Why we all love Paul Newman...
The media went into overdrive last week amid speculation that the Oscar-winning actor had lung cancer. Newman, as cool as ever, said merely that he was 'doing nicely'. It's this quality that got three of our writers thinking about his very finest screen moments
Sunday 15 June 2008
'Cool Hand Luke'
What stuck in my mind were the eggs. As a child, when I saw Cool Hand Luke for the first time, the image of Paul Newman eating 50 hard-boiled eggs was, yes, cool. On reflection, the crime that sent Luke to a hard-going prison was the clever part; he'd vandalised parking meters.
Newman – already in his early 40s – looked fit and fabulously handsome; his charisma fitted the Stuart Rosenberg-directed movie of 1967 perfectly. Luke becomes the hero of his fellow chain-gang workers, gives them pride in their thankless work and wins a prison fight without landing a single blow. Women everywhere melt as he sheds a tear for his dead mother, and offer a collective "phwoar" as he digs ditches with his top off. But what Cool Hand Luke has over Newman's other work is that it shows him carrying his acting talent very lightly. His prison tormentor says to his charge: "What we've got here is a failure to communicate." Of Newman, nothing could be further from the truth.
Very few Hollywood stars truly master the art of ageing. Not "ageing gracefully", as the cliché has it, simply getting older in such a way that you can look at their latter roles and think, aha, this is also what they were meant for. Among male stars, Burt Lancaster was the greatest example, but Paul Newman, less flamboyantly, is another. He has played the Grand Old Man as Scary Monster: he's funny and terrifying in equal parts as a captain of the boardroom in the Coen Brothers' The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). And he offered his own essay on stardom and ageing in Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money (1986) as pool shark Fast Eddie Felson.
But Newman's finest autumnal part is in Robert Benton's melancholy and underrated thriller of 1998, Twilight. His hero Harry Ross is an LA ex-cop turned private detective, proving that there's still some honour in the gumshoe game. Newman's wit, humanity and wisdom all glow here, the old radiant vanity of his youthful roles seeming a rueful eternity away.
'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'
Elizabeth Taylor knew how to get the best out of her partners, at least on screen. With her as his too-angry-for-love wife, Paul Newman gives, aged 33, one of his most ferocious and rawest performances. Very few films have showed so well a family yelling themselves to pieces, and a mentally fragile husband unable to love his irresistible wife. Paul Newman, limping on one crutch, when he's not trying to use it to knock his wife out, is so intense and sexy it hurts. Like his wife, we can't help loving him, yet his venom makes you despise him in equal measure.
Here, Newman is at his most Brandoesque, slimy yet irrepressibly attractive. In his career, there is a before and an after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Before, he was a serious, noble, sportive and beautiful leading man; after, he became the rebel with an edge, an image that has stuck with him ever since. His acting craft, learnt with Lee Strasberg, emerged at last from the depths. No matter how blue his eyes were, we knew that he would always be dangerous.
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