Thursday, October 2, 2008

Paul Newman, 1925-2008

The passing of Paul Newman was not totally unexpected, as reports about his health have been commonplace over the last 6 months, but it was still a very sad day. Newman was one of my very favorite actors, one of the all-time great film stars, and a lifelong Democrat. (Among many other things, devoted husband, dedicated philanthropist, etc.) His star shone brightly in Hollywood for fifty years, a rarity in film history, and his many memorable roles have touched all of us.

From the very beginning of his career, it was clear that Newman would be a different kind of actor, a different kind of star. His first movie was a flop, a Biblical epic called The Silver Chalice. Newman was given the star buildup, but he distanced himself from the finished product when he took out an ad in the Hollywood trade papers apologizing for the film and his performance. You would think that this would have been a bad move for his career, but there was no lasting effect. His next movie was Somebody Up There Likes Me, a biopic of boxer Rocky Graziano, and it made Newman a star. The role had originally been intended for James Dean, but after his death Newman inherited the role. By the end of the 50's, Newman's career was in full swing, after twin triumphs in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Long, Hot Summer. (It was on the set of Long, Hot Summer where he met Joanne Woodward, and one of Hollywood's greatest love stories began.)

But the 1960's would make Paul Newman an icon. Movies like The Hustler, Hud, and Cool Hand Luke made him the epitome of cool. Like Steve McQueen, he was a rebel who played by his own rules. He finished out the decade in the first buddy movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring alongside a relative newcomer, Robert Redford. (The studio wanted a more famous co-star, like Steve McQueen.) Another, much less famous movie from 1969, Winning, started Newman's obsession with race car driving.

The 1970's belonged to Newman's friend Redford, although Newman did appear in two huge hits, The Sting, and The Towering Inferno. (Okay, so Towering Inferno isn't a great movie. No one's perfect.) But, The Towering Inferno is notable in that Newman starred alongside that other 60's anti-hero with piercing blue eyes who also loved racing on the side: Steve McQueen. Their relationship seems to have been a bit edgy. McQueen had had a tiny role in Somebody Up There Likes Me, and seems to have still been insecure around Newman, even though he was just as big a star. (Maybe McQueen didn't like being around someone who reminded him so much of himself?) There was a long battle about top billing for the movie, finally resolved with McQueen's name appearing first on the left of the screen, and Newman's name appearing at the right of the screen, but higher up. McQueen also insisted that he and Newman have exactly the same number of spoken lines! Yes, I think Steve was a bit insecure...and Newman could have cared less, it seems.

Newman gave one of his greatest performances in 1982's The Verdict, playing an alcoholic, ambulance-chasing attorney. (It's my own favorite Newman performance.) But he lost the Oscar, as usual. He finally won for playing Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money, Martin Scorsese's sequel to The Hustler. As Newman grew older, it seemed like the only change in his appearance was that his hair went grey. (Eschewing the usual Hollywood vanity, he almost never dyed it for parts.)

I know I'm just skimming over Newman's career here, but it was extremely fitting that his very last performance was as a Hudson Hornet in Cars. Newman's career and life were both truly remarkable, he was someone I had a great amount of respect for, as a great actor and also as a great man. He gave the world so much, and for that we should all be thankful.

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