Paul Newman: Cinema's everyman
The secrets of Paul Newman's 52-year career were an extraordinary gift for reinvention – and an ability tomake even bad guys loveable, writes Geoffrey Macnab
Published 29/09/2008 | 09:44
In his autobiography, Palimpsest, Gore Vidal made a revealing observation about his close friend, Paul Newman. In the late 1950s, Vidal commented, Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward took a self-conscious decision to pass themselves off as "a folksy lower-middle-class-all-American-couple."
In fact, Newman came from a privileged background. His wealthy Ohio family had sent him to Kenyon College and Yale.
As Vidal hints, Newman was the most protean of actors, with an uncanny ability to reinvent himself. Scan his filmography and what leaps out is the extraordinary diversity of roles he played. This applied throughout his career. He could go from portraying Ari Ben Canaan, a commander of the Israeli underground who leads 600 Jews on a journey to Palestine in Otto Preminger's Exodus (1960) to playing Fast Eddie, the pool hall shark in Robert Rossen's The Hustler (1961) a few months later. Newman was equally adapt as an easygoing figure, like Butch Cassidy, and as wired, introspective rebels in films like Hud and Sweet Bird Of Youth.
In the latter years of his career, he could play shambling, alcoholic lawyers - as he did quite brilliant in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict (1982) - and ruthless mobster bosses, as in Sam Mendes' Road To Perdition (2002). He was one of the few major screen actors equally plausible as establishment figures and as outsiders.
The uncharitable view about Newman's early career is that he was a "second-string Brando" and that he scooped up all the roles that James Dean would have played with far more intensity had he lived. It's true that some of his best early roles were in parts that seemed earmarked for Dean: as Rocky Graziano in Robert Wise's Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) and as the delinquent Billy The Kid in Arthur Penn's The Left-Handed Gun (1958), based on Vidal's play. Newman portrayed Billy as a self-destructive and sexually ambivalent figure as far removed from Gary Cooper or John Wayne as it's possible to imagine. His death scene in that movie was extraordinary: an adolescent's ritualised suicide more than a conventional shoot-out.
Newman's movie career had begun in less than propitious fashion with his role as Basil, "the slave who battled to save the sacred cup", in British director Victor Saville's CinemaScope biblical epic, The Silver Chalice (1954). He freely admitted he wasn't very good in it. A toga wasn't the most fitting outfit for an actor who aspired to compete with Dean, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift.
In more contemporary films, Newman quickly began to thrive. He won his first Oscar nomination for his brilliant portrayal of Brick, the ex-sports star married to Elizabeth Taylor's long-taloned Maggie The Cat in Richard Brooks' film of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958). In the very first scene of the film, we see him drunkenly trying to recapture former glories on the high school sports field, tossing an empty whisky bottle as if he's a quarterback throwing a football and then breaking his ankle when he runs a hurdle race. Newman was pitted against Taylor at the height of her fame as his money-grabbing wife and against scene-stealer Burl Ives as the patriarch, Big Daddy, but his was still the most distinctive performance.
Brick combines callousness and sensitivity. "You know what I feel like. I feel all the time like a cat on a hot tin roof," Taylor simpers. "Jump off the roof, jump off the roof," Newman tells her with supreme indifference, advising her to take a lover if he is not satisfying her sexually. Given Newman's reputation as likeable, all-American hero, it is striking how often he played neurotic low-lifes who treated the women who adored him with cruelty. (In The Hustler, Fast Eddie was ready to "trade" Piper Laurie's character in a game of pool.) In such roles, he conveyed not just his characters' disdain for others but their self-loathing too.
Newman was even better in another Tennessee Williams' adaptation, Brooks' 1962 film of Sweet Bird Of Youth (1962), as Chance Wayne, the drifter and gigolo. (He had played the role in the original Broadway production.) The movie version fell prey to censorship - references to venereal disease and to the castration of Chance at the end of the play were excised and a happy ending was grafted on. Even so, Newman brought an extraordinary sensitivity and subtlety to his role as the failed gigolo coming home to a town where he is despised and distrusted.
The early Sixties were arguably Newman's most fertile period, at least for fans looking to someone to pick up Dean and Brando's mantle. Sweet Bird Of Youth, The Hustler and Hud – all films in which Newman refined his persona as the anti-hero with the epicene good looks - followed one another in the space of a few years. Newman's characters behaved badly but audiences invariably identified with them anyway. His good looks and air of vulnerability made low-lifes seem sympathetic.
"It's not enough to have talent. You've got to have character," is one of the most famous liners in The Hustler. It applies to Newman's career as a film actor as much as to Fast Eddie as a pool player. He may have played a succession of narcissistic 1950s anti-heroes, but that didn't mean he was one himself. If Newman had died young or disappeared from the screen in the mid-Sixties, he would have been regarded as a star in the tradition of Dean, Clift, and Brando, and perhaps their natural heir. However, he became a mainstream movie star in a way they never did. To his detractors, this was evidence that he wasn't quite authentic - that this Ivy League graduate was playing at rebellion without feeling it or pushing it to the limits. When he was "researching" The Hustler, he took the dining table out of his house and replaced it with a pool table. This may have made him adept with a cue but it hardly compared with the way other Method actors were reputed to immerse themselves in their roles. Newman shared Dean's love of fast cars, but you could never have imagined Dean's face on salad dressing bottles.
"He seems to me an uneasy, self-regarding personality, as if handsomeness had left him guilty," David Thomson wrote of Newman in his Biographical Dictionary Of Cinema. "His smirking good humour always seemed more appropriate to glossy advertisements than good movies."
Such criticisms seem manifestly unfair when you consider what Newman was ready to do for his art. In his best roles, he often showed a relentless and reckless energy. You think of Stuart Rosenberg's Cool Hand Luke (1967) in particular. First, there is the fight sequence in which he is continually knocked over by George Kennedy, but keeps on getting up. The other prisoners tell him to stay down, but this is not advice he is ever inclined to heed. Then, there is the sequence in which he tries to eat 50 eggs in succession for a bet.
Newman was grounded and level-headed in a way that the other famous Method actors of the 1950s never were. It was this that enabled him in the 1960s and 1970s to move further into the mainstream. Whereas once he had been compared to Brando and Dean, he was now seen alongside Robert Redford (with whom he co-starred in Butch Cassidy and The Sting) and Steve McQueen (his co-star in The Towering Inferno) as the biggest male star of the era. Newman, once the delinquent outsider, became seen as the genial American everyman - someone you trusted implicitly. He remained discerning about the roles he chose. He was never to be seen making pointless cameos in summer tentpole movies and unlike other great American actors, he wasn't forced to come to Europe to work on spaghetti westerns or to take roles in films by big-name continental auteurs.
Partly because he so often played the leading man, Newman's flair for comedy wasn't fully appreciated, although it is evident in films from Cat On A Hot Tin Roof to Cool Hand Luke. Look, too, at his wry turns as Judge Roy Bean and as Buffalo Bill in John Huston and Robert Altman's self-mocking, revisionist westerns, The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean and Buffalo Bill and The Indians. The Coens even persuaded him to play an ogre-like businessman in their latter-day screwball comedy, The Hudsucker Proxy. He worked with an extraordinary array of directors, everyone from Elia Kazan (at least on stage) to Alfred Hitchcock, from Martin Ritt to Robert Altman, from John Huston to Joel Coen - another reason why there are so few duds in his filmography.
Newman may have shared many of Redford's liberal convictions, but that didn't mean he took himself too seriously, or insisted in appearing in woolly-minded, self-righteous dramas. His Oscar came for his reprise of his role as Fast Eddy in Martin Scorsese's The Color Of Money, in truth one of his less interesting performances. Arguably, the pick of Newman's late movies was Sidney Lumet's The Verdict, scripted by David Mamet. As the drunken lawyer trying to redeem himself, he conveyed wonderfully well his character's mix of seediness and idealism, his mix of self-importance and diffidence and – in the film's most affecting scenes – his sense of romantic betrayal after he is let down by his duplicitous lover.
At the end of his career - as at the beginning - Newman remained hard to pinpoint. There was no genre with which he was immediately identified or no single role that seemed to sum up his work. His greatness lay less in one or two grandstanding performances than in maintaining standards for more than half a century – and never allowing himself to be pigeonholed.