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A Tribute to Paul Newman

Somebody Up There Likes Him

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Paul Newman Movies

Paul Newman Filmography:
The Silver Chalice (1954)
Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)
The Rack (1956)
Until They Sail (1957)
The Helen Morgan Story (1957)
The Long, Hot Summer (1958)
The Left Handed Gun (1958)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! (1958)
The Young Philadelphians (1959)
From the Terrace (1960)
Exodus (1960)
The Hustler (1961)
Paris Blues (1961)
Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)
Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man (1962)
Hud (1963)
A New Kind of Love (1963)
The Prize (1963)
What a Way to Go! (1964)
The Outrage (1964)
Lady L (1965)
Harper (1966)
Torn Curtain (1966)
Hombre (1967)
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
The Secret War of Harry Frigg (1968)
Rachel, Rachel (1968)
Winning (1969)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
WUSA (1970)
Sometimes a Great Notion (1971)
Pocket Money (1972)
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972)
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)
The MacKintosh Man (1973)
The Sting (1973)
The Towering Inferno (1974)
The Drowning Pool (1975)
Silent Movie (1976)
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976)
Slap Shot (1977)
Quintet (1979)
The Shadow Box (1980) (TV)
When Time Ran Out... (1980)
Fort Apache the Bronx (1981)
Absence of Malice (1981)
The Verdict (1982)
Come Along with Me (1982) (TV)
Harry & Son (1984)
The Color of Money (1986)
The Glass Menagerie (1987)
Blaze (1989)
Fat Man and Little Boy (1989)
Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990)
Nobody's Fool (1994)
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Twilight (1998)
Message in a Bottle (1999)
Where the Money Is (2000)
Road to Perdition (2002)
Our Town (2003) (TV)
Empire Falls (2005) (TV)
Cars (2006) (voice)

When I think of Paul Newman (1925-2008), I'm reminded me of my late grandmother. Many years ago, when I was still a teenager, she bought me a book, "The Films of Paul Newman," for my birthday. The book stops at around 1981, with Absence of Malice, so it's woefully incomplete, but it reminds me of her. I have no idea whether or not she liked Paul Newman too, of if she knew I loved movies and merely picked up the first book she could find on that subject. I never thought to ask. I do know that my grandmother once entertained aspirations of showbiz, but found herself married and with a family before she knew what hit her. She was quite beautiful in her day and could easily have broken into movies. And, who knows? Maybe she might have made a movie with Newman.

All this is neither here nor there, but it explains why the passing of Paul Newman last Friday at the age of 83 made me so sad. Newman found an odd place in show business; he was stuck halfway between actor and movie star, halfway between greatness and consistency. He often seemed easy-going, but every once in a while he stepped up for something more. He made flops with some of the industry's greatest directors (Robert Altman, Alfred Hitchcock, the Coen Brothers, etc.) and made hits with some of the industry's least interesting directors. In one of my earliest reviews, I had the opportunity to award four stars to one of his last starring roles, Twilight (1998), even if we haven't seen much of him since. Today, he's perhaps better known for the delicious sauces and cookies that are eaten at my family's table. (Not to mention his various charities and activism.)

As a kind of tribute, I thought I'd go through his filmography and offer up some random thoughts on some of the films I've seen.

The Silver Chalice (1954)
This was Paul Newman's infamous debut, about which he was very publicly ashamed. I saw it once on cable, and it's completely unmemorable. It's not even bad enough to be interesting. If Newman weren't in it, there would be no reason to watch it, and if you didn't know who Newman was, there's no evidence that he would go on to anything significant.

The Left Handed Gun (1958)
Arthur Penn directed this Western, an attempt to "experiment" with the genre. Billy the Kid (Newman) is now a confused kid who simply avenges the death of his guardian. The film is a bit awkward overall, but Newman's Method-like, mumbling performance has dated badly.

The Hustler (1961)
This is one of Newman's very best films, if not his best, even if it's relentlessly depressing. Newman is captivating as 'Fast Eddie' Felson, a cocky, swaggering young pool hustler, who takes on the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason, in an astonishingly subtle, powerful performance) in an all-night pool match. Most of the film takes place as he recovers from two broken thumbs, aided by crippled alcoholic Sarah (Piper Laurie), learning lessons about himself and preparing for the inevitable rematch. It's tough going, but director Robert Rossen does miraculous things with his black-and-white widescreen frame, generally empty, and with the passage of time.

Hud (1963)
See review.

Torn Curtain (1966)
See review.

Cool Hand Luke (1967)
See review.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
One of Newman's biggest hits, this is generally considered one of the greatest Westerns of all time, although it's definitely not that good. It's way too cutesy and coy, and I'll never forgive it for that annoying "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" music video interlude. But Newman and Robert Redford have indelible chemistry and it's irresistible fun.

The Sting (1973)
See review.

Silent Movie (1976)
Newman made a cameo in this film as "himself," a racecar nut. Mel Brooks directed, with only one spoken word in the screenplay. Despite a good idea and Brooks' best efforts, the result is just too broad with none of the intricate inventiveness of a Chaplin or Keaton.

Slap Shot (1977)
See review.

The Verdict (1982)
I saw this a long time ago on video (or was it cable?) and I don't remember much of it, but I do remember that it's one of Newman's most intelligent and low-key works (he was nominated for an Oscar). I'll have to catch up with it again and get back to you.

The Color of Money (1986)
Newman received six Oscar nominations from 1958 to 1982 and never won, so the Academy practically handed it to him for his performance in this "sequel" to The Hustler. Made 180-degrees away from the original, in color with slick editing and a pop music score, this film has many, many detractors, but I love it. It's one of my favorite Scorsese films. For all its slickness, it has a definite seedy quality, and it certainly takes its time (it's not as fast-cut as one would expect). Now Fast Eddie is older and is more interested in fine booze than he is in pool, but when he spots a younger, up-and-coming hustler (Tom Cruise), his interest is re-awakened. The two butt heads throughout the film until the inevitable showdown; Scorsese's choice regarding this final sequence made many viewers angry, but it's actually just right. An army of brilliant supporting players adds to the sleazy quality (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was also nominated for an Oscar), as does Robbie Robertson's score.

Blaze (1989)
Ron Shelton directed this biopic of Louisiana governor Earl K. Long (Newman) and his stripper mistress Blaze Starr (Lolita Davidovich). I saw it in the theater, but it struck me as rather uneven. The broad comedy never quite mixes with the serious cinematography, and nothing ever feels like it's on the same page.

Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990)
To date, this is probably my favorite Merchant-Ivory film; it's one of their most relaxed and observant, more like a short story than one of their sweeping, truncated novels. Barely anything happens in this story of a Kansas housewife during the 1930s and 1940s, but Newman and his real-life wife Joanne Woodward make the day-to-day events dramatic. Woodward received an Oscar nomination.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
For their fifth film, Joel and Ethan Coen crafted their first misfire, a kind of screwball comedy with Capra-like touches, but it's far too long and tonally inconsistent. Tim Robbins plays a guy who invents the hula-hoop. Since the idea makes him look like an idiot, he's appointed president of a company as part of a stock scam. Of course, his idea becomes a hit, and the scam fails. The movie has a dazzling set design, with giant, cavernous rooms and spaces, with sharp cinematography to match, but only three characters spring to life: Newman as the barking businessman Sidney J. Mussburger, Jennifer Jason Leigh as lady reporter Amy Archer (channeling Rosalind Russell) and Bruce Campbell as her pal Smitty.

Nobody's Fool (1994)
I saw this one on an airplane, but I really liked it. It's one of those small gems that make you smile. Newman plays Sully, a crotchety old codger in upstate New York whose newly single son comes to stay, along with Sully's grandson. This gives him a fresh opportunity to learn to be a parent (or grandparent). Director Robert Benton gives the movie a light touch, focusing on humor and characters and dialogue (adapted from Richard Russo's book), and using the snow-covered exteriors to create a heavier sense of mood. The terrific supporting cast includes Jessica Tandy, Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Dylan Walsh and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Benton, Russo and Newman re-teamed for Twilight.

Twilight (1998)
See review.

Road to Perdition (2002)
See review.

Cars (2006)
See review.

September 30, 2008

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