Saturday, September 27, 2008
RIP Paul Newman
More to say later.
Ok, let's get started. Newman memorably inaugurated David Letterman's CBS show, looking around the Ed Sullivan Theater and asking, "Where the hell are the singing cats?" So maybe a Top 10 list of things I liked about Paul Newman, though I could think of many more. He wasn't just a quintessential movie actor (and an underrated director) but a great American, who made us look good.
1) In 1982, as his powerhouse role in The Verdict was about to hit cinemas, he gave a lengthy interview to Time magazine. Included was a box, where he evaluated all of his films to date: The hits, the misses, and, most revealingly, the ones he admitted to doing for the money, or because his wife, the equally formidable (and eminently approachable) Joanne Woodward, wanted to get out from under the daily routine of raising a family while he was on location and demanded a busman's holiday in Paris. It's pretty rare for a star to put his or her career under such scrutiny, and I admired his candor and humor (self-deprecation was among his many charms) in taking on such an assignment.
2) Particularly at that moment, when his reputation was still on the mend after a waning period. There was a time--before The Verdict, before the Oscar win for The Color of Money(1986)--that he was thought to be on the ropes, a spent force, going through the motions in junk like 1980's When Time Ran Out..., Irwin's Allen's last gasp disaster movie, a steep decline even from The Towering Inferno (1974). The mid-career superstardom from that and the two ultra-popular but lightweight Robert Redford smashes may have thrown him. But he always came back swinging, surviving an abortive debut in 1954's The Silver Chalice (it is to laugh that the Warner Bros. front office thought religious costumers might suit an epitome of the modern man trying to hack it) and what-the-hell duds like 1963's A New Kind of Love1965's Lady L, and 1968's The Secret War of Harry Frigg. Like his characters, he'd lose his faith, and somehow claw his way back. I respected that.
3) You know all the hits, or should know them. He was a handsome man who excelled at playing the flaws beneath the blue-eyed charm. The underrateds are just as compelling: Hombre (1967), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), Fort Apache the Bronx (1981), Sydney Pollack's great journalism movie Absence of Malice(1981). I think The Drowning Pool (1975) is a lot better than his prior, more successful 1966 turn as private eye Lew Harper, whose spirit animates the aptly named Twilight (1998).
4) And then there is 1977's Slap Shot, my favorite sports-related movie, and a profane, rowdy delight from start to finish, anchored by his gutsy, lummoxy performance. Terrific. Rent it in tribute.
5) Tennessee Williams hated the bowdlerized films made from his plays, but I bet even he responded to the charisma Newman brought to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Sweet Smell of Success (1962; he had also starred in the production). (Newman's Turner Classic Movies tribute to Cat star Elizabeth Taylor, which you can catch between movies, is quite heartfelt and gallant.) And he would have been deeply moved by the truly great film Newman, as director, wrested from The Glass Menagerie (1987). A harrowing, heartbreaking picture, the last of the six he made. (Useless trivia: His Sometimes a Great Notion was the first movie cablecast by HBO when the channel debuted in 1972.)
6) My father-in-law knew Newman from his racing days, and saw him at the track; 1969's Winning, the movie that gave him the need for speed, starts at Wisconsin's Road America, where my in-dad often volunteers in pit crews. His favorite Newman picture, and one of mine, was 1967's Cool Hand Luke. He delightfully parodied his preoccupation in Mel Brooks' Silent Movie (1976). It's fitting that his last lap around the cinematic track was the Pixar cartoon Cars.
7) Newman's foodstuffs went beyond novelty and charity--they're actually really good, and staples in our house, The popcorn, ranch dressing, and peanut butter cups are outstanding. He'd be thrilled to see sales skyrocket, boosting the coffers of his many charitable activities, so go out and buy some Newman's products.
8) He was a forceful, but not overbearing, liberal activist. I miss these gentlemen on all sides of the body politic. Vote Obama in his memory.
9) It was lovely to see him onstage in Our Town, in the 2002-2003 Broadway season. The Menagerie film is a gift but I wish he had done more. He could hold an audience rapt.
10) I saw Newman and Woodward, his wife of 50 years (and ten films together), in the audience of the Atlantic Theater Company production of TrumperyOff Broadway last December. They very quietly upstaged the show. A woman seated next to them reported that they held hands the entire performance.