Paul Newman remained, and will always remain, a remarkable, much-loved American figure for the entirety of his film work and for other triumphs.
In Memoriam: Paul Newman (1925-2008)
Paul Newman was the Great Good Guy of American movies. He was a film-star prince of middle America, a heartbreaker with a brain, an athlete with a soul.
He became a movie star in the mid-'50s, by the time he was 30, and at first he seemed most famous for his good looks -- for that Grecian profile, that middleweight's body and those legendary blue eyes, as well as the flip, sardonic wisecracks that could issue somewhat surprisingly from his chiseled lips.
But the Newman movie acting (and directing) career that began in 1955, with the rotten Roman epic The Silver Chalice, soon shot him to the heights in gritty classics like 1956's Somebody Up There Likes Me (where he played boxing champ Rocky Graziano), and later The Hustler, Hud and Cool Hand Luke. He became one of the quintessential movie stars, an actor so familiar we thought we knew him, a star presence who could always make us happy when he showed up.
Newman, born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, to a Jewish father (a sporting goods store owner) and a Catholic mom, was one of those actors whom everybody loves -- men, women, children and all points in between. Like Jimmy Stewart, another Middle American movie icon, he was a small-town guy who made it big, yet never seemed to lose the scuff or the shine on his roots.
After some community theater work in my hometown, William Bay, Wis., he had an interesting Broadway career -- he played the hero's best friend (the Cliff Robertson movie role) in the original stage production of William Inge's Picnic and the Humophrey Bogart killer part in Broadway's The Desperate Hours. He also fell in love with a fellow Picnic company member, Joanne Woodward (Kim Stanley's understudy as the play's literarily precocious tomboy). That affair never ended. Newman and Woodward were still married, still in love, a half century after their 1957 marriage, at his death.
He was probably on his way to a solid stage career. (He later originated the stage part of Chance Wayne in Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth, directed by Elia Kazan.) But he was, it seemed, born for the movies. His looks were undercut by his self-kidding humor, his swagger by an impishly seductive charm. Woodward, who would win an Oscar in 1957 for The Three Faces of Eve, wondered at first about his acting herself, yet she always thought he was cute enough to be a big movie star.
But as much a natural as he eventually seemed, Newman was also a star with a great work ethic (which also helped him in his secondary careers as driver and businessman). Although he made an ignominious (he thought embarrassing) film debut in The Silver Chalice, he quickly recovered by taking over three plum roles Jimmy Dean left vacant after his 1955 car crash death -- Rocky in Somebody Up There Likes Me, the punch-drunk hobo/fighter in the TV drama of Hemingway's short story The Battler and Billy the Kid in Arthur Penn's Gore Vidal-derived Freudian Western The Left-Handed Gun.
Then he was off to the races, vaulting to the upper ranks of move stardom as Ben Quick (a.k.a. Flem Snopes) in The Long Hot Summer, the film adaptation of one of William Faulkner's Snopes saga stories (for which he won the acting prize at Cannes); as Ari Ben Canaan in Otto Preminger's making-of-Israel epic Exodus; and the role that revved up his legend: cocky, brutalized, then victorious pool shark Fast Eddie in Robert Rossen's great 1961 film noir The Hustler. Hud, Harper, Luke, Butch Cassidy, Henry Gondorff, Sully Sullivan and all the other imperishably Newmanesque characters followed. By the late '60s and early '70s, he was one of the two or three most consistently popular American movie stars.
He might have stayed in the upper reaches forever, if, like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, he had stayed more often in the consistent movie hero image that fans could regularly rally around. But Newman, who passed on Eastwood's Dirty Harry part, probably made too many consciously artistic decisions and took too many financial gambles with his stardom in the '70s and '80s. His mega-star career finally ebbed a few years after his Oscar triumph for a reprise of Fast Eddie in Martin Scorsese's 1986 The Color of Money.
But he remained, and will always remain, a remarkable, much-loved American figure for the entirety of his film work and for other triumphs: his later-life career as a championship racing car driver (he won his last race at 70) and for his fabulously successful line of Newman's Own foods, some of his own recipe, the labels all enlivened by his witty notes. The sales of Newman's home-made salad dressings, cookies, candies and other goodies allowed him to donate over 90 million dollars to charity.
So Newman started that food business as a local joke and, when it got big, he gave the Newman's Own profits away, to worthy causes. That's part of why he's the Great Good Guy. Modest and self-kidding, he was great -- but he was also good. He has that quality Jimmy Stewart also had, of self-effacing American heroism -- though where Stewart was a staunch conservative, Newman was a lifelong liberal. (That made him more of a hero to me, especially in the cloddishly anti-liberal times that started in the '80s.) He was a philanthropist with a sense of humor, a champ under improbable circumstances, a winner without apparent ego, a legend without alibis.
You could call him our Golden Boy, except that title was later taken by his movie best pal Robert Redford -- Newman's costar in the buddy-buddy classics Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. Although Newman was at first dismissed by some critics as a Marlon Brando imitator (so was Jimmy Dean), he had such qualities of instant likeability and unselfish charm that they irradiated all his performances, even when he was doing a Hud-caliber villain. Pauline Kael once wrote, with astounding passion, that Newman was an actor who "projects such an air of heroic frankness and sweetness that the audience dotes on (him), seeks to protect (him) from harm or pain." Everybody seemed to like him and everybody was right.
The 21 Essential Paul Newman Movies:
- Somebody Up There Likes Me
Robert Wise, 1956
- The Left-Handed Gun
Arthur Penn, 1958
- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Richard Brooks, 1958
- The Long Hot Summer
Martin Ritt, 1958
Otto Preminger, 1960
- Paris Blues
Martin Ritt, 1961
- The Hustler
Robert Rossen, 1961
- Sweet Bird of Youth
Richard Brooks, 1962
Martin Ritt, 1963
- Torn Curtain
Alfred Hitchcock, 1966
- Cool Hand Luke
Stuart Rosenberg, 1967
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
George Roy Hill, 1969
- The Sting
George Roy Hill, 1973
- Slap Shot
George Roy Hill, 1977
- The Verdict
Sidney Lumet, 1982
- The Color of Money
Martin Scorsese, 1986
- Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
James Ivory, 1991
- The Hudsucker Proxy
The Coen Brothers, 1994
- Nobody's Fool
Robert Benton, 1994
- The Road to Perdition
Sam Mendes, 2002
- Empire Falls
Fred Schepisi, 2005
Honorable Mention (Yeah, I know. It's a lot....):
Rally Round the Flag, Boys! (Leo McCarey, 1958), The Young Philadephians (Vincent Sherman, 1959), Harper (Jack Smight, 1966), The Prize (Mark Robson, 1966), Sometimes a Great Notion (Paul Newman, 1971), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (John Huston, 1972), Pocket Money (Stuart Rosenberg, 1972), The Mackintosh Man (John Huston, 1973), The Drowning Pool (Stuart Rosenberg, 1975), Buffalo Bill and the Indians (Robert Altman, 1976), Quintet (Robert Altman, 1979), Absence of Malice (Sydney Pollack, 1981), Harry and Son (Paul Newman, 1984), Twilight (Robert Benton, 1994).
PICKS OF THE WEEK
Iron Man (B+)
U.S.; Jon Favreau, 2008, Paramount
Casting Robert Downey Jr. as the beleaguered superhero of a Marvel Comics spectacular -- in a big, expensive movie based on Stan Lee's early tales of crime-fighting Iron Man -- may seem like a nutty or even potentially disastrous decision. But Downey makes his director (Jon Favreau) and producers (Kevin Feige and Avi Arad) look like geniuses. He gives his part of Tony Stark -- the Howard Hughes-inspired whiz inventor-mega-billionaire who converts himself into the clanking crusader Iron Man -- a wit, passion, intensity and irony that light up the whole movie.
It's a brilliant job, in a role that doesn't seem as if it called for brilliance -- or anything much beyond remembering lines and staying out of range of the special effects. Just how good can an actor be when the major tasks of his movie role require him to be hidden (or faking it) inside a huge flame-throwing, flying robot uniform, while duking it out with (spoiler alert, I guess) another flying, flame-throwing robot supposedly containing Jeff Bridges?
Yet Downey is amazingly right in this part -- and so are his sometimes equally improbable-sounding cast-mates: Bridges as the genial corporate killer Obadiah Stane; Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony's gorgeous Girl Friday, Pepper Potts; and Terrence Howard as trusty Pentagon sidekick Rhodey. This is the kind of dream ensemble that, before the 1978 Superman, you'd never expect in a comic book movie: the kind of actors you want to see in the best, most challenging parts and the most ambitious pictures.
With one small exception though, Iron Man never seems to be wasting their time. Or ours. They all click. There's even a wonderful performance in a small part by a lesser known actor: Shaun Toub as Yinsen, the brainy, bespectacled fellow prisoner in the Afghanistan Taliban cavern prison where Tony is held in the movie's first sections, and where the abducted inventor designs and builds the first Iron Man suit. Toub almost makes you cry in his last scene -- which should give you an idea of the heavier emotional tone and weight this movie often carries, even though the show also keeps driving Tony toward his final confrontation with Obadiah -- which we know will be one of those Marvel smart-aleck slugfests and bash-balls that always climaxed the comics.
The movie was written by two teams of writers, and one of those duos, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, also scripted two fine recent neo-noirs, Alfonso Cuaron's no-kids science fiction piece Children of Men and Fergus' doom-soaked crime thriller First Snow. The foursome have done a good, but not extraordinary, job with this material, and they've done a nifty little political tap-dance; their storyline exploits sentiments both gung-ho (Cream those bad guys!) and leftist (The war's a con and big money rules!).
Overall, it's another intelligent, well-mounted Marvel job. The actors and the director really elevate this story. Iron Man has all the high-tech virtuosity you'd expect, but tech triumphs by themselves can often be annoying, if the acting and writing aren't good enough. Here, the writing is fine and the actors are much better than good. For these performances and for the film's very sharp, very human feel and just-right pace, we have to thank Favreau, who does exactly what a big pop moviemaker should: He gives us what we want. (Extras: Deleted and extended scenes; 7-part "making of" documentary; 6-part documentary on the comic character; featurettes; Robert Downey screen test.
An American in Paris (A)
U.S.; Vincente Minnelli, 1951, Warner Home Video
The acme of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musical was achieved by star Gene Kelly in this six-Oscar winner, and in his 1952 Singin' in the Rain -- and I'd hate to have to choose between them. In fact, I refuse to.
An American in Paris, however, does have an advantage: a much better score. It's an all George Gershwin extravaganza, including the Concerto in F (played and conducted by acerbic pianist and one-time Gershwin crony Oscar Levant) and the magnificent "Impressions of Paris" title piece, as well as "Embraceable You," "By Strauss," "I've Got Rhythm," "Our Love Is Here to Stay" and other gems. And the movie also has, courtesy of writer Alan Jay Lerner, a beguiling and bittersweet classic romantic comedy frame: Kelly is Jerry Mulligan, an American World War II G.I. turned painter (his inspirations include Utrillo and Dufy) who falls in love with the protégé-fiancé of his French cabaret-singer chum (Georges Guetary, in a role offered to, and unwisely turned down by, Maurice Chevalier), and woos her to the strains of George and Ira on a back-lot Paris that's almost as dreamy as the real thing.
This movie, which represents the Arthur Freed unit at its height, also has what is, inarguably, the greatest single number in the history of movie musicals: "The American in Paris" ballet -- choreographed by Kelly, danced by Kelly, Caron and a huge light-footed company, and brilliantly shot by film noir master John Alton on sets that glowingly copy the painterly styles of Van Gogh, Renoir, Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec and others. I've seen the ballet, in context and out, dozens of times, and it never fails to lift my heart and knock me out.
An American in Paris is a movie I've always had a huge crush on. In fact, Leslie Caron's performance in this movie marks one of only five times I fell instantly in love with a movie actress after a film. As for the great Gene Kelly, he was never better -- though he was just as good in Rain. You should fall in love with them too -- and with the Paris of George and Ira Gershwin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent Minnelli. (Extras: Commentary by Patricia Ward Kelly (Gene's widow), using interviews from Kelly, Minnelli, Caron, Freed, Lerner, Nina Foch and others; "making of" documentary; Kelly career profile; video and audio outtakes of missing musical numbers.)
The Last Laugh (A)
Germany; F.W. Murnau, 1924, Kino
An old but fiercely proud hotel porter (played unforgettably by Emil Jannings), guides guests and luggage into Berlin's swanky Atlantic Hotel with great flourish and swagger, resplendent in a uniform that suggests a Transylvanian general. But one day, he stumbles under a huge trunk when the bellhop fails to appear, and is heartlessly robbed of his position -- and his precious coat -- and exiled to the lowly, humiliating job of washroom attendant. Distraught, he steals the uniform for one more appearance at a wedding in the building where he lives. But the theft is discovered, and the broken old man is crucified by the cruel laughter of his neighbors -- the last laughs, it seems.
The Last Laugh, brilliantly directed by F.W. Murnau, has been considered an imperishable classic from its first release, when its innovative tracking camerawork and powerful story stunned viewers. Murnau showed himself a true master of the moving camera here, and he and Jannings revealed the stricken soul of the old man while Murnau and his designers and technicians (including Karl Freund, who created and used a precursor of the steadi-cam) also filled the world of the hotel, the street and the wedding with deep focus delights and magical mobility.
Kino's superb two-disc set contains both the foreign release (with which we're familiar) and the lesser seen (and superior) German version, which actually uses different takes. This great film should be one of the cornerstones of any film connoisseur's library. (Extras: Two separate orchestral accompaniments (including the original Giuseppe Becce score, rerecorded); and a "making of" and restoration documentary.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEKThe Lawrence Jordan Collection (A)
U.S.; Lawrence Jordan, 1961-2004, Facets
An often neglected master of animation gets a career-length compendium here. Jordan, whose live-action movie The H. D. Trilogy (about poet Hilda Doolittle) is also included here, is best known for a technique similar to Terry Gilliam's Monty Python cartooning, employing and manipulating 19th-century drawings and illustrations with deadpan wit and an almost surreal grace.
The four disc collection's high spots include the 1986 epic Sophie's Place and my favorite, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1977), fashioned from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's classic poem and the Gustave Dore drawings for it, narrated in full plummy grandeur by Orson Welles. (Extras: booklet.)
Perils of the New Land (B+)
U.S.; various directors, 1910-1915, Flicker Alley
This two-disc set presents two social-problem silent film features, both of which blend cinema artistry with social/reformist themes. (Extras: Edison Company shorts Police Force, New York City (1910), The Call of the City (1912) and McQuade of the Traffic Squad (1915); commentaries by Shelley Stamp and Giorgio Bertellini.)
Traffic in Souls (B)
George Loane Tucker, 1913
An amazingly gutsy early silent feature tackles the prostitution (or white slavery) rackets in pre-World War I New York City. It's melodrama, of course, but gripping melodrama with a social point. Director Tucker and writer Walter Macnamara, borrowing pages from D.W. Griffith's short crime thrillers, show two sisters (Ethel Grandon and Jane Gail) threatened or caught up in the skin trade -- which is run by a phony philanthropic reformer (William Walsh). A huge hit in its day and a pick of the National Film Registry, it's never boring. Silent, with intertitles and piano score.
The Italian (B+)
Reginald Barker, 1915
From producer Thomas H. Ince, a major, often overlooked film master of the period, The Italian brings more melodrama. But it's also a wonderful film, of marked ethnological and social significance. George Beban, the most famous and popular actor of Italian types of his day, plays Beppo, an immigrant husband and father who falls into the monstrous traps of the city's criminal underworld, is imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit, loses his baby, and almost becomes a monster himself. Tense, gripping and often beautifully filmed: a neglected gem from Ince and Barker, the makers of the 1916 antiwar classic Civilization. Silent, with intertitles and orchestral score.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Chapter 27 (C+)
U.S.; Jarrett Schaefer, 2006, Peace Arch
Chapter 27, the new film about the three days in which John Lennon was stalked and murdered by Mark David Chapman, stirred up a slew of memories as I watched it -- some fond, some spooky. Those days of death are the focus, and Chapman is the central figure -- you wouldn't want to call him a villain or even an anti-hero -- of Jarrett Schaefer's film, which takes its title from what would have been the next chapter of Catcher in the Rye, the chapter the reclusive Salinger didn't write.
It's a pretty good movie, though I got impatient during the first half. Schaefer, making his writer-directorial debut, does pretty well. And Jared Leto really catches madness in a bottle as Chapman. Leto has put on 60 Raging Bull pounds to chunk himself up, and his face has that soft, hidden, childlike look that the real Chapman radiated. The movie plays him as an ultimate loser, even suggests that a better sex life might have swerved him away from murder -- and it also plays an oddball trick by casting actor Mark Lindsay Chapman as John Lennon (in almost a walk-on, or die-on).
Chapter 27 feels kind of creepy during that first half, especially during the "romantic" scenes where Leto's Chapman shuffles and flirts with fellow Lennon watcher Jude (Lindsay Lohan, in a nice job). But as the traps start springing toward the end -- and, as we get more of Judah Friedlander's top-of-the line performance as furry freak brother paparazzi Paul, Chapter 27 becomes gripping. Schaefer has the paranoia of the early '80s down pat, and his style has a funny lyricism that curls sweetly around Leto's intricately introverted performance -- his suggestion of a religious fanatic awash in self-pity, disguised as a pop groupie.
I liked it, but I think the movie needs more Lennon -- not as impersonated by the other Mark Chapman, but Lennon in more clips, more songs, more mementos of his life and art. Gun-packing Mark shouldn't be the solo star here, even if that's what he wanted.
The Garment Jungle (C+)
U.S.; Vincent Sherman/Robert Aldrich (unc.), 1956, Columbia/Sony
This is basic gangster noir set in New York City's garment district. Not bad, but the movie's first-rate tough-guy types like Lee. J. Cobb, Richard Boone, Robert Loggia and Harold J. Stone rob some credibility from the somewhat softer-looking hero: Cobb's idealistic brother, played by Janesville, Wisconsin's own Kerwin Matthews. He was much better swashbuckling with skeletons in the Ray Harryhausen adventure fantasies, though. (Extras: Trailer, Martini Minutes.)