Saturday, September 27, 2008
Paul Newman 1925-2008
In the days ahead, the tributes to Paul Newman will come pouring in, and by people far more suited to the task than me. Newman came to my attention when he was already in his fourth decade of acting. I may have first seen him on either televised or videotaped versions of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, lightweight yet enjoyable performances in lightweight yet enjoyable movies. I would later come to appreciate his acting chops in weightier fare, catching up to his efforts in The Verdict and The Hustler.
I suspect one theme to his career will be that he made acting look almost too easy, that a man who initially came across as a facile pretty-boy in his early films would eventually show reservoirs of inner life. The typical Newman character is a cocky heel who's almost as smart as he thinks he is, the same of which could be applied to Tom Cruise if the latter wasn't entirely external in his performances, free of depth or shading. Newman co-starred with Cruise in The Color of Money and, naturally, won his only Oscar for a fine yet unspectacular performance in an okay movie, for a character he had played better twenty-five years prior. (Fittingly, Newman didn't show up to receive his award, and Bette Davis, who presented, babbled onstage senselessly.) So much of his work was better than that. In one of Sidney Lumet's earlier books, the director recalled that during rehearsals for The Verdict, Newman seemed reluctant to take his character, an alcoholic lawyer, into a deeper place, but eventually, bravely went there. He did it again in what may be my personal favorite performance as Sully Sullivan in Nobody's Fool, where Newman's cantankerous grace found a kindred spirit in a character out of Richard Russo's prose.
What more can be said I'll leave to the experts. I'll only add that for all sadness at his passing, there isn't a sense of incompleteness. No life cut tragically short as with Heath Ledger, or the lingering possibility of more great work like Sydney Pollack, or the faded promise of Roy Scheider. (Unless one counts the always unlikelihood of a Newman and Redford reunion, to which the former once grunted, "I'm not playing his father.") Paul Newman's body of work will remain and the impact of his offscreen philanthropy will continue to be felt. He had vision to the rest of our bifocals.