Was Paul Newman's acting career limited by his charm and good looks?

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Paul Newman's sublime looks and air of geniality made it easy for him to charm audiences. But, as a season of the actor's films opens at the BFI in London, Geoffrey Macnab wonders whether the attributes that propelled him to stardom were also shackles that bound and limited him

Paul Newman (whose career is being celebrated with a season of films at BFI Southbank next month) was a victim of his own geniality and easy charm. The longer his career went on, the less he seemed to stretch himself. Audiences rooted for him whatever characters he played. Just occasionally, he would wrong-foot them by straying from type and this was invariably when he did his most memorable work.

There is a wonderful moment midway through Newman's 1977 film Slap Shot. He is cast as Reggie Dunlop, the foul-mouthed, heavy-drinking player-coach of a struggling ice hockey team called the Charlestown Chiefs. As the season goes from bad to worse, he finally decides to send on his new recruits; the three bespectacled, goofy-looking Hanson brothers. The Hansons turn out to be thuggish beyond belief. They assault opponents, referees and spectators. They even manage to send the puck flying into the face one of the commentators. Sitting in the dugout, the coach looks on in awe as the Hansons offer their very own masterclass in extreme foul play.

Newman gives one of his greatest performances in Slap Shot, and it's not hard to see why he relished the role. For once, the blue-eyed Hollywood star was allowed to play a resolutely non-heroic character. Reggie Dunlop was more Sam Allardyce than James Dean: a coach who finds a way of winning without playing the beautiful game.

Reggie is not a Cool Hand Luke or Butch Cassidy type. He's an agitated and harassed middle-aged man, trying to save a failing hockey team that provides a troubled industrial town with something to be proud of.

When Slap Shot first surfaced on British TV in the early 1980s, it provoked a mini-scandal because of its use of foul language – mostly uttered by Newman himself. During one bad-tempered match, he taunts an opponent by bad-mouthing his wife: "Suzanne sucks pussy! Hey Hanrahan she's a dyke! I know, I know, she's a lesbian, a lesbian!".

It's cheap, crude, very funny – and not at all what you expect from a star of Newman's stature. What is also very evident is the actor's pleasure in getting his mouth around words that screenwriters normally denied him.

The Daily Mail complained about Newman "spouting four-letter, dirty, blue words – a dictionary of profanity" and ITV's chief film-buyer, Leslie Halliwell, had to reassure viewers that he would be screening a "softer" version than the expletive-riddled original.

Throughout Newman's screen career, there was a sense that the actor was chafing against his own persona as good-looking, clean-living American everyman. Reading Shawn Levy's recent biography of the star, one is struck by how well-adjusted and conventional his childhood and teenage years were. "Paul's outstanding quality was the seriousness with which he worked," a teacher at Shaker Heights high school in Ohio recalls of Newman, who was born in January 1925. His military career at the end of the Second World War wasn't especially distinguished. As Levy tells us, Newman had yearned to be a pilot but "a routine eye test revealed that the blue eyes that would someday become world-famous were, in fact, colour-blind." Newman ended up serving as a radio man and gunner in the navy.

The would-be actor's one gesture of mild rebellion was to forego a career in the family sporting-goods store and to enrol in summer stock. His father, who was to die in 1950, was dismayed by his son's choice of career and by his early marriage to aspiring actress Jackie Witte. "One of the great anguishes of my life is that he didn't see my success," Newman said. "He thought I was a ne'er-do-well."

Ne'er-do-wells don't generally study at Ivy League colleges, which is what Newman did. He took a postgraduate drama course at Yale, and planned to become a drama teacher. "I was terrorised by the emotional requirements of being an actor," he later confessed.

As a young actor, Newman was pragmatic and opportunistic. He also had a fair measure of luck. He accompanied a friend to an audition at Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio. She didn't get in, but he was accepted even though he hadn't been applying.

Newman claimed that he had learned everything about acting from the Actors Studio. "It was such a stunning thing just to be an observer there and to watch Geraldine [Page] and Kim Stanley and occasionally Marlon [Brando] and Julie Harris. So I kept my mouth shut and my ears opened and that was the way I seemed to learn."

Other Actors Studio alumni were famously introspective and self-obsessed, but Newman – at least by middle-age – was gregarious and genial. He had come at acting from an academic background. He used to claim that he had no physical grace and was a "failed jock" who had turned to the stage because he hadn't succeeded at sport.

"Paul Newman is a handsome boy, but quite stiff, to my disappointment," film-maker Fred Zinnemann said of him after auditioning him for a production of Oklahoma! Another well-known director, Josh Logan, told the young actor that he carried no sexual threat. Newman's reaction wasn't to skulk off, humiliated, but to spend six hours in the gym every day, buffing up.

It's instructive to read reviews of Newman's early films. One of his first important performances was as the troubled middleweight champ Rocky Graziano in Robert Wise's Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). "The boxer is played by Paul Newman, an actor with an unfortunate resemblance in appearance, style and mannerisms to Marlon Brando. I admire Mr Brando, but I don't want more than one of him." complained the Daily Mail. There was equal suspicion about his brilliant performance as Billy the Kid in Arthur Penn's The Left Handed Gun (1958.) "Paul Newman plays the part as a mixture of Hamlet and the Idiot Boy," Dilys Powell wrote in the Sunday Times.

Reviewers were all too aware that Newman was playing just the kind of roles that would have gone James Dean's way had Dean lived. They didn't believe – as they did with Dean – that the angst or the generational conflict were for real.

It was hardly Newman's fault that he so closely resembled Dean and Brando. He had been taught by the same teachers. If he wasn't a natural screen rebel, he soon learned how to be a very convincing one. The detachment and air of opportunism served him well in films like Sweet Bird of Youth, where he played a gigolo returning to his home town, as the unscrupulous womaniser in Hud, or as Fast Eddie in The Hustler. Newman's trick was to take narcissistic and often cynical characters and to give them just a hint of vulnerability.

The key difference between Newman's career and that of Dean and Brando was that he kept on working in mainstream movies. Dean made only three films before his death. Brando was quickly sidetracked from screen acting. Newman, by contrast, racked up credits in Hitchcock films (Torn Curtain), in glossy blockbusters (The Prize); he appeared in private-eye movies and in Westerns. He was a big name paid a big salary. By the late 1960s, he was earning more than $1m a film – a fortune for the period. The downside was that he began to be taken for granted.

Outside his divorce from Jackie Witte in 1958, there were few ructions in his private life. His second marriage, to Joanne Woodward, was famously stable. As their friend Gore Vidal noted, at around the time of their marriage, "they made a calculated choice to present themselves as a folksy lower-middle-class all-American couple when, in actual fact, he came from a wealthy Ohio family that had sent him to Kenyon College and Yale, while Joanne was a daughter of the vice president of the publisher Scribner's."

Newman's well-publicised enthusiasm for auto-racing and his unlikely venture into the foods business, selling his own brand of sauces and salad dressing, further strengthened his mainstream appeal; and weakened his options as an actor in the process.

Newman didn't conceal his Jewish roots. When producer Sam Spiegel encouraged him to change his name to something less Jewish-sounding when he was auditioning for On The Waterfront, Newman demurred. But outside his role as Ari Ben Canaan, the commander of the eponymous ship in Exodus, bringing Holocaust survivors to Israel, he played few Jewish characters.

Enjoyable though Newman's collaborations with Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting were, they hardly stretched him. As he moved into middle age, he began to play mildly rebellious anti-heroes and made a couple of revisionist Westerns. In John Huston's The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean he was an outlaw turned lawman. In Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, he was a Western legend revealed as a mountebank. He brought a debunking comic charm to such roles, but they lacked the feverish intensity he had managed to conjure up in his best early roles.

The 1970s are now regarded as a golden era in American film-making – the age when the likes of Hal Ashby, Bob Rafelson, William Friedkin, Coppola and Scorsese were making brilliant, offbeat work for the studios. But it was a decade in which Newman appeared to be working at half-throttle. That's why his performance in Slap Shot was so refreshing. There was a feeling that he was at last escaping his own over-determined star persona.

Critic Pauline Kael put it astutely when she pointed out that he was defined (and hampered by) by his likeableness. "Newman is most comfortable in a role when it isn't scaled heroically; even when he plays a bastard, he's not a big bastard – only a callow, selfish one ... you don't believe it when he plays someone perverse or vicious, and the older he gets and the better you know him, the less you believe it."

It was almost impossible to take against Newman. The only people who were able to do so with any conviction were members of President Nixon's administration. Thanks to his activities on behalf of the Democratic Party, he was number 19 on a list of enemies of the Nixon White House. This was a source of huge pride to him and didn't affect his popularity with the American public in the slightest.

Late in his career, Newman at last began to play on the likeable quality that was both his blessing and his curse. It was a trick he repeated in his great performance in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict, in which he played Frank Galvin, a washed-up, alcoholic lawyer. Certain critics felt that Newman was tilting after the Academy Award that he had been denied for so long. In the event, he lost out to Ben Kingsley in Gandhi. (Newman finally won an Oscar for The Color Of Money.)

Galvin is one of Newman's greatest performances; in it he pushed himself in a way that he hadn't done since far earlier in his career. For once, he wasn't relying on his charm. Newman was one of the great movie actors of his generation. Even so, when you survey the latter half of his career, it's hard to not to wish that there weren't more titles like Slap Shot and The Verdict in his filmography.

Paul Newman Season at BFI Southbank runs throughout April. Media partner: The Independent

Dark side of a blue-eyed boy

Hud (1963)

Newman brings swaggering arrogance and a streak of malice to his role as the unscrupulous modern-day cowboy and womaniser, Hud Bannon. This was probably the least sympathetic role he ever played, but he had never been more charismatic.

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

If it wasn't for the spectres of Brando and Dean, Newman would have received far more plaudits for his turn as the hard-living middleweight champ, Rocky Graziano (far right). Long before Robert De Niro's perfomance as Jake La Motta in 'Raging Bull', Newman was bringing ferocious Method intensity to his role as a self-destructive boxer.

The Hustler (1961)

Newman excels in one of his most famous roles as "Fast Eddie," the ruthless pool shark. There is just a hint, though, that he is trying to ingraitiate himself with audiences and to play up Eddie's little-boy-lost quality.

Road to Perdition (2002)

Strangely, Newman (left) was the first choice for what was for him an uncharacteristic role as a crime boss in Sam Mendes's brooding, Depression-era melodrama.

The Verdict (1982)

Newman's nuanced and moving performance as the alcoholic lawyer Frank Galvin in search of redemption showed just what he was capable of when he took dark, challenging roles and strayed away from his American everyman stereotype.

Reader offer: win film tickets

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For the chance to win, simply answer the question: for which film did Paul Newman win an Oscar? Go to www.independent.co.uk/promo-competitions and enter the code 'paul'.

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