[Paul Newman died yesterday. Here’s a profile I wrote for the New Sunday Express early last year, when he had just announced his retirement from acting. I wasn’t very happy with the piece – would’ve preferred to write it after re-watching some of Newman’s seminal films so I could make a few points about specific performances, but the DVDs I needed weren’t available. However, it seems appropriate to the moment, so here it is.]
My earliest impressions of Paul Newman are from the first two films of his I saw, a few days apart. First came Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a toned-down version of Tennessee Williams’ play, with Newman as the embittered (impotent? Or – dare it be suggested – homosexual?) Brick, impervious to the charms of his wife Cat, played by Elizabeth Taylor at her most sumptuous. This was quickly followed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a film I enjoyed much more (the undercurrents of the Williams play weren’t easy for a 13-year-old to grasp; besides, Cat... was bloody verbose), but one that also made me feel like two time periods were clashing in front of my eyes. Though everything around him had changed – the lush Technicolor of the earlier film had been replaced by grittier lighting, an understandable shift given that the two films were made 12 years apart – Newman himself seemed not to have aged at all. (Two additional wrinkles? Well, sure, but those were probably due to the harsher lighting.) I did a double-take when I saw the release dates in a movie guide and discovered that he was in his mid-40s when he played Butch Cassidy.
Of course, Paul Newman was no Dorian Gray; as the years passed, he did age, on and off screen, but he did it with the nonchalant grace we aren’t accustomed to seeing in celebrities who initially become famous because of their looks. His hair grew thinner and grayer, the wrinkles became more pronounced, but all of this simply had the effect of adding gravitas to irresistibility; even the celebrated blue eyes acquired hidden depths. Importantly, in the latter stages of his career, he continued to choose his roles with care, never taking on a part that would have been inappropriate to his age and physical appearance at the time. Watch him as the ice-hockey coach in Slap Shot (1977), the weary lawyer in The Verdict (1982), the estranged father in Nobody’s Fool (1994); these are lessons in growing old with dignity.
To be honest, I wasn’t impressed by Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He seemed a prettier, less edgy (and therefore, to an adolescent’s eyes, less interesting) version of Marlon Brando, whose smouldering performances in On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire I had recently gawped at. But Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid showed me that here was an actor with a distinct personality of his own. His Butch – a jovial, wisecracking rogue whose bicycle ride with his friend’s wife to the tune of “Raindrops keep Fallin’ on My Head” supplied moviedom with one of its most exuberant vignettes – was worlds removed from the pouting Brick and hinted at a solid, unselfconscious versatility that I discovered anew each time I saw a Newman film from then on: movies that range on the time-scale from the 1956 boxing film Somebody Up There Likes Me to Sam Mendes’s The Road to Perdition nearly half a century later.
Newman, born in January 1925, was only a few months younger than Brando, but took nearly a decade longer to become a full-blown star, and – like most other American Method actors of his generation – he spent the early years of his career in the shadow of The Great Mumbler. Given this, it’s interesting to note how much more durable and less erratic his career turned out to be, how consistent a star-performer he remained through the seismic changes (the decline of the studio system, for example) that took place in Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s.
Durable, consistent...these are not qualities one normally associates with brilliant performers. Cold logic tells us that Paul Newman should have continued working in a comfort zone, never pushing himself too hard, doing just enough to ensure that good looks and moderate talent combined to keep him in the public eye (Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis are examples of Hollywood hunks whose career followed such a trajectory). Instead, he built up a stunning body of work, continued to grow as an actor over the decades and somehow managed to do this without compromising on his swoonability quotient.
This made for one of the most remarkable star trajectories in film history. Among American leading men, James Stewart and Spencer Tracy are possibly the only ones with a comparable body of work over a long period, but neither of them had to bear the cross of being devastatingly good-looking. The closer comparison is probably with Cary Grant, who didn’t have as varied a career (partly because his outstanding comic talents led to image-setting very early in his career; partly because the Hollywood of his heyday in the 1930s and 40s was a very different place from the one Newman peaked in) – but then, with these men, being “versatile” in the superficial sense of that word was never the point anyway. Like Grant, Newman was less successful in roles that played against type – his leering Mexican bandit in the Rashomon remake The Outrage was a whole-hearted stab at doing something different, but it required a huge suspension of disbelief for the audience, and wasn’t as effective as the performances where he worked within the confines of an established screen image.
Having worked in an average of one film every 3-4 years in the past two decades, Paul Newman has now announced the end of his acting career. Almost every time a beloved movie star dies or retires, you see clichés like “the end of an era” in newspaper reports (it makes you wonder if there are as many eras as there are stars). But Newman gives the cliché weight and substance. He was a giant who straddled three of Hollywood's most eventful decades, a dedicated professional who also happened to be a matinee idol; who, in fact, almost single-handedly carried that phrase years beyond its sell-by date. If you think the concept continues to have any meaning in today's Hollywood, compare the best work of Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise or Kevin Costner with Newman's performances in Hud, Cool Hand Luke or The Hustler. Class will tell.