Confidence man

From gorgeous smartass to dependable old pro, Paul Newman has always known the score.

Published March 2, 1999 1:25PM (EST)

It's flip to say that the first half of Paul Newman's career shows how little acting can count for in the movies, while the second half shows how it can count for everything. The Newman of "The Long Hot Summer," "The Hustler," "Hud" and "Cool Hand Luke" was certainly an actor, and the Newman of "Slap Shot," "Fort Apache the Bronx," "Absence of Malice," "Blaze" and "Twilight" is by God a movie star. But pare down the exaggeration and you arrive at a kernel of truth. Had Paul Newman not made the change in his acting that began with 1977's "Slap Shot," made the conscious decision to delve deeper into himself and see what surprises might be waiting there, he might have spent his later screen career as a charming memento of the gorgeous and cocky smartass he started out as.

Newman must have recognized that, and in the roles of the late '70s and early '80s, he found a way out. It's easy to look at those performances as the finest vintage of a dependable old pro. I'd argue that they are as exploratory and revelatory and, in their most daring moments, as naked as the work of Sean Penn, Robert Downey Jr. and Nicolas Cage, the finest actors of their generation.

Newman, who was born in Cleveland in 1925, began acting during his years at Ohio's Kenyon College, where he enrolled after serving in the Navy Air Corps in World War II. From Kenyon, he moved on to the Yale Drama School and then, like many of the other great actors who emerged in the '60s, to New York's Actors Studio. He appeared in the 1953 Broadway production of William Inge's "Picnic," but he was lucky enough to begin his career as a working actor at a time when live television drama (on shows like "Playhouse 90") enlarged the job market for New York actors beyond the stage. His first movie role came in 1955 with "The Silver Chalice," a biblical epic so disastrous that years later, when it ran on TV in New York, Newman took out newspaper ads asking people not to watch it.

Newman found more prototypical Method roles as boxer Rocky Graziano in the biopic "Somebody Up There Likes Me" and as Billy the Kid in Arthur Penn's "psychological" western "The Left-Handed Gun." But unlike Marlon Brando or Montgomery Clift or James Dean, Newman has never seemed to be drawing on a well of neuroses. Comparing Newman to some of the other actors who came out of the Actors Studio, Pauline Kael once wrote, "They can do desperately troubled psychological states ... but they're so inward you can't see them getting through a competently managed average day." Arriving in the movies at a time when movie stars were starting to sweat off a little of the polish the studios had applied to them, Newman combined a more grounded version of the earthier, edgier style that had been making inroads into mainstream acting with the sex appeal that has always defined movie stars.

Newman was lucky enough not just to be blessed with a trim, athletic build (which he has kept) and incredibly bright blue eyes, but to have the charisma to back them up. When someone looks like Paul Newman, audiences are eager to like him. And they did, even when he played bastards -- like the pool shark Fast Eddie Felson in "The Hustler" (the role he'd return to in "The Color of Money"); the drinking, rutting cattle hand in Martin Ritt's hypocritically entertaining "Hud"; and the barn burner in Ritt's deluxe Southern soaper "The Long, Hot Summer," made in 1958, the same year in which Newman married his co-star, Joanne Woodward. Newman is called on to do some rotten things in these roles -- slapping around Piper Laurie in "The Hustler" and nearly raping Patricia Neal in "Hud." We're not expected to like him in those moments, and that's why they're miscalculations. Who doesn't want to like Paul Newman? He's one of those actors with such instinctive audience rapport that he gets you on his side, seemingly without even trying.

Part of what's so sexy about the young Paul Newman is that he often seems content to take his own sweet time. At the beginning of "The Long, Hot Summer," when a court convened in a Mississippi general store advises him to get out of town before sundown, he takes a good, long insolent look at his assembled accusers before sauntering out of the place. Not even the thought of a rope around his neck is going to accelerate his steps a bit. You see the same thing in his entrance in "Hud," coming out of a married woman's house at 6 in the morning, pulling on his cowboy boots casually, not even rushing when the woman's husband drives up. The young Newman often seems to be smirking, or on the verge of it. Sometimes his only response to someone's deprecating remark is a clicking noise (like the one Marcello Mastroianni makes throughout "Divorce Italian Style"), the equivalent of asking sarcastically, "Well, whaddya know about that?" Newman's characters are convinced that nobody around them is as fast or as clever as they are, and they're never particularly good at hiding their contempt. (That's what makes his scenes with Orson Welles in "The Long Hot Summer" such a delight -- the barnburner Ben Quick treats this rich Southern patriarch as the scoundrel he himself aims to become, seeing through Welles and paying him his due at the same time.)

But Newman's deliberate movements often betray a compressed energy that gives off a whiff of danger. Think of the way he aims his Cadillac convertible like a bullet down the dusty Texas roads of "Hud," or the anger and frustration that's released whenever he sends the pool balls whacking into each other in "The Hustler," or the defiant speed with which he completes a task in "Cool Hand Luke," determined to show the Southern chain-gang guards he's up to anything they can dish out. None of this ever seemed like a hotshot young actor's showing off. Newman was cocky, but he wasn't boastful. The sarcasm his characters were steeped in struck a chord with movie audiences the way Humphrey Bogart's -- the movies' sane, grounded antihero of an earlier era -- did. Newman was the guy we could identify with as he refused to take the crap the world kept telling him he should feel grateful to be offered.

Newman's biggest hits, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969) and "The Sting" (1973) both of them directed by George Roy Hill and both of them stinkers, gave a hint of how Newman's cockiness might have become schtick. Because the roles are little more than winks and smiles directed at his co-star, Robert Redford, Newman couldn't bring them the conviction he managed for 1967's "Cool Hand Luke," an equally phony movie that was also a big hit. But Newman was diversifying his activities beyond acting. In 1968, he made his debut as a director with the acclaimed (but not very good) "Rachel, Rachel," which earned Woodward an Academy Award nomination. He would continue directing, usually with Woodward starring, with "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" (1972) and a 1987 film of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie." Newman shared producing chores on many of his films from the late '60s and early '70s. One of them, "Winning" in 1969, started him on his passion for race-car driving. Politics was a passion long before that; he and Woodward were two of Hollywood's most visible liberals. (In the mid-'70s he was appointed by Jimmy Carter to be a delegate to a United Nations conference on disarmament.) Newman has concentrated on philanthropy during the '80s and '90s, raising millions of dollars from his Newman's Own brand of products. Much of that money has gone to the camp Newman and Woodward founded for terminally ill children, the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, and to the Scott Newman Foundation, named after the son from his first marriage whose drug and alcohol problems led to his death in 1978.

Newman might have chosen to concentrate on politics or philanthropy, or even race-car driving, making only the occasional movie, coasting on his persona. In "Method Actors," an essential book on American acting, critic Steve Vineberg quotes a 1975 interview where the actor said: "I'm falling back on successful things that you can get away with. I duplicate things now. I don't work as compactly as I used to work, simply because the demands aren't asked of me anymore." The demand came, unexpectedly enough, in yet another Hill film, the 1977 hockey comedy "Slap Shot." Instead of working on the crude, bash-'em-up level of Nancy Dowd's script, Newman, then 52, chose to burrow right past the shallow material. You can see traces of his early characters in Reggie Dunlap, the aging player-coach of a third-rate, bush-league hockey team. He's the sort of guy who never imagined there could be more to life than another game, another woman, another round of cold ones with the boys. Newman plays Reggie as something of an innocent, an adolescent sensualist in the body of a middle-aged man. He doesn't make excuses for the man or condescend to his limits. And he manages to suggest the sadness of the character, on whom it's beginning to dawn that he'll have nothing left when his playing career is over.

Newman was often good in the most demanding emotional moments of his early movies -- the way his body slumps when he sees Piper Laurie after she commits suicide in "The Hustler," or the hymn he picks out on his banjo after receiving news of his mother's death in "Cool Hand Luke." But they didn't hurt to watch, the way the greatest moments in his recent performances do. In "Fort Apache, the Bronx," as Murphy, the decent cop trying simply to do the best he can in an impossible job, Newman ends a tense hostage situation in a hospital only to stumble upon the body of the nurse he's dating (Rachel Ticotin), OD'd on heroin. Lovingly, refusing to believe what he sees, Murphy picks up his lover's corpse and walks it up and down the hospital corridor in a futile attempt to revive her. Seeing an actor as stable as Paul Newman express that kind of desperation carries a deep sting. The scene is one of those awful incandescent moments our greatest actors are capable of: Newman conveys exactly what it is to watch the life and will go out of someone.

Cockiness doesn't usually sit well on an older man. Newman must have known that. In his later roles his youthful bravado is replaced by the easy sureness of men who -- not easily -- have learned just who they are. Newman digs into the emotional makeup of his characters, even when they try to keep their emotions to themselves. You can see that most dramatically in his return to the role of Fast Eddie Felson in Martin Scorsese's 1986 sequel to "The Hustler," "The Color of Money," for which Newman won an Academy Award. But it's as Michael Gallagher in "Absence of Malice" (1981) that Newman goes deepest into the ways an ordinary man tries to hold onto his dignity. Gallagher's reputation, livelihood and, most tragically, his closest friend are destroyed by a newspaper report suggesting he's suspected in a labor leader's disappearance. Newman is playing a man who doesn't like to be the focus of attention, and his performance has a stunningly compact physicality. His younger characters insisted on living life the way they wanted; this performance is about what Gallagher does when that choice is taken away from him. Newman is so sure-footed in this performance that nothing he does to get his life back seems extraneous or excessive, including -- in the film's most shocking scene -- roughing up the reporter (Sally Field) whose stories result in his best friend's suicide. His blunt cruelty (far more mental than physical) seems the only thing that can get past Field's inane journalism-school justification. Newman plays the aftermath of the scene with a spent disgust -- at Field, at himself -- and an incomprehension of the depth of his grief. That's what you hear when he asks Field, "Didn't you like her? Couldn't you just stop scribbling and put down your goddamn ballpoint and look at her?"

Newman's recent performances have included both unlikely roles (the repressed middle-class businessman in "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," perhaps the subtlest, most interior performance he's ever given) and demonstrations of his continuing star power (the private detective in the ignored and surprisingly tender noir "Twilight"). A few weeks ago, on "Today," he said that he'd like to find one more good role and then move on to other interests. And if the best he's offered is the old-codger part he has in the current "Message in a Bottle" (a part he does his damnedest to dry out), who can blame him?

But it's one of the least characteristic performances he's given over the last 20 years, that of Louisiana Gov. Earl Long in Ron Shelton's underrated and hugely enjoyable "Blaze" (1989) in which he seems to come full circle, combining the young actor's flamboyant love of performing with the veteran's ability to live inside the character. Newman's Uncle Earl, with a shock of white hair, his profile more hawklike than it has ever been, and speaking in a low raspy voice, looks nothing like the doughy Southern pol gracing the cover of A.J. Liebling's classic "The Earl of Louisiana." But Shelton must have sensed the fit between actor and role. The film follows Long's last years, his love affair with stripper Blaze Starr (Lolita Davidovich), which, along with the stand he took in favor of desegregation, cost him the governor's mansion, and his bittersweet vindication by being elected to Congress hours before he died of a heart attack.

Long was one of the great benevolent rogues politics give rise to (like LBJ or Boston's legendary Mayor James Michael Curley), a man who reveled in the impurity of politics and played it as a game at which he could beat any piker fool enough to challenge him. Newman plays Long as a randy little bantam, and it's politics as much as sex that gets him raring to go. The gleam in Newman's eye throughout the movie might have been put there by the sight of his luscious Blaze, or by some scheme he's hatching to smite his enemies. Like the crawfish etouffee he brings in a steaming pot to an elegantly laid table, the pleasures Earl enjoys are best when they're thrown together, letting their juices mix. But Newman is so deep inside the character that there also seems to be a cloud perpetually hovering over him, forever threatening to sweep him into his most private thoughts. Newman gets at the wonderful contradiction and tragedy of this master politician: how a shrewd man allows himself to be carried away by his passions -- Blaze and politics. There's a sadness that lies in wait at the end of Newman's performance, the sadness of seeing something grand and magnificent pass out of this life. Newman goes bone deep into Earl's profound distress at having to let go of politics, the thing he loves best, before he's accomplished everything he wants.

Thankfully, the riches of Newman's own career don't allow for any such disappointment.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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