is the hardheaded young man in conflict with Welles during most of the story although Welles comes to respect him more than his own weakling son. But can Welles match Newman with his daughter, Woodward? You guess.
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958) – Newman teams with Elizabeth Taylor in the Tennessee Williams play. Like most of Williams stuff “the love that dare not speak its name” is hovering around the periphery. The play begins with Newman’s unseen friend having killed himself and Newman feeling guilty because the friend had a crush on him. The central conflict of the play is that Newman has cut off the advances of wife, Elizabeth Taylor. But his dying father “Big Daddy” needs him to produce an heir so his tub-of-goo brother doesn’t inherit the plantation. Newman’s star power is evident and Taylor’s natural acting style is a pleasure to see. Burl Ives reprised his Broadway role as Big Daddy. I saw Ashley Judd, Jason Patric, and Ned Beatty do this on Broadway and critics weren’t kind. They weren’t as good as the movie cast, but it was still better than watching most of the Broadway musicals that I’ve seen. So much of good acting is good material and this was Newman’s best film up to this time, I think.
THE YOUNG PHILADELPHIANS (1959) Back when getting a Philadelphia lawyer was tantamount to getting the best, Newman is a young ambitious lawyer who will do anything to get ahead, stepping on those that love him along the way. The movie is melodramatic in that late 50s sort of way so it should be no surprise that Newman gets some redemption at the end. Brian Keith has a nice turn early in the film. I can’t think of a bad Brian Keith performance.
THE HUSTLER (1961) – The first out-and-out classic Newman movie and the first one I remember where he seemed relaxed enough to be the character instead of trying to play the character. Most everyone knows that Newman is pool hustler Fast Eddie Felson, a talented but egotistical young man who rises and falls. It’s great material helped along by Newman’s gritty determination. Had Newman died shortly after this film, I think we’d see HUSTLER posters in much the same way we see REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE now.
HUD (1963) – Newman gets to play the heel and a cowboy one at that. This is the most famous Newman film I have never seen, and the only one on this list haven't seen. I just didn’t think I could skip over it for all its importance.
COOL HAND LUKE (1967) – Another one of the all-time classics. My old hippie boss got me onto it and he loved to talk about the Christ symbolism. I found it interesting that he was a free spirit who wanted to be left alone and he inadvertently created a following that he wasn’t comfortable with. The fight with George Kennedy, and then the egg eating contest, and the rush to build the road all seem so fresh in my mind. I found it slow the first time I saw it. I was expecting another Butch Cassidy, I guess. But the second time I saw it much differently and I have admired and enjoyed it every time since.
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) – The first Newman movie I ever saw. It was on television when I was twelve years old and I watched it all by myself and then quoted it in English class when the teacher asked about hero characters on the wrong side of the law. It was the most powerful ending I had seen up to that time and still one of the all-time great resolutions. I particularly like the train robberies early in the film and how nice Butch is robbing people. I have since recommended it to other friends with mixed results. One friend said that he couldn’t stand the music montages especially with the pop tune. That song does seem dated, but I think the montages in South America still work although he had no use for those either. Historically it's probably the first buddy film to be successful enough to create that subgenre.
SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION (1971) – This is not considered a great movie, but there are a couple of reasons that it appealed to me. First, Henry Fonda as the father of Paul Newman has great possibilities. Second, it’s one of three movies where the main characters are named STAMPER. Can you name the other two? This film is based on the book by Ken “Cukoo’s Nest” Kesey about a family of loggers who are in the midst of a union fight. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I remember thinking it had a conservative bent which seems impossible with this cast and author. I guess I wasn’t supposed to like the Stampers and what they do. That would explain it. The other thing I remember is a real poignant scene where Newman’s brother Richard Jaeckel is trapped under a log. Looking it up on ALLMOVIE, I realized I had totally forgotten about the other plot involving Lee Remick (Not easy to forget) and Michael Sarrazin.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN (1972) My least favorite movie on the list. I saw it during the period I was watching all of the John Huston movies I could find. Newman is not sympathetic although the movie is funny at times. It just has too many weird characters for me. I suppose it could be someone’s cult favorite, but not mine.
THE STING (1973) – This is the Newman/Redford movie that won best picture although I prefer the other one. Still, this movie is a lot of fun and can be enjoyed multiple times. Robert Shaw always made a good heavy and there are plenty of other good supporting parts as well. Charles Durning and Harold Gould come to mind. The granddaddy of all confidence man films, I suppose.
THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974) – One of the weaker Best Picture winners with a great cast. Famous for the opening credit where McQueen’s name was first, but Newman’s was higher. The 70s loved disaster movies with high priced talent and this was just one of many.
THE DROWNING POOL (1975) – A sequel to the 1966 film HARPER where Newman plays PI Lew Harper once again based on the Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer series. The drowning pool is exactly how it sounds and a clever device to kill Newman in the movie. But maybe he escapes! Woodward shows up as does a young Melanie Griffith.
ABSENCE OF MALICE (1981) – Ironically, this movie is the counter-balance to the Redford film, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, where crusading reporters are admonished for printing stories based on hearsay information from anonymous sources. Both and Sally Field are quite good and the investigation into the truth works pretty well too.
THE VERDICT (1982) – If there was ever a time where you could say that Newman was not only a great movie star, but a great actor, the Verdict would be the example time I would pick. Everything about the performance says that it needs an actor and not a personality and the way Newman becomes this alcoholic lawyer is really impressive. It’s a shame that he didn’t take more character parts. He would have been a joy in those Robert Duvall type roles.
HARRY AND SON (1984) – Newman is Harry and Robbie Benson is the son and they have less than a harmonious relationship. It’s not a very good movie and it’s not all that memorable, except that Newman had lost his own son a few years earlier and that he chose to direct this picture says something about its meaning to him.
THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986) – Newman returns as Fast Eddie in this Hustler sequel directed by Scorsese and co-starring the up and coming Tom Cruise. There is a lot to like about the movie and I enjoyed it again last year sometime. The shame is that the Academy chose to finally reward Newman for his body of work and it should have been for something a little more interesting.
BLAZE (1989) Ron Shelton’s follow-up to Bull Durham is only nice for Newman’s performance as the corrupt Louisiana Governor and even that wears a bit thin at times.
FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY (1989) – A dull telling of the atomic bomb creation with Newman wasted in a role anyone could have portrayed.
NOBODY”S FOOL (1994) – Newman really deserved to win an Oscar for this forgotten movie about a lovable loser who reconnects with his family. It’s a little quirky at times like the Richard Russo novel it’s based on, but if you can forgive that this movie is a gem and the last classic he made. Bruce Willis is great in a small role as Newman’s boss/friend./rival and Melanie Griffith is Willis’ wife and an object of Newman’s fancy. Jessica Tandy plays Newman’s land lady in her last screen role. I first saw it at the theatre with brother John and have seen it again several times over the years and it never gets old.
HUDSUCKER PROXY (1994) – One of the Coen Brothr’s lesser efforts and still not without its moments. Newman plays the CEO of a big company and Tim Robbins the lowly office boy who makes good. Jennifer Jason Leigh channels Katherine Hepburn’s screwball comedy accent.
TWILIGHT (1998) Newman re-teams with Russo and director Robert Benson as a Private Detective shot by Reese Witherspoon. A few years later he is living in the garage apartment of Reese’s parents (Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon) and trying to solve as mystery. It’s a fine effort for all involved and worth the time if you see it on cable.
ROAD TO PERDITION (2002) Sam Mendes follow up to American Beauty starring Tom Hanks is a adaptation of a graphic novel filled with stars but also a kind of emptiness. Newman won a supporting Oscar nomination for his small but impactful role as a crime boss.