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Paul Newman

The Synergy of Stardom

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Ostensibly a Method school actor in the tradition of Marlon Brando and James Dean, Paul Newman perhaps managed to separate himself from the fifties generation by never being particularly successful in that decade. As Newman’s biographer Daniel O’Brien suggested in Paul Newman, at a time, 1953, when Brando was “everything an aspiring New York actor aimed to be…Newman, by comparison, had barely left the starting blocks.” He was to stay in them till close to the end of the decade. Michael Kerbel, profiling the actor in Movies of the Sixties, may say “after his second film, Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), his stardom was assured,” but he also adds that “Newman’s major decade was really the sixties.” So it wasn’t until The Hustler and Hud in the early part of that decade where Newman became a star; and consolidated that status in Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at the end of it. And yet, though Newman was one of the biggest stars of the sixties, he was at the same time not at all an actor of the zeitgeist. He never summed up the sixties the way James Dean personified mid-fifties dissatisfaction within social comfort, or Brando the early fifties put-upon outsider and his own worst enemy in stifling times: a persona Brando actually made you feel by transforming the very nature of acting itself. Something in Newman implied much broader values than the zeitgeist; this was a stardom that could have been used to still greater purpose than the impressive film career it has served. To paraphrase the title of a John Huston film: here was a man who might have been president.

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For Newman possesses a quality that makes him a much more interesting star than Brando, because Brando was an actor constantly undermining the mythology of stardom and what it represented by trying to put into gesture the details and the touches that would slow narrative down. Brando wanted to put life into cinema – he would talk with his mouth full, caress an object that ostensibly had nothing to do with the furthering of a plot, or would talk to another as if to himself. He rarely wanted to offer the heroism demanded of a star, and would often look less than his best on screen. Whether that was the absurd moustache in Viva Zapata, the silly slapped down haircut in Reflections in a Golden Eye, the half-closed eye in On The Waterfront, or the attempt at playing Oriental in The Teahouse of the August Moon. Newman had little interest in either especially changing his image from film to film, nor in altering the nature of acting on screen, but he did want to explore a meaningful, low-key not so much anti but semi-heroic Americana. Thus he seems to have little to offer the history of screen acting, but something to offer to the history of stardom. In films like Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he is an actor willing to take on the mythology of sincere values, without quite playing them sincerely. Given neither to mocking, anti-establishment, hippie values, nor to unadulterated patriotism, Newman might not have been a zeitgeist actor, but maybe more than any other American star of the late fifties through to the late seventies, suggested what America could become: how it could combine a questioning of the country, while still proposing that the US was a nation of astonishing vigour and attractiveness.

No matter if Newman would often play cynical, ambitious and exploitative, in films like The Hustler, Hud and The Sting, he always remained thoroughly attractive, even vulnerably so. In Slap Shot for example Newman is Regie, player coach for a failing team in a failing town whose womanizing ways don’t mean that he is not still in love with his ex-wife.  Newman plays him simultaneously cynical to the demands of the ice-hockey game yet occasionally wise to his own emotional needs and follies. But then cynical and ambitious attached to vulnerability just happened to be one of many dichotomies he worked with. He also seemed to combine particularly well a non-urban persona that suggests an America of prairies and farmsteads with a sensibility that could incorporate the urban. Where Eastwood often just looked like a cowboy coming into town in city pictures  (narratively so in Coogan’s Bluff, iconographically so in the Dirty Harry films), Newman looks as comfortable on the city street as on the ranch porch: his characters in The Verdict, Slap Shot and Eddie Felson in The Hustler and The Color of Money are clearly urban figures.

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A unification of these dichotomies lies in Newman’s physique. If we look at Newman’s body, it seems almost an embodiment of values that could be equally urban or rural as Newman physically nevertheless offers an astonishing consistency. He was always lean and compact, and he often suggested the agility of a cat, or perhaps a tennis player: of something or someone who could occupy tight spaces without discomfort, and extend into open ones with great skill. In Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun, we see him running off after killing two of the baddies responsible for cold-bloodedly murdering his unarmed boss. As Newman’s Billy the Kid informs the other employees of what he’s done, we see Newman move from space to space, from the scene of the killing to the ranch they all occupy, with the smooth, athletic efficiency of a baseball player touching all bases. He has, consequently, frequently proved a great actor of the medium long shot, someone whose strengths reside not especially in the emotional intensity of the close up, but the detachment of a shot that allows us to see a body in space more readily than a mind at work. In this sense Newman is rarely a ‘profound’ actor, but instead a ‘practical ‘one, a point made, though perhaps too emphatically, when Pauline Kael insisted, in The New Yorker, that  Newman “couldn’t project brains”.  Though The Left-Handed Gun was of course seen as an early psychological western, aptly described by Tom Milne in Time Out as “Billy the mixed up Kid”, Milne also says the film “is a remarkable attempt to communicate an understanding (ours of Billy, his of himself) viscerally, felt through movement and gesture”.

It is as if, though, a great deal of Newman’s intelligence resides in how he looks after himself; through thought very much serving the body’s demands. This isn’t just a diegetic issue, where Newman’s characters often insist they work off their instincts – as when his eponymous character in Cool Hand Luke says that his final escape from prison wasn’t at all planned but thoroughly contingent: “I’ve never planned anything in my life.” It is a non-diegetic sense of physical self-preservation as well. However, the self-preservation in Newman’s actual life, as opposed to his instinctive fictional personae, does suggest a degree of planning. Kael, in another New Yorker piece, reckoned Newman looked “almost obscenely healthy – as if he never missed his ten hours sleep a night,” while aspects of his exercise routine are well known. Not only were there the “daily saunas and three mile runs” according to O’Brien,  but he also, O’Brien notes, had “a phase of soaking his face in ice water to keep those jowls firm.” Newman was always an actor expressing health rather than offering anguish; and yet this isn’t to deny any complexity to his characters, nor even to deny tortuousness (which is why we think Kael goes too far in claiming he couldn’t project intelligence), but that this tortuous complexity, as Milne proposes, passes through the body. It isn’t chiefly contained in the face. When Newman would talk dismissively about his good looks, then of course we tend to assume that this is Newman’s false modesty, and even hypocrisy. As O’Brien says, “for all Newman’s ambivalence towards his looks, he’s nevertheless worked long and hard to preserve them.” But maybe what Newman was really preserving was the body in all its plasticity; not simply his looks in all their beauty.

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It might be assumed that all actors work with their plasticity, but is that really true? They might work with their bodies, or rather directors may utilise  them, but Newman’s a fine actor of assured physicality: his body suggests great mobility. Where his major rival Steve McQueen seemed to indicate a certain Zen minimalism, as if his body’s purpose was to move from film to film and from one means of transport to the other (from the bike in The Great Escape, to the car in Bullitt, to the horse in Tom Horn), Newman’s most significant moments seem to stem from movement that focuses on the body itself. Whether it is the way he will move round a table in The Hustler, the hard labour of Cool Hand Luke, the precarious cycle ride in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid as we hear ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head’, or the aggressive ice hockey playing in Slap Shot, it is a bodily energy. If Newman looks like a man who gets ten hours of sleep a night, is it because he offers so much natural energy? Where McQueen appeared to move through space in slow motion, unless a vehicle was to hand, Newman, even in the rapidity of his speech patterns, always seemed alert, ready, quick.

These are elements central to one of Newman’s best known roles and one of his most famous moments in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Newman briefly tackles a burly dimwit who wants to take over the gang. It’s of course on one level a straightforward David and Goliath situation, with Butch Cassidy’s wily intelligence scoring over brute stupidity. But even clichés need to be furnished, and it is Newman’s speed both of mind and body that allows the scene to work so well.  We feel as he moves around the moustachioed giant that he is always thinking of his body’s possible capacity; where the burly dimwit is not thinking at all. He is assuming the body’s power, and not concerning himself with its capacity. Another sporting analogy to match our baseball one comes to mind – perhaps the most famous example of brute force and brain colliding in a boxing ring: the rumble in the jungle between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. Obviously there is no physical analogy between the physically imposing Ali and the decidedly slight Newman, but if Newman lends himself so well to sporting analogies this isn’t just because he often plays sportsmen himself – a boxer in Somebody Up There Likes Me, a former football star in Cat on a Hot tin Roof, a pool player in The Hustler, a racing car driver in Winning, an ice hockey coach and player in Slap Shot. After all, in most instances the sports are minimally athletic (The Hustler and Winning) or touch on past glories (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Slap Shot). What is more important is to see Newman not as a sporting subject, but as a plastic body with a mind that knows well how to adapt it to the purposes to hand – hence the analogy with Ali. Especially if we think of Norman Mailer’s comment in The Fight, “Ali is one artist who does not box by right counter to left hook. He fights the entirety of the other person. He lives in fields of concentration where he can detect the smallest flicker of lack of concentration.” Thus we can add to Newman’s ‘physical intelligence’ that sense of concentrated awareness of another. This isn’t quite intelligence the way Kael describes it when she believes actors like Gian Maria Volonte possess this quality, but Volonte’s is closer to an intellectual gravitas; Newman’s to an animal or sporting instinct.

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It is, if you like, a quick mind; where Newman’s co-star in Butch Cassidy, Robert Redford, projects a thoughtful mind, a much slower, more intense intelligence than Newman generally offers; and Redford seemed to understand this. According to one version of events offered by O’Brien, the production lined Newman up to play The Sundance Kid, and Redford Butch Cassidy. Redford, however, reckoned it should be the other way round. Newman may have feared playing the comic element, believing he couldn’t handle comedy, but here Newman’s only half right. He has never been broad enough to suggest slapstick, screwball or even, really, romantic comedy, but his mind suggests the pace of the comic. His characters are often quick learners, no matter if they are sometimes told they are the opposite. However, that is rarely a failure to learn; it is instead an insistent stubbornness. Newman may learn quickly but he adjusts slowly, if at all. In both The Hustler and Cool Hand Luke, Newman just doesn’t know when to quit. He insists, early on in The Hustler, on playing Minnesota Fats until he is drunk and exhausted, and eventually he loses all the winnings he has made earlier in the evening. In Cool Hand Luke, he keeps running away and adding time to his sentence, even though initially he’s only serving a two year term. At the end of the film he is killed. It is not that Newman’s characters lack the quickness of mind, here; much more that the quickness of mind contains within it a stubbornness that is greater than any ambition. Thus, for example, the notion of a ruthless will to succeed rarely fits a Newman character: He’s simply too damned stubborn to achieve anything ruthlessly.

Ruthless ambition also does not quite fit because Newman’s characters often care. In The Hustler, Newman’s on the road with George C. Scott’s money man, as Scott determines to turn Newman into a top hustler. But Newman’s Eddie Felson allows his drink-sodden ageing girlfriend (Piper Laurie) to come on the road as well. Sure she kills herself after Scott says she is just baggage, and Newman’s been flirting with another woman, but we would be wrong to insist that Newman treats her badly throughout the film; it is more that he doesn’t know how to show his feelings, rather than that he ruthlessly doesn’t possess them. Clearly when she commits suicide late in the film we are meant to feel Newman’s own anguish, even see his revenge victory over Minnesota Fats and his dismissal of Scott as paying his respects to Laurie’s character.

So Newman isn’t especially ambitious, and neither is he really romantic; never more clearly illustrated than in the motorcar racing film, Winning. Here the romance is perfunctory – he promptly dates and marries Joanna Woodward’s single mother within the first twenty minutes of the picture, and the film focuses on the marital problems thereafter.  The issue of winning is really about the problem of putting too much of one’s energy into the work: the romance is secondary to winning and winning is secondary to emotional decency. As with The Hustler, there is a question within the romantic and the victorious that proves more important.

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Yet drive and love are two of the fundaments of mainstream cinema; and Newman was of course one of its biggest stars for many years. How did he achieve this star status without quite playing to audience expectation – what underlying problematic was Newman exploring that allowed him to be a huge star without relying on the usual narrative accoutrements? In a number of Newman movies there is no love interest at all (Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), or the love interest is someone physically far less striking than Newman. We might think of Laurie in The Hustler – playing a character with polio, a drink problem, and of advancing years – or, say, Eileen Brennan in The Sting. So unprepossessing is Brennan that we might assume she is simply a Newman buddy until we see them in bed together.

Molly Haskell, in her book From Reverence to Rape, would propose that much of Newman’s work just fits into a buddy/buddy genre that eradicates women from the film’s main story. Ostensibly, she says, actors like Newman and Redford are the successors to Leslie Howard and John Barrymore. “…like most of their colleagues, Redford and Newman would rather be “real people” than actors, and would rather be “real actors” than romantic leads. So instead of playing opposite beautiful women in love stories or civilized narratives, they play opposite each other in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and romance takes on a whole new twist.” In Haskell’s view this means the eroticism lies between men, and though there were rumours for years, as O’Brien notes, that Newman and Gore Vidal had been lovers, this is less useful and suggestive than the idea, in David Shipman’s The Great Movie Stars: The International Years, that “Brando had, by the way, been offered the lead opposite Newman in almost every film over which the latter had production control…”

Thus the question isn’t the scurrilous one of whether Newman was gay or not, but the more dynamic issue of why Newman seemed more interested in pursuing a male lead to act opposite him rather than a female one. What is it in Newman’s persona that lends itself so well to the buddy movie, and less well to the romantic film? If anything Newman’s persona suggests a hyper-masculinity over a homosexuality, a homo-social environment over a gay milieu. It is not that the gay rumours are cheaply prurient; it is more that they don’t really tell us anything about his persona. If Haskell insists that Newman’s romance is with Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, then that is fair enough, but as long we don’t see it as sub-textually so (as in homosexuality that dare not speak its name), but a buddy-buddy romance of which there were many during the late sixties and early seventies: Easy Rider, The Hired Hand, Scarecrow, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Midnight Cowboy and Two Lane Blacktop. Instead of assuming this was about a hidden homosexuality, it might be more useful to explore it as a loosely misogynist, paranoiac sense that a man can only trust another man. Or rather you will trust more another man because at least you are not in danger of falling in love with the man and having your instincts led astray. This is the opposite of homosexuality; it’s the very fact that one man isn’t attracted to another that is important.

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But how does this idea of the wary buddy movie tie in with Newman’s apparently insistent desire to work on projects with Brando? Biographically we might be tempted to say keep your friends close and your enemies closer. O’Brien’s biography mentions that Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, before they were married, dated Brando “simply to make Newman jealous.” It is more intriguing though to look at Brando and Newman as actors ostensibly similar but fundamentally quite different. Brando is an actor of the medium close up and the hermitic. He is an actor whose strengths reside in an intimate use of space and the capacity to draw the other actors into his world, into his sensibility. Jane Fonda who worked with Brando on The Chase found his personality consuming, “I felt sucked into it.” Newman’s personality – on screen and off – doesn’t suggest this charismatic intimacy.

Newman is a social actor, as we could argue in relation to Newman working best in the medium long shot that can easily incorporate others within the same frame, or in the way he works off other actors to create cinematic dynamism. Much of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s success lay in the byplay between Newman and Redford, and the same could be said of The Sting, again with Redford, Cool Hand Luke, playing off George Kennedy, playing off the whole ice hockey team in Slap Shot, and off Tom Cruise in The Color of Money.  Newman is a communicative not an expressive actor: he is someone who doesn’t look to reveal his being in the world, as Brando often suggests in anything from Mutiny on the Bounty to Last Tango in Paris, but to find it in the social world: in human interaction.

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Yet what does this say about his consistent desire to work with Brando? What could a Brando and Newman combo provide? Maybe taking into account two comments on Newman we can explain why he would have wanted to work with Brando, and what it might have achieved. One is David Thomson’s idea in A Biographical Dictionary of Film that in The Verdict Newman “shows what he is capable of once his aversion to intimacy can be broken down.” The other is Maryann Oshana’s belief, in an essay on the actor in The International Dictionary of Filmmakers: Actors and Actresses, that his flair “for comedy is there as long as it does not involve women or romance.” What Brando – one of the most sensitive, open and exploratory of actors –  could have given to Newman’s acting was a sort of heterosexual intimacy, taking into account our earlier comments about the homo-social aspect of the buddy film. Newman would so often play undeniably heterosexual yet guarded men, whose loyalty to another man seemed somehow to garner more security than giving himself to a woman. Thus we see the sort of romantic eye-line matches familiar to the burgeoning couple are present in The Sting between Newman and Redford. After the major sting that brings the film to its denouement, Redford and Newman share glances usually reserved for lovers. What Brando could have offered was a look that would have moved from the comedic glance to a deepening gaze, to a comprehension of what it means to be close to another man homo-socially. Working opposite an actor like Redford almost inevitably creates superficiality: he’s a glance actor, anecdotally observed by Robert M. Pirsig in his book, Lila: An Enquiry Into Morals, where he says when he met Redford, to discuss the filming of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “Redford stare[d] at him intensely for a moment. It’s an intensity he never shows on the screen.”

Brando is nothing if not an actor who shows intensity, and perhaps Newman, accepting that no matter his huge sex symbol status, simply knew he didn’t have the personality or the persona to become romantic on screen. After all, if he were insightful enough to know his comedic limitations, why not his romantic ones? And so instead maybe he wanted to pursue what he does better than almost any other actor: homo-social interaction. To give to that homo-social glance a hint of the gaze.

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But, of course, Newman never did get to work with Brando, and Newman never quite gained the gravity of which he might have been capable.  Later roles in The Verdict and The Color of Money possessed a degree of gravitas, as Newman’s voice, always rasping and slightly mocking, became gravelly and hoarse, as if it wasn’t getting its ten hours of sleep. Also the face seemed to become more important in these films, as though the directors Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese, respectively, knew that Newman’s strength no longer resided in the medium long shot, and benefited more from the medium close up, often in profile. Right from the early scenes in The Color of Money, Scorsese frames Newman not so much as the Greek God he was so often compared to, but instead an Oracle: as if the most important part of Newman’s body had become the head and the shoulders, and especially the mouth. Throughout the film he gets to make oracular statements on the game of pool and human psychology. “Maybe I’m hustling you, maybe I’m not. You don’t know. But should know. See, if you know that, you know when to say yes and you know when to say no.”  Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, the girlfriend of the young hustler Newman wants to hire (played by Tom Cruise), looks suitably confused but also undeniably impressed.

However, this appears to be less weight of character, than an intensification of one up-manship. Throughout Newman’s work there has been this fascination with getting one over on another; so that though we have suggested Newman is not especially ambitious, he is, if you like, micro-ambitious. Indeed his micro-ambition might even be central to his lack of broader ambition: he wants to come out of the situation successfully – the long-term goal eludes him.  For how often in Newman’s films do we witness scenes of casual competitiveness and low-key egotism? There is the lengthy early pool game with Minnesota Fats in The Hustler, the card games in The Sting, the aforementioned fight in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and an egg-eating scene in Cool Hand Luke. Really, what The Color of Money does is extend this game-playing into experienced game-playing. As if Fast Eddie Felson has never really grown up, but just been around long enough to know the rules of game-playing better than anybody else. In one scene, Newman bets Cruise and Mastrantonio that he’ll leave the restaurant with a woman at the bar within two minutes. He wins – it turns out he knows the woman anyway. It is a scene, with one or two additions, similar to one in the earlier Slap Shot – another film where Newman’s maturity was about staying in the saddle rather than evolving to a new place. Thus what we are really suggesting is a pseudo-gravitas Newman offers chiefly because the micro-ambition is still there; just the callowness much less so. Even in these later films he hasn’t achieved the intensity he might have reached working with an actor of Brando’s heightened sensitivity. This pseudo-gravitas became even more pronounced in late semi-caper, noir films like Where the Money Is and Twilight, where again Newman’s experience passes itself off as gravitas. His body has slowed down, but let’s not exaggerate the maturity that comes out of that bodily retreat.

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This might be a good place to return to our initial point: that Newman is finally much more interesting as a star than as an actor. If Brando famously said acting wasn’t for grown-ups, Newman in fact as an actor never really did grow up. Frequently he played surly drunks – The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, Winning, The Sting and The Verdict all more or less open on Newman being introduced to us as a drinker. He has also often been uncommitted and adulterous, been with casual lovers, or played half-assed husbands and, as we have proposed, he has never seemed happier than in a homo-social environment. Now of course Newman fed into this persona the extra diegetic Newman: the owner of the liberal/left weekly The Nation, the man responsible for charity sauces and dressings, a welter of good deeds, and his long-term marriage to Joanna Woodward – whom he also directed in several diligent adaptations like The Glass Managerie and The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.

However, if we believe Newman’s an actor of maturity, then is this not because we have incorporated into his cinematic persona the extra cinematic features? If we see Brando as immature, it might be because we tend to do the opposite: that we perceive his extra cinematic actions as puerile. As David Shipman proposed, talking of Brando’s Oscar refusal for The Godfather: “what was uncomfortably clear was that Brando’s rejection of the award was entirely consistent with the worst of his public behaviour since he first achieved fame.” Yet if we look at the Brando films from the late sixties to the mid-seventies we cannot but admire the maturity of the performances. There was Quiemada, The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris and the inexplicable absurdity of The Missouri Breaks; while Newman around the same period gave us Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Towering Inferno and The Sting. In other words the films that worked for Newman were not mature works; the films that worked for Brando were very much more so – and we shouldn’t forget that Brando and Newman were almost the same age.

So if we accept that Newman was, finally, cinematically, always a slightly immature actor, or more especially that his successes resided in the presentation of a certain immaturity, why would that be?  Partly it lies in Newman’s body – a silhouette of the seventy five year old Newman wouldn’t look very different from that of his twenty five year old self.  The second lies in his physical mobility. Newman, even into his fifties, in films like Slap Shot, retained the agility and movement of a man much younger than his years. The third reason resides in his callowness, a callowness that allows us to half agree with Kael’s earlier statement that Newman couldn’t project brains; but indicates much more that Newman couldn’t quite project maturity.  Yet this is an ‘immaturity’ that connects to an inability to project brains: to a sense that Newman never quite created the sort of reflective space an actor like Brando took for granted.

This is perhaps why drinking plays such an important role in Newman’s films: it allows him to be tortured without necessarily thinking. Thus, though The Verdict is in many ways his most profound film (taking into account Thomson’s comments above), it is also the one where the film implies he has most obviously pickled his thought in alcohol: the film’s premise lies in how can he escape not so much from alcohol (for he drinks throughout the film) and win a key case, but how in winning a key case he may escape from the dependence on that alcohol. If he wins an ethical case involving gross negligence will it give him some meaning in his life after it had been taken from him years before and which presumably had led to his heavy drinking? Newman’s character, it seems, has been hard drinking ever since he lost his soul and his wife a decade before in a key case. As he says, if he doesn’t take on this new one, if he settles out of court for cash, he’ll be lost forever.

In Newman’s films profundity, such as it is, doesn’t necessarily suggest thinking. Where Brando frequently played thoughtful (Last Tango in Paris), deeply manipulative as opposed to superficially manipulative (compare Quiemada to The Sting), and soberly tortured (Apocalypse Now), Newman offers a persona never quite at home with stillness and non-action.  In The Verdict most of the thinking is done by his loyal friend played by Jack Warden. Even in key moments during the trial, the film shows Newman hasn’t thought through his own enquiry, and the main witnesses are demolished on the stand after Newman believed they could offer useful testimonies, only for the defence lawyer to show Newman has looked too impetuously at only one side of the argument. Yet when we look at Newman’s impressive face in the film, when we contrast it with Warden’s lumpy features, he might not indicate thought in what he does, but he emanates intelligence nevertheless. He is half imposing intelligence; half thoughtless impetuosity, yet the combination works.

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However, as we proposed earlier, Newman proved a key star of semi-heroism, perhaps semi many things. Neither quite a brute nor quite a thinker, neither quite a romantic nor quite a loner, neither quite urban or rural, Newman’s overwhelming solidity seemed to come from the consistency of his body and the way it occupied space. Even in late films like Twilight and Where the Money Is, the films play up Newman’s relative nimbleness.  When Newman famously said that his tombstone would offer the epithet: “Here Lies/Paul/Who died a failure/Because his eyes/Turned brown”, we could add that he’s both right and wrong. Wrong because it wasn’t just about Newman’s eyes; but right in that Newman’s appeal resided in the physical and a self-preserving consistency in that physicality. When we think of Newman we don’t only think of Newman in relation to his performances, but Newman as Newman: as a man who retained for much of his career his physical integrity, political integrity and, of course, his emotional integrity – the famous long-term marriage to Woodward.

But then this is the consequence of stardom rather than acting, the latter something Newman always admitted to being unsure about. On one occasion, quoted by O’Brien, Newman actually claimed he “trusted Brando’s judgement more than his own”;  and it is an absolutely valid thespian statement – returning to Brando’s films we see an actor offering texture, range, expressivity, subtlety and a constant searching that justified Elia Kazan’s claim that Brando was the only genius he ever came across in acting. Brando put life into the cinema; he refused, in Stanislavski’s terms in Creating a Role, to “represent anything or entertain the public.” Thus if Newman, unlike Brando, lacked the truth of the performance, he nevertheless better than almost any actor (maybe even more so than Cary Grant) suggested the longevity of the star. That sense of a star being special, someone who ages more slowly than anyone else, who succeeds in anything he chooses to do (right down to selling home made sauces), and effortlessly applies himself to glamorous activities – like Newman’s gift for motor-racing: he was still capable of participating in a winning team at the age of seventy. There have been problems – the death of Newman’s son Scott through drugs, his own struggles with drink. But they never came close to countering the synergetic sense that Newman was a man for all seasons, all ages and all nations.

To understand Newman’s importance we need to understand his thespian limitations and at the same time his physical attributes. This isn’t quite to say Newman was never more than a pretty face. Not at all – it’s just Newman’s physical consistency rather than his acting ability allowed him to sustain star status for twenty years between the beginning of the sixties and the early eighties – and still to be a box-office draw thereafter.

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Sometimes, though, there is a sneaking suspicion that Newman might have made a better politician. That at a certain point when his star began to wane in the early eighties all that cinematic good-will could have been turned into explicit socio-political usefulness. There are certain great actors one would never see as remotely presidential – Brando, Sean Penn, De Niro or Nicholson. They’re partisan actors, exploratory risk-takers who ingrain themselves in the existential possibilities of becoming. There are other actors – like Newman, Redford, Beatty, Henry Fonda – who always seem somewhat guarded, ready less for the performance than the reception of it, taking into account the Stanislavski quote above. When we look back on Newman’s career we cannot deny he has been a star, but when we look at the films themselves we may wonder just how intriguing he was as an actor. We might also think how much more interesting those performances would look if they had been moves towards a presidential campaign rather than a Newman’s Own mini-empire. This isn’t to damn Newman with faint praise, but when we look at Reagan’s presidency, it seems so fondly loved a star could have left us with more than a handful of very efficient performances and an embodiment of physically healthy Americana.

After all, Newman, with his combination of diegetic and extra-diegetic features could better than most combine those contradictory aspects in American culture where there is a liberal sensibility on the coasts and the major inland cities, and a rural demographic that sees its self-image as rather more conservative. Newman’s life was clearly astonishing. He has left us with some much loved characters, and his work for good causes is justifiably legendary. But his passing coincided with one of the low points in American political history the end of the George W. Bush era. Might we not spare a though not only for Newman, but for a road not travelled? That Newman never really wanted to become a politician of course suggests that our proposition is absurd; yet we should remember Plato’s notion that the man best suited to rule is the one who does not want to do so. Newman’s physical self-preservation for so much his career, and his famous integrity, may make us think of the sort of actor one would like to see in power, when at the moment the best Hollywood and politics can do is have Arnold Schwarzenegger controlling California.  Perhaps we might muse over whether stars, as opposed to actors – a Newman as opposed to a Brando, a Gregory Peck as opposed to a De Niro – are always, somehow, presidential candidates.

 

©Tony McKibbin