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Vol. LXII, No. 41
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
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DVD Review

It’s All About Character: Paul Newman in His Time

Stuart Mitchner

There we were, two high school boys from Indiana standing in front of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York while Paul Newman and Karl Malden signed our playbills. We’d just seen The Desperate Hours and were still feeling the charge of Newman’s performance as the leader of the gang terrorizing an Indianapolis family. Newman was an unknown at the time. There were no fans thronging the stage door. If he had been known, Newman and not Humphrey Bogart would have played the part in the film version. The aging Bogart’s portrayal of Glen Griffin is no match for Newman’s freewheeling, fast-talking young hood. Clearly this was a defining role, a full-tilt workout that put all his moves and instincts in play and helped get him into shape to take on Rocky Graziano, the part meant for James Dean, in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), one of 11 movies scheduled for next Sunday’s 24-hour Turner Classic Movies marathon honoring Paul Newman (1925-2008), who died September 26.

As big a star as he was, Newman never became a phenomenon the equal of his fellow students at the Actors Studio, Marlon Brando and James Dean. Even if fate had given him parts like Brando’s in The Wild One and On the Waterfront, or Dean’s in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, it’s unlikely that he’d have created the same excitement. He’d have held something back; he wouldn’t have pushed as hard, dared as much, or gloried as excessively in sheer performance. Watch Dean with the sound down in Rebel or Eden and his gestures and grimaces appear so over-the-top, you don’t need to hear him to get the essence of the scene; he has the ambience of a great silent star, a Valentino. As for Brando, Newman’s thoughts in a 1983 Playboy interview reflect his own priorities. After mentioning Brando’s daring “as an actor,” Newman admires the fact that Brando’s “rebellion came out of a true eccentricity” and “not as a rebellion for the sake of rebellion nor for the sake of image.” Then this: “I am sorry that he wasn’t as disciplined as he was eccentric in his personal life.”

The emphasis Newman gives those two words — disciplined and eccentric — says it all, and so does the credit he gives Brando for being the cinematic wonder that he was. This is the sort of reasoned observation you would expect from the man now being eulogized both as a beloved movie star and a philanthropist who created a camp for sick children and a food product line that produced 250 million dollars for charity.

On His Way

You can watch Newman with James Dean on the YouTube video of their shared screen test for East of Eden. In bow-tie and shirt-sleeves, Newman could be testing for the good brother, Aaron, not wild Cal, the part that Dean made the historic most of in his unparalleled debut. As the off-screen voice (probably that of director Elia Kazan) puts them through their paces, telling them where to look and how to stand, they giggle and clown. Newman comes off looking a bit goofy while Dean is already stealing the show by doing a pirouette when the voice asks them to change places. And it’s Dean who cracks them both up when they’re told to “look at each other,” and he blurts, “kiss me.” Newman’s quick, facetiously discreet reply, “Can’t here,” has them both laughing again, but that jesting comeback nonetheless resembles a straight man’s sensible parrying of Dean’s wild shot. In spite of the fact that Newman is clearly taller, Dean takes up more than his share of space. He’s already his moody, mercurial movie self while Newman is barely on his way to becoming the actor “who never thought of himself as ‘big,’” according to the official obituary released by his family.

The Art of Insolence

In the past few days I’ve seen Newman in The Hustler (1961), Harper (1966), Cool Hand Luke (1967), The Color of Money (1986), and Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990). The first role is among the ones that might have been given to James Dean but for the September 30, 1955 car crash that killed him.

Call it insolent or impudent, or even arrogant, the trademark Newman grin he perfected as Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler still somehow manages to charm and disarm. Watch young Tom Cruise flashing the same ain’t-I-great smile 25 years later as Vincent, the cocky pool shark learning the tricks of the trade from Eddie in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (Newman in his only Oscar-winning performance), and you feel like wiping the grin off his face. If you see The Hustler with the DVD commentary (which includes voice-over observations by Newman himself), you get the abovementioned silent-movie effect, and while Newman’s moves and expressions are less extreme than Dean’s, they’re almost as eloquent. The black and white cinematography by Eugene Shuftan and Richard Rossen’s direction, along with the performances, especially Piper Laurie’s (she who resurfaced unforgettably three decades later in Twin Peaks) and George C. Scott’s pool room Mephistopheles, make The Hustler one of the best films of the sixties. Though it’s a lesser work, The Color of Money is still one of the best things Scorsese has ever done, with pungent dialogue from Richard Price and an all-star soundtrack. Regardless of that abominable grin, Cruise is good, and so is Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as his girl friend, while Newman carries the movie as an aging pool room hustler coming back to life, at first through managing Cruise, then as a player himself. You know how good he’s going to be the moment his eyes (his whole face) register the shock of recognition on first hearing, simply hearing, the sound of the shots being made by Cruise; it’s as if a virtuoso violinist who has retired to pass his time repairing and collecting that instrument suddenly hears someone playing a Stradivarius. The qualities Newman brings to the role are not unlike the ones he mentions in reference to Brando; he’s at once disciplined and driven, as eccentric as he needs to be, ever true to his belief that character trumps performance. As the commentary to The Hustler makes clear, “character” is what that film is all about, and “character” is what Newman’s Eddie, the sage of the pool hall, is trying to teach Vincent in The Color of Money.

While the indefatigable hero of Cool Hand Luke has some of Newman’s characteristic insolence, the same quality is less convincing in his portrait of the smirking private eye in Harper, a chaotic performance he based on first-hand observation of Bobby Kennedy, or so he claimed in another, earlier Playboy interview. Gestures and facial expressions borrowed from Steve McQueen and George C. Scott are also somewhere in the mix.

The un-Paul Newman

Mr. and Mrs. Bridge is a handsomely decorated period tour de force for Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward. Newman’s bottled-up Kansas City lawyer, Walter Bridge, stands as one of his most fascinating performances. It’s not just that he’s so intensely playing against his movie-star self, he’s playing against Newman the real-life liberal activist race-car driver (right into his eighties). Writer/director Robert Benton finds Bridge “the most un-Paul Newman character” and then goes on to quote Newman saying the opposite, that Bridge is “the most like him of anybody.” Perhaps the characteristic Newman is thinking of is the “discipline” he found lacking in Brando’s “personal life.” If the rigid, conservative, midwestern-to-the-core lawyer is the embodiment of anything, it’s discipline.


I sometimes wonder if any diehard right winger who also happens to be a serious, lifelong fan has ever been converted to Newman’s point of view or at least made to doubt the conservative cause because of his outspoken liberalism. Newman was a passionate supporter of Eugene McCarthy’s upstart campaign back in that turning-point political year, 1968. He attended the Democratic Convention as a delegate for McCarthy, and a year later he and Joanne Woodward were involved in an antiwar demonstration in London. Speaking of people in the film industry who had warned, “Why take a chance? Don’t make enemies,” he told a New York Times interviewer, “What they’re basically asking me to do is be a person without character. A person without character has no enemies. So I prefer to make enemies.”

It was at campaign events for McCarthy that he made the statement echoed (minus the negatives) in various obituaries: “I don’t want it written on my gravestone, ‘He was not part of his times.’ The times are too critical.”

(Most of the information in this column was gathered online and from Eric Lax’s biography, Newman.)

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