Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Eye Candy of the Day: The Late Great Paul Newman

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.


kda0121 said...

Paul Newman was indeed a fine actor; one of my favorites from that post-war generation. Unlike many of his peers of the time, he outlasted them and became the "wise old man" of his time. He gave so many fine performances in so many movies that it would take up too much space, but allow me to gloss over his storied career and talk about some of his lesser known film performaces..

Somebody Up There Likes Me - Newman portrayed real life middleweight boxer Rocky Graziano. This role purportedly was passed to him after James Dean's untimely death. This movie really jump started his future in the business. This was a big hit, but hugely forgotton now. Newman showed some real jutzpah for taking on the mannerisms and accent of a New York slum kid.

The Outrage - This little known gem is a remake of the Kurosawa classic Rashomon, transporting the action from Samurai Japan to 19th century Mexico. Not a favorite of most fans or critics, it showed Newman taking a real chance in playing a Mexican bandit.

The Secret War of Harry Frigg - Another critical and commercial flop. This time Newman plays a dim-witted soldier in a WWII service comedy. He may have been miscast, but I thought it was awfully brave of him to take the chance on this one. I actually like this one.

Torn Curtain - A much maligned Hitchcock pic and Newman received a good deal of the maligning for his role as a nuclear physicist. Truth is, the script was more at fault than Paul. I thought Newman was good and even bad Hitchcock is interesting.

Where the Money Is - A latter day performace, with Newman as a cagey old con man and the woman who goes in with him. A very, funny movie and good performance.

Jennythenipper said...

can't say I agree with you on Torn Curtain. I actually got to see it in a theater at a local revival house. Apart from the opportunity to see young Paul 15 feet tall, I would not say it was particularly memorable. I also remember laughing to myself continuously as I work in a building full of nuclear physicists and none of them are anything like Paul Newman. But you are right. Even bad Hitchcock is worth watching.

I will keep an eye out for the other movies you mention. TCM is doing an all-day tribute on October 12th. They are showing The Outrage, Somebody Up There likes Me and Torn Curtain, among others.

kda0121 said...

Jen, you may be right in that how many nuclear physicists look like Paul Newman? But, it could hardly be a Hitchcock movie without a handsome hero. Most of Hitchcock's best work had a handsome protagonist and Newman certainly fit that bill in the mid-60's. Cary Grant, James Stewart, Joel McCrea , and Ray Milland were all past their prime. I think Gregory Peck would've made a good choice in Newman's role, as he played a similar type profession in the movie Mirage. I've also read that Newman's method acting approach didn't sit well with Hitchcock and although they remained cordial during filming, I think things were a tad strained.