People around my age picked up Paul Newman's career somewhere in the seventies, when he was lending his light gravitas to big bucks commercial clangers like When Time Ran Out or amusing himself with auteurist follies like Quintet – two hours of Newman in the snow, swaddled in heavy fur. If he had been anything like an actor, it had been for my parents, not me, and he was about as relevant as Olivia De Havilland in The Swarm, which is to say not much. Now that he has died, 30 years after I first ran into his work, 54 years after he began his film career, and 83 years after he was born in 1925, I cannot say that anymore and haven't for a long time.
In Hud, based on Larry McMurtry's novel, Newman's talent, seen on TV in a pan-and-scan print with runny grays, suddenly became manifest. In that movie, he competes with his stern father for the soul of his younger brother and provides a gateway for the boy into his world of liquor, loose women and moral relativism run wild. The irony of the story is that Hud is sexy, swaggering – testicles on legs – a complete swine, with a hard mean tone to his voice that goes light when seduction is the game, but essentially right when it counts. He sees that his father's rigid adherence to a moral code causes the old man to make ghastly mistakes, yet Hud has no standing to put things right. Now, McMurtry's novel had no intent to favor Hud, even ironically, and Hud is meant to be the villain, but audiences didn't see it that way.
What Newman did was explode the part and made it far more complex than what was on the page. Beyond that, he did it without playing directly to the audience or asking for sympathy – he didn't make Hud sympathetic, he made him comprehensible, someone who could fascinate the audience even through many scenes of bad, even unforgivable behavior.
Like many actors with long careers, Newman had strings of stinkers that might have encouraged retirement – I wouldn't have missed him if he left after some of his seventies work – but he held out until writers and directors realized that his talent hadn't left him and might want to consider doing something more substantial with him. And it came to pass: writer David Mamet and director Sidney Lumet rescued Newman from the high-paying hell of Irwin Allen disaster movies and gave him a first rate vehical in The Verdict, in which he create a very different kind of flawed man than in Hud.
In that film, attorney Frank Galvin is a late middle aged man brought low by alcohol and too much failure, and the movie hinges on his ability – or lack of it – to rouse himself for a big case – involving medical malpractice - against big players – a Catholic hospital with deep ties into the religious and political landscapes of Boston. Newman isn't playing Hud later in life, but a completely different kind of character, one whose already meager resources have run almost completely dry. The movie doesn't escape commercial consideration – we all know how that case is going to work out – but Newman's job was to make you doubt him thoroughly, and he did that.
Newman gave superb performances whenever the opportunities presented themselves. In the 50s, there was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Somebody Up There Likes Me, in the 60s Hud and The Hustler, in the 70s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. Perhaps he did like to hang around people of middling talent a bit too much – he made a string of films with Hud director Martin Ritt that were not too special and repeated the pattern with Stuart Rosenberg after the success of Cool Hand Luke. In both cases, and others, he could be accused of coasting – being a magnetic personality and extremely handsome guy can carry one quite a way.
But The Verdict set him on track to pick-and-choose roles right through his seventies; unlike many other leading men grown old, he seemed to enjoy being free of youthful vanity, sexual desirability, and actorly laziness. In movies like Nobody's Fool, he's quite content to lead an ensemble and in The Road to Perdition, perfectly willing to take over with casual malice when Tom Hanks falters.
And when he acted with his wife of 50 years, Joanne Woodward, as in Mr. And Mrs. Bridge, he would take second chair. Several of his directing efforts left himself out completely, the better to spotlight Miss Woodward's considerable talent – Rachel Rachel, The Glass Menagerie and others are accomplished works, not vanity productions for the wife.
Newman's racing outfit, Newman-Wachs, ran an NEI-sponsored car in some races – you can read about that here – and Newman favored nuclear energy, so there is, however light, a connection. But really, none is needed.
When I made dinner last night, I put together some pork chops and a salad. I went to get the dressing to glop over the greens and saw that it was Newman's Own Lite Ranch, with smiling Paul wearing a silly cowboy hat. I felt like I'd been hit - and gave Hud a spin after dinner.
Paul Newman in The Verdict. Lumet often shot Newman's character from this angle, the better to indicate Frank Galvin's relationship to the bench and to make his eventual success all the sweeter.