Back on the Chain Gang: Newman in Cool Hand Luke.
Let's take a moment to reflect on Paul Newman. He was a great actor. He hadn't always been a a great actor, he made it through a great deal of his career as a good actor who looked, well, see for yourself. In the late 1970s he began to do something that's nearly impossible for Hollywood leading man to do. He started to age gracefully. He took difficult parts in movies about men growing old and feeling used up. For those of us too young to remember Newman of the late 50s and 60s, he was always just that old drunk from the Verdict or that old pool shark in The Color of Money.
I remember when he beat Harrison Ford (among others) for the Oscar in 1987. He was winning for Color of Money, probably not his best performance, but it was a catch-up Oscar. "Oops we haven't given Brick Pollitt, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy, or Reg Dunlop an Oscar yet." I really wanted Harrison Ford, my favorite actor at the time, to win for Witness. I ran to my kitchen, grabbed a bottle of Newman's Own Italian dressing out of the door and shook it till I felt better. I guess hadn't really learned to appreciate the awesomeness of Paul Newman yet.
The next year I watched Cool Hand Luke (1967) and it changed my mind about the actor . If ever there was a movie tailor made to cater to the interests of a dorky 17 year old girl, it was Cool Hand Luke. It has authority or "authorit-tie" being disrespected, unrelenting, soul-crushing random punishment that might as well be high school and one really cute boy who just can't keep his shirt on. I think my favorite thing about Luke is that he eats 50 eggs on a bet. I can relate to that self-destructive kind of need for attention. I do, afterall, keep a blog. He just wants credit for his egg eating ability, so he continues, despite Dragline's (George Kennedy) warnings of doom.
Cool Hand Luke had as much appeal for the wannabe rebel of the late eighties as it did for the disaffected youth in the late Sixties. Toward the end of the movie Newman has a somewhat contrived, though beautifully acted scene in which he questions God, "You made me what I am. How am I supposed to fit in?" No matter how many times they put Luke in the box, he just kept coming back at them, with his banjo, his escape attempts and his real purpose, which is seemingly to unmask authority. In the final case, the mask is a literal one, the cold souless, reflective aviator sunglasses that the bosses henchmen wear while beating the prisoners into submission. The filmmakers made some attempt to turn Luke into a Christ figure, even filming Newman from above sprawled out in a crucifixion pose.
Paul Newman had other great roles, of course. I'm even kinda partial to his final role as Doc Hudson in Cars. And I bet I could eat 50 of those Newman's Own Fig Newmans.
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