Phil on Film Index

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman: 1925 - 2008

Paul Newman once joked that his epitaph should read "Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown". It was an example of the actor's typical brand of self-deprecating humour, but there's little doubt Newman's piercing blue eyes, along with his strong, handsome features, made him one of the most iconic movies stars of all time. Newman – who lost his battle with Cancer today – received his big break after the death of another 50's idol, James Dean, who was set to star as Rocky Graziano in
Somebody Up There Likes Me. The role went to Newman instead, and his compelling turn was just the first of many marvellous performances that he would produce in a glorious career. But as Newman became a cinematic giant, he remained a humble person at heart, happy in his 50-year marriage to frequent co-star Joanne Woodward, and fervently committed to helping others through his charity work. With the death of Paul Newman, we mourn the loss of a great actor, but more importantly, we mourn the loss of a great man.

The roles Newman made his own are legendary. The actor studied his craft under Lee Strasberg (who famously suggested his good looks prevented him from being as great as Brando), and in 1958 he made both
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which earned him his first Oscar Nomination, and The Long Hot Summer, in which he co-starred with Joanne Woodward for the first time. It was 60's, however, which provided us with Newman's first batch of truly great performances. He was cool and cocky as Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler, an amoral anti-hero in Hud, and in the great Cool Hand Luke he gives a towering performance as a rebellious prisoner. Along with 1968's Rachel, Rachel, Newman amassed four Academy Award nominations in this decade, and it united him with one of his best ever co-stars, Robert Redford. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a hugely enjoyable western that was propelled by the dazzling chemistry between the two stars, which made this wry, snappy partnership one of the most enduring in cinema. The pair reunited in 1973 for another smash-hit – the Oscar-winning con-man caper The Sting – and for years there was talk of a third screen collaboration, with Redford reportedly keen to work with his old friend on an adaptation of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. Sadly, it never happened.

The drunken lawyer Newman portrayed in Sidney Lumet's
The Verdict earned the actor his seventh nomination, but once again he went home empty-handed. It is not unusual, of course, for the Academy to overlook great acting for years in favour of handing out an overdue award, and that's what happened to Newman, with his return to the pool halls in 1986's The Colour of Money winning him the Best Actor award. Newman seemed to have lost interest in the whole process, though, and he didn't turn up for the ceremony, instead asking his friend Robert Wise to collect the Oscar on his behalf. When he was tracked down and asked to comment later, Newman said "It's like chasing a beautiful woman for 80 years. Finally, she relents and you say, 'I am terribly sorry. I'm tired'".

At this stage in Newman's career, he had plenty of other things to occupy his interest. He was always fascinated with motor sports, and he spent much of his spare time both driving and owning a racing team, but his most lasting legacy away from cinema is his extraordinary charity work. In 1982, Newman established the "Newman's Own" range of salad dressing and sauces, from which all profits would be donated to good causes. "The embarrassing thing" Newman once quipped, "is that the salad dressing is outgrossing my films", but there is nothing embarrassing about a product that has raised something like $200 million for those in need. His philanthropy didn't end there; he founded The Hole in the Wall Gang, an organisation for seriously ill children, and in 2004 he briefly appeared with Zippo's Circus at Highbury Fields to raise money for children's charities. Not many of the biggest movie stars in the world would come to London to dress up as a clown in a small circus, but Newman appeared to love every minute of it.

I wish Newman had made more films in his later years. After 1990's
Mr & Mrs Bridge (the 10th and last film he made with his wife), he only appeared onscreen six more times in 12 years. He gave some wonderful performances in that period, though. He's on great form in 1995's Nobody's Fool, hilarious as the cigar-munching Sidney J Mussburger in the Coens' The Hudsucker Proxy, and in the little-seen thriller Where the Money Is, he formed a terrific screen partnership with Linda Fiorentino. Like Orson Welles, Newman's final role came in an animation – he voiced Doc Hudson in Pixar's Cars – but the last time we actually saw him in a feature film was in 2002, when he gave a masterful performance in The Road to Perdition. I found Sam Mendes' film to be cold, bloated and criminally dull, but I was riveted every time Newman appeared, bringing a sense of class and truth to the picture, and with a fire still burning behind those famous eyes.