Paul Newman (1925-2008)

By Hiram Lee
1 October 2008

The death of actor Paul Newman on September 26, after a long battle with lung cancer, was followed by a flood of tributes and remembrances. Documentaries and archival interviews were broadcast on the major news networks, and artists throughout the film world spoke up to share their thoughts and memories. The 83-year-old actor and philanthropist has clearly left a mark on a great many lives. He was by all accounts a decent man, as well as an honest and sincere performer.

Newman was born January 26, 1925, in the Cleveland, Ohio, suburb of Shaker Heights. His father was a successful small-business owner who ran a sporting goods store in which Newman's mother also worked. The future actor had what might be described as the "all-American" life. He attended Ohio University for a time in the early 1940s, where he was in the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity. He left school to serve in the Second World War.

After the war, Newman graduated from Kenyon College before going on to study in the drama department of Yale University. From here he went to the famed Actor's Studio where he was taught by Lee Strasberg, a pioneer in the US of acting based in part on Stanislavski’s approach. Beginning his acting career on Broadway, Newman finally made his debut in films with The Silver Chalice in 1954.

The actor's film career began and was shaped in a Hollywood that had already been through the anticommunist witch-hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and McCarthyism. The blacklist was still in effect, and many talented filmmakers whose works had contained strong elements of social criticism and oppositional attitudes had their careers, if not their very lives, destroyed. There was a purging of left-wing elements from the industry.

Those who avoided the blacklist or whose careers began after its inception worked in a very different atmosphere than those artists who preceded them. There was the sense, and especially for a young artist like Newman--a committed liberal his entire life--whose career was only beginning, that one had to be cautious and know one's place. A demoralization took hold of some and with it a skepticism about the American public's receptivity to left-wing views following the hysteria of anticommunism. Changing the world probably appeared less possible to many than before.  

Certainly, many of the more thorough and worked-through criticisms of society simply could not be approached in new works. These conditions would have their impact on Newman's artistic personality. Additionally, they limited the kinds of films and opportunities available to him. As a consequence not only of his own personal limitations, but of these less advantageous circumstances, Newman (and not only Newman) would never become the sort of supremely confident, iconoclastic artist that someone like an Orson Welles was. He has surprisingly few "great films" to his credit for an artist of his stature.

But even with an industry in which these new moods prevailed, Hollywood was not a wasteland, and Newman, perhaps never a truly "great" actor, but always talented and sincere, was able to contribute something genuine that has continued to affect people over a period of several decades.

Among Newman's more interesting early films were The Left-Handed Gun (1958), directed by Arthur Penn (his debut), and Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! (1958). Penn's film was yet another telling of the Billy The Kid story, with Newman cast as the Kid. The film avoided the more action-packed side of the gunslinger's life in favor of a more "psychological" portrait of the outlaw. While both the film's director and star would go on to do more substantial work in the future, The Left-Handed Gun remains worth seeing today.

Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!  was directed by Leo McCarey, who had been a master of the screwball comedy genre of the 1930s, directing such films as Duck Soup and The Awful Truth. The film concerns the military's efforts to establish a base in a small American town. The citizens of the town band together to keep the military out. Newman's character works with the military brass trying to smooth out relations with the townspeople while his wife (Joanne Woodward, in the second of 10 films she made with real-life husband Newman) is among those opposing their presence. Often overlooked today, it's a very funny film and surprisingly bold in its treatment of the military. Newman, as well, had a talent for comedy.

While there are interesting films in the 1950s, the films that made Newman a star would not come until the 1960s.  In The Hustler (1961), directed by Robert Rossen, who had himself avoided the blacklist by naming names, Newman played Fast Eddie Felson, a billiards hustler and alcoholic. It remains one of the actor's best-loved films, and he gives a memorable performance in it. It must be said, however, that The Hustler, while an interesting work in some respects, is not a thoroughly convincing film and Newman's performance is often strained, as though he's continually reaching for something that he never quite grasps.

Suffering from much of the same problems was Newman's much-lauded performance as the title character in Hud (1963). Here, he played the irresponsible son of a cattle rancher whose bad reputation precedes him wherever he goes. One wonders if there wasn't some difficulty for Newman, who had not seen a great deal of struggling in his young life, in playing these young and rebellious "bad boy" characters. And yet, one must say that these were not bad performances--they would not continue to resonate so many years later if they were--only that they were never entirely convincing ones. There is certainly something strained about both Hud and The Hustler as a whole.  Of Hud, directed by left-winger Martin Ritt, film critic Andrew Sarris once wrote correctly, "The whole film...displays that hungover look that is almost invariably confused with honest realism."

Of these early performances, Newman often said later, half-jokingly, that if he had known then what he knew now about acting, then he would have done things differently. "I wouldn't have tried so hard," he would say. There may be something to that. One can often see Newman trying in these earlier performances, one can see his method at work and all the gears spinning, whereas later, more-effective performances often seemed effortless. By and large, he was better when portraying characters who kept their cool.

In Cool Hand Luke (1967), Newman was cast as a prisoner who defies the orders of guards and wardens at every turn, determined not to be broken by them. While it has its moments, the film has been overrated. Cool Hand Luke was ultimately less about the horrors of a cruel Southern prison than it was about "one man" retaining his individuality and defiant spirit in the face of adversity. In many ways, it reveals just how much change had taken place in Hollywood by this time; Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke was not, after all, Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). The movie isn't half as substantial as it ought to have been, and largely because of its abstract treatment of human nature.

One sees this as well in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), essentially a western about two bank robbers who can't escape their fate no matter how hard and far they run, but who nevertheless run as hard and far as they can. When fate finally catches up with them, they run headlong into it with guns blazing. The film is often entertaining and sometimes moving, with Paul Newman's understated, mostly comic performance as Butch Cassidy adding a great deal to the work. But it would be difficult to consider this an especially great film, and not only for its "big" rendering of "big" human themes; the film suffers from an intrusive score by Burt Bacharach, and several embarrassing montage sequences, including the awful bicycle sequence set to the excruciating "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head."

As the 1960s drew to a close, Newman continued to search for meaningful work, but there was less and less of it. During the 1970s, he made two films with Robert Altman, Buffalo Bill and the Indians and Quintet, but neither rank among that director's best. It's an unfortunate fact of Newman's career that he often worked with great directors at a time when their best work was behind them, as in Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain (1966), an interesting but modest cold-war spy thriller.

While he continued acting, Newman's interests went in other directions during the 1970s. He developed a passion for racing cars and eventually did so professionally. By the 1980s, he owned his own team.

In 1982, the actor established Newman's Own, his own line of food products in which all of the after-tax profits went to charity. More than $200 million has been raised by the company. Later in that decade, he founded the Hole In The Wall Gang Camps, a chain of summer camps for sick children named after Butch Cassidy's gang in the 1969 film. 

During this time, Newman was always working, appearing notably in such works as Absence of Malice (1981) and The Verdict (1982). He won an Oscar for bringing his Fast Eddie Felson character back to life in Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money (1986), though it was a lesser film for both actor and director. He appeared in "independent" films such as The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and mainstream works like Message in a Bottle (1999). His last feature film appearance was as a voice-actor in the animated film Cars (2006).

Newman's talents, his charity work, his liberal politics and activism against war and racism, his avoidance of the excesses of Hollywood and a long and loving relationship with actress Joanne Woodward only endeared him to audiences during his decades-long career. While many of the recent tributes in his honor have contained their share of hyperbole and have perhaps made more out of Newman than was actually there, including assertions that the actor "changed Hollywood," these comments in themselves speak to the scarcity of such figures in the film industry today.

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