Sunday, September 28, 2008

The last matinee idol

[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 Though everything around him had changed – the lush Technicolor of the earlier film had been replaced by grittier lighting, an understandable shift given that the two films were made 12 years apart – Newman himself seemed not to have aged at all.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.


  1. 'Cool hand luke' was a brilliant underrated performance. There's a religious undercurrent in that movie that wouldn't have remained subtle had his performance not been so sensitive.

  2. The Christ angle? I saw it a long time ago but I have the DVD now so should see it again sometime. Along with Hud.

  3. Nice post.
    Have seen him only in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'. Interestingly, his co-star in the film Elizabeth Taylor has also been described as the 'last matinee idol'.

    However, I'm not sure if any of the post 1950 movie actors were 'stars' in the same sense as the leading men of the 30s and 40s given the emergence of television and the decline of the American movie going habit in the fifties.
    Also, the 'stars' of the fifties and sixties made fewer films and were less willing to be typecast as you pointed out.

    I think the apellation 'last matinee idol' is better suited to describe someone like Kirk Douglas than Newman.

  4. Though I'm not too familiar with Newman's filmography, it's hard to believe his career is as accomplished as that of Stewart or Tracy. Stewart, for instance, worked with just about every major director in Hollywood during his period. I don't think Newman worked with any of the great 'New Hollywood' directors who stormed Hollywood during the late sixties.

    And yes..Cary Grant was a lot more versatile than he gets credit for being. Was blown away by his tear-jerking performance in Penny Serenade, that I watched recently.

  5. I don't think Newman worked with any of the great 'New Hollywood' directors who stormed Hollywood during the late sixties.

    shrikanth: well, he worked in a lesser Martin Scorsese (The Color of Money) and in an uneven but very interesting Robert Altman (Buffalo Bill and the Indians). But I don't think his legacy should in any way depend on whether he worked with those guys: given the kinds of films that Scorsese, Coppola, DePalma etc were making in the 1970s, I'm not sure there was much room for a Newman-like presence in them.

    With a couple of exceptions, I think the films Newman will be best remembered for were made between 1958 and 1969: The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke among them - though he did enjoy a notable resurgence in the 1980s with The Verdict, Absence of Malice and a few other films.

    Good point about television and the post-1950s movie actors. Incidentally (and I should have mentioned this in the piece) another actor who might easily have been content to chug along in handsome-leading-man roles but who instead stretched himself was Burt Lancaster.

  6. I will be much more distraught when Jack Nicholson, Robert de Niro or Warren Beatty die though it is still not too difficult to acknowledge his importance.

    also re. someone like Newman not getting too many chances, Beatty for example was very good looking and he still did some wonderful films in late 60s and 70s (some of which exploited his good looks and womanising fame). He in fact took over pains of film production and financing when he could have just gone on acting and enjoying his star status.

    Of his major films I haven't see Hud. I also want to see the two Altman films he did. I have heard "Quintet" is very strange.

  7. Alok: I didn't say Newman didn't get too many chances (to start with, I don't think being asked to do a Scorsese/Coppola/Altman film is the only thing that qualifies as a "chance"). Also, I don't think it's fair to compare him with someone like Beatty, who was a whole generation younger. Part of the point I've tried to make here is that Newman straddled two very different epochs in Hollywood history: starting out during the studio era of the mid-1950s and carrying on as a lead actor (with at least moderate success) through the 1970s and 1980s, when Hollywood was a very different place.

  8. Although the three aforementioned men are excellent actors in their own right, these guys weren't even around when Newman started. The age when we did have matinee idols as is referenced by the line.
    Whom you work with, or for, is not a lead in to the quality of your work and the way you conduct your life.
    I also believe that nowhere did the article say he was the only matinee idol, just that he is near the/or the last of a long line of a dying breed of thespians.
    And if you haven't seen more than 1 or 2 of his films (in a career that spans 6 decades) how can you even begin to make an assessment of him?