Monday, September 29, 2008

An Appreciation of Paul Newman: 1925-2008

One of the final living legends of movies passed away on Friday night and the world is a much sadder place. Paul Newman has died of cancer at the age of 83 at his home in Westport, Connecticut. Many, many outlets have already given the career of Paul Newman its due, and there will certainly be some of that in this off-the-cuff appreciation of a man who influenced this film critic as much as any that ever stepped in front of the camera, but I want to start with one thing that a lot of them seem to have missed – there will never be another actor like him.

He defied so many of the typical pitfalls of Hollywood, and his blend of humanitarian and consistent actor is likely to never come through the gates of Hollywood ever again. Newman made many clichés true but perhaps none more than that an actor could be "more than a pretty face." He was as handsome as they come but had unimaginable depth as well. And he did so off-screen as well. Actors are often portrayed as simple people, men who wouldn't be anything without the lines written for them, but Newman stood in consistent defiance of that stereotype on-screen and off. And he did so unerringly for decades. He changed lives with his charity work and the funds provided by his salad dressings and pasta sauces. He was a major player in the world of sports with Newman Racing. And he stayed married to the same woman, Joanne Woodward, for five decades. While actors of his generation had their ups and downs, Newman always stayed consistent. While De Niro, Pacino, Brando, and many others devolved into trash in the late years of their careers, Newman gave some of his best performances in his 60s and 70s. His track record on-screen and off is likely to never be matched. Not just cinema, but the world is a darker, sadder place without him.

Paul Newman was a man who influenced me personally a great, great deal. Ironically, the performance of his that first grabbed me was one of his more controversial - Fast Eddie in The Color of Money. When Scorsese's film was released in 1986, I was only eleven. I was a little too young to see it in theaters, but I was already into movies and I remember the hubbub surrounding his Oscar win for that role. Nearly everyone thought that it was more of a career achievement award than anything else, giving Newman the trophy he should have won at least once years earlier instead of sending him home empty-handed for an eighth time. I remember catching up with Color of Money on VHS a few years later and thinking to myself - "If this was one of his 'lesser' performances, I need to do some catching up." Basically, The Color of Money opened a door to a filmography that would become one of my absolute favorites and that is arguably unmatched in movie history. It's clichéd as hell for a film critic to say this, but Newman makes it true - he is one of the reasons that I do what I do.

What did Newman have that others didn't? How was he a star for five decades while others came and went? Some pundits have called it "cool," lazily playing off one of his most famous roles in Cool Hand Luke and pointing out how many women wanted to be with Paul and how many men wanted to be him. There's certainly some of that, but what Newman had was deeper than the traditional definition of cool. Newman was the cool guy that YOU could be. He was both the everyman and the coolest guy in the room at the exact same time. He seemed to gravitate towards flawed but relatable men like Eddie Felson, Hud Bannon, Luke, Butch Cassidy, Reg Dunlop, Frank Galvin, Sully Sullivan, and Max Roby. These were guys that you knew. If you didn't see yourself in them, you saw your dad, your grandfather, or your best friend. Newman was as iconic an actor as ever graced the screen, but, largely because of how well he embodied such believable characters, you felt like you knew him, like you could get a beer with him, go fishing, or watch a car race.

Whenever anyone important to me in the world of cinema passes away, I schedule my own personal film festival to commemorate the man. There are so many great films to choose from with Paul Newman that it's hard to set aside that much time. You could spend an entire weekend. But let me suggest that you get to the video store or look in your own collection for one from each era of his career. I've long marveled at the man's longevity with arguably a more consistent film resume than anyone in history, so it seems right to pick one from each decade.

I'm going to start with the breakthrough - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), in which Newman would play one of the first of many deeply flawed husbands, Brick Pollitt. That’s the clear choice. For many, it’s where it all began.

Picking only one role from the '60s, when Newman was one of the biggest stars in the world, is difficult, but the new Blu-Ray release of Cool Hand Luke (1967) is an absolute stunner and, in many ways, it's the role that people will think of first when they hear the sad news this weekend, if they know it or not. It's Newman in, at least, his physical prime. Of course, other great choices from that decade would be The Hustler (1961), Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), Hud (1963), Harper (1966), Torn Curtain (1966), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), the last of which I may cheat and watch after my one-a-decade Newman festival is over. It never gets old.

In the '70s, Newman tended more towards blockbusters like The Towering Inferno (1974) and The Drowning Pool (1975), but he made a little Best Picture winner in 1973 that has truly stood the test of time, The Sting. Personally, it's a close call between that flick and the always-killer Slap Shot (1977). In the '80s, he would win the Oscar for The Color of Money (1986), but his best performance came four years earlier in The Verdict (1982), one of my personal faves. His age showing, Newman would give one of his most heartfelt performances and one that should have earned him a second Oscar in 1994's Nobody's Fool. It's one of his best.

As for the '00s, he would be nominated again for The Road to Perdition, but his final great performance would come in HBO's Empire Falls in 2005. That's the one to watch. Or you could always gather the whole family around the TV and watch Cars (2006), his final performance. It seems so appropriate that Paul Newman would end his career with a film that will be the first that most people see of his, considering the target age of the audience. Maybe even this weekend, someone will read about Newman's passing or check out one of his masterpieces sure to air on cable this weekend and, like what happened to me in the '80s, a door will open to an actor who transcended cinema. Parents, pull out your well-worn copy of Cars and tell your kids about Paul Newman. They’ll be better for it.

Paul Newman was an icon, an everyman, a devoted husband, a charitable hero, and one of the best actors that ever lived, all at the same time. He was both a legend and a guy who spent time working with seriously ill children and making the world a better place through philanthropy and salad dressing. He could walk the red carpet and still feel like he was one of the guys on the other side of the velvet rope. He was one of the biggest stars in the world who did SO much here on Earth. That will be his legacy. There will never be another like him.

- Brian Tallerico

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