Paul Newman's Light
Paul Newman has died, damn it. He was the closest thing we've had in a movie star to a saint—and probably he'd say that was the dumbest thing he'd ever heard, which as far as I'm concerned is more proof. I'm not just talking about the hundreds of millions he earned for charity with his Newman's Own products, or his persistent but judicious political activism. As an artist, he was self-deprecating, often deeply self-critical; he never assumed we'd love him because he was, you know, Paul Newman. When directors built him pedestals, he worked to earn his place on them. Early in his career, he studied the Method, but he never went in for the fumbly-mumbly self-plumbing that became its hallmark. He always threw his attention onto the other actors—which might be why, opposite him, so many became stars and won awards. Everyone looked brighter in his light.
The light came from those blue eyes, of course—but it wasn't just their color that was hypnotizing. Two of his most vivid performances were in black and white: the self-loathing pool-hall drifter in The Hustler, and the mean-drunk, oversexed sleazeball rancher in Hud (probably his sexiest, most magnetic turn—but who can choose?). Newman didn't use those eyes promiscuously, as jeepers-creepers peepers. He hooded them, slit them, closed them tightly in pain. When open, they were sky blue with a milky haze. You could get lost in them; you could also see that he was sometimes lost behind them. Trim, smooth, chiseled, pretty, Newman was physically our most wide-open movie star, yet on one level he was also our most unfathomable.
We feared for him onscreen, and he got battered (or killed) a lot—as the impulsive-country-boy Billy the Kid in The Left Handed Gun, and most famously, as the title character in Cool Hand Luke, a heavy-handed Christ-behind-bars picture in which the homoeroticism borders on camp. Newman redeemed Cool Hand Luke by staying grounded. Look at the opening sequence, as he begins to vandalize parking meters: He senses the hell he's bringing on himself and acts out anyway, as if he's daring the universe to punish him. I don't know if his penchant for smart-ass bad-boy roles had roots in his relationship to his father, evidently a cold and disapproving man, but he had more juice as a prodigal son than a stern patriarch. One of his best-known roles, in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, exploited that easy impudence, and he was deft and charming; he obviously enjoyed the patter with Robert Redford. (They re-enacted the routine in every interview thereafter.) But that's not the performance I want to remember him for. It's a little glib.
Newman was ambivalent about his prettiness, but he didn't make a show of fighting it: He never slapped on a fake nose or did a Quasimodo turn. (His voice—gruff and increasingly gravelly—balanced out his looks somewhat.) He was good in wounded Adonis parts (as in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), but he was better with a shot of self-satire. In The Long Hot Summer, he was an uppity stud-muffin who brazens his way into a rich Southern clan led by Orson Welles. It was on that film that he met Joanne Woodward, who played the brainy, somewhat rigid young woman who finally surrenders to him—and how could she not? Different as they are, their chemistry is palpable. In life, he adored her stability and smarts. She let him stay a kid at heart.
In the late Seventies, Newman's son Scott died of an accidental drug overdose. It shattered him, and he blamed himself—apparently without much cause. But as an actor, he grew. He pared down his style and hit notes he'd never hit onscreen before, in Fort Apache, The Bronx, Absence of Malice, and The Verdict. His Oscar came for The Hustler sequel, The Color of Money, and he was sly and funny; his self-containment was a marvel. But the showboat of that film was director Martin Scorsese, doing his rock-'n-roll whip-pan thing, and the movie has none of its predecessor's intensity.
Newman tested himself in character parts, doing strangled little voices (Pocket Money) or barnstorming (Blaze). But he didn't have great range. And as I've said, military men and patriarchs didn't bring out the best in him—even when he was very fine, as in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (a gift to Woodward) and the waterlogged lump of pretention Road to Perdition. Newman was unquenchably youthful—the joke, I think, behind billing himself "Pa Newman" on his cookie packages. Among his later performances, I liked him best as a sneaky robber in the middling caper movie Where the Money Is and as the scoundrelly old sponge in Empire Falls. These aren't expansive turns—he stays inside himself. But you can feel his pleasure in acting.
Great actors and great artists don't have to be role models in life to inspire you with their work. But when they are, they give a special kind of joy. The character of his life is everywhere in his work, in its lack of self-centeredness, in the way it radiated out. In sad days and sunny ones, Paul Newman bathed the world in blue.
Note: This is an expanded version of a piece for CBS Sunday Morning that ran on September 28, 2008.