Saturday, September 27, 2008


It's weird--isn't it?--to now live in a world without Paul Newman.

He was so many things--race car driver, committed liberal, philanthropist and, by all accounts, as fine a human being as you could imagine. But he was, first and always, a By God Natural Born Movie Star. A blessing and a curse.

The blessing was--well, hell, who wouldn't want to be Paul Newman? Drop-dead handsome, effortlessly charismatic, awesomely cool, and, oh yeah, an absolutely wonderful actor. You want some primo Newman? Start with Robert Benton's pretty much perfect Nobody's Fool or George Roy Hill's Slap Shot (for my money, one of the best American comedies ever made, gaspingly funny but at the same time gratifyingly realistic, and surprisingly dark) or James Ivory's spare, unsentimental Mr. & Mrs Bridge, in which Newman co-starred with his wife, Joanne Woodward. He's a gifted, grizzled farceur in Slap Shot and nearly minimalist in the other two, but warmly human, even heartbreaking in all three.

The curse of Newman's stardom was, how can you be a character actor in a leading man's body? Too often, Newman didn't even try. True, he first became a star during the last dying days of the old studio system, and may not have had his pick of roles. In that first flush of stardom, he made Big Movies from Big Plays and Big Novels, things like Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and Exodus, destined to be kitsch from the get-go. But even as his career progressed, he continued working with determinedly middle-brow director Martin Ritt, and hired TV hacks like Stuart Rosenberg and Jack Smight to helm his star vehicles. Sometimes these could be entertaining--Smight's Harper is enjoyable, though a bastardization of the great Ross MacDonald book its based on, and everyone loves Rosenberg's Cool Hand Luke.

Still. During the mid-to-late sixties, Newman's contemporaries redefined world cinema as he coasted to easy paychecks. While Clint Eastwood forged his image as a world-class icon through his milestone work with Sergio Leone, while Warren Beatty produced and starred in Bonnie And Clyde, Newman inexplicably chose to appear in The Secret War Of Harry Frigg. He seemed to be willing himself to irrelevance.

Then came Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Sure, it's unbearably arch when you watch it today, but it helped reestablish Newman's rightful place as a Movie Star. His presence, his chemistry with co-star Robert Redford were the whole movie. And people flocked in huge numbers just to bask in that presence, as they would to see him in The Sting and Absence Of Malice and The Verdict.

Those were pretty good movies, not great but certainly watchable, and immeasurably enhanced by Newman's fine work in them. Yet at times it could seem as though his--here's that word again--presence could alter the very DNA of a movie, turn it into something other than whatever it was intended to be. The Verdict, creaking so hard in its desperation to be considered Serious Art, turns into a star vehicle simply because Paul Newman is at its center. No way we can really be fooled into believing he's a desperate loser.

That's a trick he just couldn't pull off. No matter how fine his performances, you could seldom fully believe in his characters because you could never quite forget you were watching a star. But really, is that such a bad thing?