Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Coolest Hand

Paul Newman was the coolest leading man of his generation. He wasn't the historical gamechanger that Marlon Brando was, who preceded him by a few years, nor was he the counterculture hero embraced by the mainstream that Jack Nicholson became. In a certain sense he was a transitory figure, one of the last stars in the studio system, one of the first to achieve independence while remaining astride the box office, a naturalistic actor who didn't have to mumble, a politically and socially conscious actor who made it seem effortless to be so.

It's hard to imagine a world without Newman. He was of my father's generation and had that postwar modernism that looked forward with pleasure but still respected from whence he came. He made it seem like there was somebody sane out there to look up to, a lack of shame between what he did on the big screen and how he lived his life when he was off. By being a man of Westport, CT rather than Los Angeles, CA, he stayed one of us, if maybe having the best time of all of us. What else can you say about a man who took up auto racing at age 47 and ended up building a team?

He was having fun on the screen as well. In his two classic films co-starring Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, he was the brains to Redford's beauty, and the two of them basically invented the buddy film, albeit with more heft than most that followed. There was no couple you'd rather be with, and their interplay was a joy to watch over and over again. What made it work was the very smarts underpinning Newman's performances, that his characters knew their times were running short, making those moments together so much sweeter, and bonding us to Newman for not underestimating our intelligence. Highlights include the early contest for control of the Hole-In-The-Wall Gang from the first film, and one of the best poker games ever put on film in the second.

The other two Newman pictures I recall most fondly are Cool Hand Luke and The Verdict. I discovered the former on one of the many Saturday nights when my parents went out and NBC Saturday Night at the Movies was my weekend education. Newman again reinvented the anti-hero, a 1960's symbol without any of the heavy-handed trappings that might date the character now. From the opening scene, the only one in a city and in freedom, a drunken Luke takes the heads off a sidewalk full of parking meters. The lights from the cops shine on him and he gives up that awesome shit-eating grin, and that's it, straight to life on the chain gang and "a failure to communicate." Newman's ability to capture Luke's embrace of the absurdity of his situation, his ability to rally his fellow prisoners by example as much as exhortation, and his shortfall in understanding the true gravity of the world in which he is trapped forged an enduring archetype, the man-child rebel who wouldn't hurt a flea, somehow it itself a threat to the Vietnam-era establishment.

The Verdict, a highlight of Sidney Lumet's directing career as well, takes an opposite tack, telling a story of redemption as a washed-up, alcoholic, ambulance chasing lawyer gets changed by a case that leads him against the very Boston political machine that gave him his career in the first place. Lumet has written about Redford originally being cast in the role and the constant re-writings of David Mamet's original script due to Redford's discomfort in opening the movie as a drunk loser (maybe just a better understanding of his own screen strengths), which all went away when the role went to Newman. The movie builds to a remarkable jury summation scene, delivered in an unbroken take by Newman, and a top-notch open ending on the one dangling plot point -- a telephone ringing while Newman drinks black coffee, a changed man on the brink of a decision of forgiveness, something he himself needed so badly at the start of the film. And we're with him the entire way.

So while it's quite right to be sad that we're living in a world without Paul Newman anymore, there's plenty to celebrate about a long life lived well, with a strong marriage, enduring philanthropy, great performances and damned good salad dressing. The unique, ever-fresh personality of Paul Newman will endure in trove of great movie star roles (and a handful of solid directing efforts) that extends across six-count 'em-six decades, his Hole In the Wall camps for disabled kids, as well as grocery stores everywhere.

Like George Kennedy's Dragline says at the end of Cool Hand Luke:
"He was smiling... That's right. You know, that, that Luke smile of his. He had it on his face right to the very end. Hell, if they didn't know it 'fore, they could tell right then that they weren't a-gonna beat him. That old Luke smile. Oh, Luke. He was some boy. Cool Hand Luke. Hell, he's a natural-born world-shaker."
Amen, brother.

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