Paul Newman’s high popularity can be easily accounted for: he’s the ideal American male—handsome, talented, sporty, presumably faithful, socially committed, independent if occasionally ornery, a generous home-spun impresario and, of course, enviably thin. Half of the audience still wants him, the other half still wants to be like him. Excluding The Verdict, no one could accuse him of resting on laurels—he’s the least lazy actor among superstars. Not liking some of his movies—I felt zilch for The Color of Money, Fat Man and Big Boy, Blaze; disdain for The Sting, Harry and Son and The Verdict; fell asleep during Mackintosh Man, Quintet, Buffalo Bill—rarely means disliking him. Thanks to DVD, we can refresh the joys of his Ben Quick, working at the Varner store, putting the make on Joanne Woodward in The Long Hot Summer; enjoy his drunken dance with a rumpy Joan Collins in Rally Round the Flag, Boys; wonder what his Brick’s thinking while watching Liz’s Maggie straighten her seams; be once more amused by his Chance attempting to blackmail tick-loaded Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird of Youth; feel something liberating about his lowdown Hud; come to realize he’s really much better than Woodward in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. Newman’s retained his stature as performer even when he’s whoring in The Verdict, The Towering Inferno or When Time Ran Out, or in The Color of Money way when, typically, Hollywood had to face up to the delayed justice of honoring him after so many slights. He’s unique as icon because he’s long abandoned his insolent, tough-turf method to become the quintessential Sears Craftsman—quality-built, dependable, long-lasting. Entitled, the famous blue eyes are cloudy and bloodshot, the hair a bit straw-like as if lacking Pantene, the crows and other lines without vanity’s protection; they’re not distractions or regrets—they’re Platinum Card rewards. In Robert Benton’s Nobodys Fool, Newman once more plays his specialty—a loser-boozer—and this time, as Sully, he feels super-right as one, this time when, as actor, he looks at someone, or looks back at Sully’s waste, he’s deeply ruminating. When, for example, Sully enters the house he gave up because he refused to pay the back taxes, getting lost in a melancholic storm of memory, Newman reaches an emotional connection I can’t recall ever having experienced from him before. Perhaps the snowy setting of North Bath helps prod us to receptive responses, setting us up sentimentally for what is the winter of Newman’s career. Perhaps I’m primed to see in Newman’s Sully my own father, who also abandoned his family, but on this I can not be alone: Sully’s a norm as delinquent father, not exception. (What’s accidental if not surprising about Nobodys Fool is it belies the hysteria about the current breakdown of the family: World War II era dads blew off their responsibilities with just as much disregard as dads are doing today.) I wasn’t as lucky as Sully’s son: my dad was always looking for the handout, quick with the sob story—I even had to pay for his plane ticket to finally meet him for the first and only time. Yet I understood why he deserted us: like Sully’s mistake in marrying uptight, sexless Elizabeth Wilson (whose dining room table scene says it all), Dad hitched up with a hag out to prove she was more man than he was. Nobodys Fool is a slice of lifer, burrowing deep into painful memories and Newman’s consummate skill makes them bearable. He justly earned the National Society of Film Critics and N.Y. Film Critics Circle awards as best actor. A remarkably strong supporting cast, including Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith (in a role meant for Kim Basinger), Dylan Walsh, Philip Bosco, Philip Seymour Hoffman and, in her final screen appearance, Jessica Tandy. Willis’s doberman is the only clumsy performer.


Newman’s passing at 83 had been prepared for, with begrudging thanks to the tabloids and TV gossip outlets, but it doesn’t lessen moviegoers’ responses. No movie superstar in our lifetime had more lasting appeal; no celebrity of his sex deserved more respect or had more honor attached to him for humanitarian endeavors off-screen. And no actor of his generation had a more enjoyably critical view of his career: when telling Larry King he couldn’t bare to watch his earlier performances—“I really just can’t watch myself. I see all the machinery at work and it just drives me nuts”—the honesty was and remains refreshing because the truth is Newman’s thesping in his first films, especially Somebody Up There Likes Me, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Long, Hot Summer, are iconic essences of 50s movie theatricality. Doesn’t make those performances bad, it makes them evidence of the excess of period influence. He flinched out of self-embarrassment, like the way we do when we see snapshots of ourselves in Bermuda shorts working the Hula Hoop, or in Beatles mop, or wearing Nehru jackets or paisley shirts and bell bottoms. He successfully moved into his long-sought naturalism yet he couldn’t have done so without the absorption of the eras out of which his acting emerged. For a brief time Newman was thought of as another Brando, or a James Dean, but he had several assets they didn’t: speech articulation, for one; a physique unlike Brando’s that didn’t alarm viewers and unlike Dean’s which never quite achieved an unassailable masculinity; and, certainly not nothing, the gift of solicitation—he charmed our pants off. The picture at the top left, cropped from an old Newsweek, says it all. Here at, you’ll find comments on Mr. and Mrs. BridgeCat on A Hot Tin Roof, Exodus, From the Terrace, Hud, The Long, Hot Summer, A New Kind of Love, Sweet Bird of Youth and The Road to Perdition.


Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.