One of my mother’s favorite movies of all time was Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. She was a Robert Redford fan, and I can recall her swooning over the man, but as gorgeous as Redford was ( and still is), I was always more fascinated by Paul Newman. It was those blue eyes, icy and flashing with wisdom. He was captivating, even when I was young.
When I became one of those movie snobs more inclined to watch Italian neo realism than Hollywood blockbusters, a Newman film would always bring me back to the land of congealed snow. Whether it was his undisciplined Rocky in Somebody Up There Likes Me, his brooding ( if chastened by the production code) Brick in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, his Fast Eddie in both The Hustler and The Color Of Money, Hud, Luke, Harper, Butch, Judge Roy Bean, Henry Gondorff, Reggie Dunlop, Michael Colin Gallagher, Frank Galvin, or his Sully Sullivan, I came back for Newman. He was a product of his time, an actor who fell into it and who studied with Lee Strasberg, at the end of the studio system and at the beginning of the hyphenates. Newman was a great actor, who made it look easy on screen, and with matinee idol looks and actual talent, he made a huge impact in the late fifties.
But Newman was more than a pretty face. He was politically active, supporting Eugene McCarthy against Lyndon Johnson, and George McGovern against Nixon. He turned down Dirty Harry for it’s politics, donated to the Nation to keep it going, and then, of course, his active support for Ted Kennedy and his vocal support for equality rights for marriage. Newman was unapologetic about his politics, and held fast to them through out his life, even dropping former friend Charlton Heston when Heston became a fervent right winger. He was also one of the best known philanthropists in the world, creating the Newman’s Own brand of popcorn and salad dressing, and donating millions over the last three decades to children’s charities.
Newman was nominated nine times for an Oscar- for best actor in The Hustler, The Color Of Money, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, The Verdict, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Absence Of Malice, and Nobody’s Fool, and for best supporting actor inThe Road to Perdition. He won for The Color Of Money, and was also awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy in 1994, as well as a career achievement award. He was also nominated for five BAFTAs, two Palm d’ors, a DGA award, four Emmys ( of which he won one, as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie for Empire Falls), 14 Golden Globes ( he won six), a Tony nomination ( for a revival of Our Town in 2003), and numerous critics and fan awards. One of the first actors to direct outside the studio system, he ended up directing six projects, all interesting, including a famed TV version of The Shadow Box, and the 1987 version of The Glass Menagerie.
Newman was also famed for his long, fifty year marriage to actress Joanne Woodward, which is an eternity and a half in Hollywood. Woodward was his second wife, and they had three children together ( he also had three children with his first wife, Jackie Witte). They worked on eleven films together, and Newman directed his wife to an Oscar nomination for Rachel, Rachel.
Newman’s acting trailed off in the nineties, as his love for auto racing took over. Owner of a CHAMP racing team with Carl Haas, Newman had raced Le Mans and admitted that it was it was where he felt the most at home.
My favorite Newman moment happens to be the entire film The Verdict, and I hold fast that it is his single greatest performance. His alcoholic attorney grasping at his last chance case, and he’s offered money to settle. In what I’m sure is frank Galvin’s only true noble move in his life, he says
“That that poor girl put her trust into the… into the hands of two men who took her life. She’s in a coma. Her life is gone. She has no home, no family. She’s tied to a machine. She has no friends. And the people who should care for her – her doctors… and you and me – have been bought off to look the other way. We’ve been paid to look the other way. I came here to take your money. I brought snapshots to show you so I could get your money. I can’t do it; I can’t take it. ‘Cause if I take the money I’m lost. I’ll just be a… rich ambulance chaser. I can’t do it. I can’t take it.”
Paul Newman passed away today, after a battle with cancer, in his home near Westport, Conn. He was 83, and surrounded by his wife, children, and close friends.