Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sometimes Nothing Can Be a Real Cool Hand

If Hollywood has ever produced a more beautiful man, on the inside and outside, than Paul Newman, then I certainly wish someone would turn me on to him, cause I can't even imagine that it's possible. Probably because Paul Newman was almost impossible to believe. His looks are damn near mesmerising -- transcending even personal tastes. He was effortlessly cool, still able to pull off the double-gun-with-a-wink greeting even late in life. And yet his cool wasn't cloaked in thugishness or machismo -- he was pure class, all the way. And to top it off, he could act his ass off.

If Bogart was the guy who pulled cinema thugs and anti-heroes from the one-dimentional thirties into an updated and nuanced forties and fifties audience, Newman was the guy who took that rebellious, anti-hero characterization and bridged that gap right into the modern day, starting back in the '50s, and bringing his naturalistic approach -- lacking in ticks, tricks, and distractions -- into the quote/unquote modern stage of film and movies.

Newman already made a splash as Rocky Graziano in 1956's Somebody Up There Likes Me. But the '60s were to be Newman's decade. He kicked it off in '61 with The Hustler, where he first played Fast Eddie Felson, the arrogant up-and-coming pool shark with a wicked self destructive streak. (25 years later, under the direction of Martin Scorsese, that same character -- older and weary, he gets a dose of his own medicine when he takes a piece-of-work protege under his tutelage -- finally brought home the elusive Best Actor Oscar. After that, the Academy decided that they reallyreally liked him a lot and gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award and a Humanitarian Award.) And then he closed out the '60s with the wildly popular and entertaining Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

But it was sandwiched between these flicks, in 1967, that he made my favorite Paul flick -- Cool Hand Luke. Newman's Luke Jackson is a guy who just won't give up the fight. Not any kind of fight. He can't give it up, because, fair or not, life just never seems to deal him a decent hand and he's got no choice. It's either fight to the last breath, and end up living like the dead. But instead of self-loathing or pity, Luke has a wry humor about it all, a sense of fun in his rebellion and moral and spiritual victory, even in his most brutal defeats. It's the kind of character we'd see a lot of in the counter-culture '60s -- the archetype that Jack Nicholson rode to superstardom with Cuckoo's Nest. (It's also the kind of character and role and movie that nearly got completely snuffed out once we entered the super-conservative '80s.) But Newman's portrayal remains the landmark.

He was the quintessential lone rebel, lashing out against the oppressive, unjust system. What they had was a failure to communicate, alright. But his connection with audience is nearly palpable. Charm oozes out of him, even when he's on a chain gang, for Christ's sakes. And there's more than a glint of devilish mischief -- and ultimate grace and nobility -- even as he takes his beatings and losses. Luke and his kind may never end up winning. And Newman, in this role, just couldn't lose. It was truly a thing of beauty.


tangodiva said...

First, you are wise and this essay is has wisdom in spades. Newman's death is a loss that will be felt for a long time. Because he was more than just a talent, he was a man who did good things with his life, and that speaks volumes.

I like him best in The Verdict, for what it's worth.

Second, I have been long awaiting your return to the recapping of you-know-what. Tell me you will be doing it. It has been missed, and without it, I don't think I can watch IT.

Your fan

Donna said...

Maybe I'm getting old, but they just don't make 'em like Newman anymore. I was in Hollywood when he died and when the guide for the Stars' Homes Tour drove us past the modest Woodward/Newman LA home didn't even know he'd passed into no-longer-living legend. We tourists had to enlighten him!

Sure, there are plenty of pretty boys in the movies, but they didn't have Newman's riveting combination of class, humor and spirit.

Talk about the corrosive effect of the 1980s on film, I loved The Hustler but found The Color of Money just plain embarrassing.

Finally, a bookish confession--my favorite way to enjoy Paul is to gaze at the photos in my Paul Newman: A Life in Pictures.

Thanks for this eloquent appreciation of a great actor, Susan!

Ellen said...

Bravo. This is perfect tribute, Susan. Thanks. And Cool Hand Luke is my favorite, too.

I may have told you this, but I saw him in person once, strolling down 57th Street in Manhattan with a tennis racket on his shoulder. He passed with two feet of me and I've never been the same ...

Anonymous said...

I was just a kid when my parents allowed me to watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and so began my love affair with Paul Newman, I went to bed that night with those blue eyes fixed firmly in my mind, and they have never left to be honest. I read your tribute and smiled and cried all the way – a fitting tribute to a wonderful human being.

SusanD said...

Aw, thanks Anon.

Tango -- The Verdict is alright in my book, too. I most likely will be babbling about AI at some point. I never do much with the early rounds, as it's like shooting fish in a barrel.

Ellen -- I'da passed out if I passed by him!

Donna -- so sad you had to let the tour guide know!

Alice said...

Susan, this is an elegant tribute. It's a much sadder place with the great Paul Newman and his goodness. I love all his movies - even the wacky Rally Round the Flag, Boys, but The Verdict (he was robbed of the Oscar for that one and I'll never forgive Ben Kingsley in Gandhi, even though he was brilliant)and easily in my top 5 alltime films - The Sting. Thanks for this, Susan!