The Ubiquitous Paul Newman

paulnewman1Many, many people have paid tribute to Paul Newman on this sad occasion of his death. I know he was 83 and had lived a long, fruitful life full of great achievements and impressive honors, but it still sucks he died. As Susan Sarandon noted, Paul Newman was one of those very rare things that you don’t hear enough about, he was a genuinely good man. They are in such short supply in these conservative times, we can’t afford to lose any and now one of the best has gone.

Having never met the man, I have only his film work to appreciate. I lecture on film at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and I frequently show film clips to illuminate various points and when I heard that Paul Newman died, the first film I thought of was the 1990 Merchant/Ivory film Mr. And Mrs. Bridge, based on the two novels by Evan Connell, Mr. Bridge from 1959 and Mrs. Bridge from 1969.

Paul Newman plays Mr. Bridge, a wealthy Kansas City lawyer in early middle age right before World War Two. He is a rather ascetic man, known for his thrift, common sense and somewhat crusty, old-fashioned values. He is a bit of a pedant, but basically very decent. His wife Mrs. Bridge, played by Joanne Woodward has a much lighter spirit, but she suppresses a lot of her joie de vivre for her husband and family which consists of three grown up children.

While Mrs. Bridge may find her life in Kansas City a mite stifling, she would never openly complain. In the scene I remembered so well, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge are having supper at the local country club when one of the freak, but sudden tornadoes that afflict that part of the country appears out of nowhere. As the restaurant manager and the waiters rush all the other guests down to the storm cellar for their own safety, Mr. Bridge refuses to leave the dining room. Naturally, Mrs. Bridge stays by her husband despite the rapidly darkening skies, the fiercely howling winds and the outdoor patio furniture flying past the window like in The Wizard Of Oz. You see, Mr. Bridge has brought Mrs. Bridge to the Country Club to tell her something important and nothing as trivial as a Class 5 Tornado is going to interfere with the well-laid plans of Mr. Bridge.

As a surprise, Mr. Bridge announces he has purchased tickets for an Ocean Liner Cruise of the Mediterranean and he proudly informs his wife they will both leave for this vacation of a lifetime in couple of weeks. Then, as the tornado passes by and the vicious winds calm down, Mr. Bridge ruefully notes that the Country Club never provides its diners with enough butter for the rolls.

Paul Newman is totally imperturbable in that scene. And he maintains that character all throughout the film; that of a stiff, unemotional Patrician type of father figure that so much youth rebels against, right before they become just like their parents. One critic complained about Paul Newman’s performance saying there wasn’t even a hint of an inner conflict within the man and said that it was the kind of performance that, while it might be fun for an actor to do, it’s not especially fun for an audience to watch and I agree with him to a point.

I can’t explain why this was the first Paul Newman film clip that entered my head, certainly, it would not be most peoples. But in my life I have met people exactly like Mr. Bridge. People who are so sure that what they are doing is so completely correct and beyond question that yes, they do not show the slightest inkling of inner doubt. Generally speaking, such pig-headed certainty bespeaks of much larger problems, but perhaps that’s the reason I remembered this scene so well, because it seemed so atypical for Paul Newman.

Coincidently, I had recently watched another film that starred Paul Newman a few months beforehand. It was the 1983 legal drama The Verdict from director Sidney Lumet, written by David Mamet and starring Paul Newman as a broken down drunk of a lawyer who is handed a medical negligence case that should mean easy money for him provided he settles out of court and doesn’t take the case to trial.

After watching the proper abstemious lawyer Paul Newman portrayed in Mr. And Mrs. Bridge stoically waiting out a tornado, it occurred to me that if Frank Galvin, the whiskey soaked lawyer played by Paul Newman from The Verdict were in that Country Club during a tornado, he wouldn’t have flinched either. Not because of the certainty that God was on his side, but because of the Devil may care fatalism of a truly defeated person, someone who can’t be beaten down anymore because he is already as low as he can go.

Two very different performances, from the same actor only a few years apart. Seen in order when the films were released, you might not grasp the subtleties of Paul Newman’s great ease in acting, but watching the films nearly back to back on DVD was an eye opening experience

I don’t usually follow the careers of actors. I mean, there are very few actors whose films I will see simply because they are in them. If you were to look though my video and DVD collection you will find lots of films in favorite genres like disaster documentaries, regular and spaghetti westerns and film noirs. You will also find collections by my favorite film directors like Woody Allen, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman and others.

When I heard about Paul Newman’s death, I thought maybe its time to do a lecture on Paul Newman so I went through my film collection to pull the few Newman films I had and then I would figure out what others I may need to see to do a proper lecture and I would then re-arrange my Netflix queue accordingly. Although no one believes me, I really did think of Mr. And Mrs. Bridge first and while I don’t own that film, it is available for rental. I had just recently purchased The Verdict, so I wouldn’t have to worry about renting it, but what else did I have?

Well, I had The Towering Inferno, not because it’s a great film, but because I remember seeing it when I was in high school and the film has nostalgic value for me. Looking among my western films, I had Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, and I also had The Sting, so that was four total. Boy, I was going to have to rent a lot of films!

But then something weird happened. As I began to look through the films in my collection, I slowly began to realize that I had many more Paul Newman films than I thought at first. Among my dozen or so Alfred Hitchcock films, there was Torn Curtain starring Paul Newman. Looking at my Robert Altman films, there were two, Quintet and Buffalo Bill And The Indians, both starring Paul Newman. My collection of John Huston films yielded two more titles starring Paul Newman; The Mackintosh Man and The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean. A year ago, I purchased some films based on plays written by Tennessee Williams and there was Paul Newman starring in two of the best, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird Of Youth.

Looking closer, I had Paul Newman in Exodus directed by Otto Preminger, The Left Handed Gun directed by Arthur Penn, Road To Perdition directed by Sam Mendes, Absence Of Malice directed by Sidney Pollack, The Color Of Money directed by Martin Scorsese and then the four H’s: Hud, Harper, The Hustler and The Hudsucker Proxy directed by the Coen Brothers. In my collection of films about the atomic bomb, there was Paul Newman starring as General Leslie Groves in Fat Man And Little Boy, in my collection of Philadelphia films, there was Paul Newman in The Young Philadelphians and finally, there was Paul Newman in a hilarious cameo guest spot spoofing himself in Mel Brook’s raucous comedy, Silent Movie.

That totaled twenty-three films starring Paul Newman. I didn’t have that many James Bond films! So, without making any conscious effort at this, over time, I had personally amassed more films with Paul Newman than any other single actor or actress. How did that happen without me noticing? What does it mean?

Well, for me it indicates that Paul Newman chose his projects and the directors he wanted to work with very intelligently. No doubt there were a few films in his career that were made to pay the rent, but don’t forget, here’s a man who was among the best known and most popular movie stars in each of the five decades he chose to work in and in Hollywood, that is virtually unheard of. It also means he’s an actor of such easy charm and incredible skill that he manages to sneak up on you when you least expect it. I don’t know what his “process” was, but whatever it was, it made him look effortless. His acting was like watching a great bird in flight; you can’t believe something that big is flying so gracefully through the air.

Because Paul Newman possessed an almost ethereal beauty with stunning blue eyes that were near hypnotic combined with a well-proportioned body that was not over muscled, but taut and lithe and a high wattage smile that could light up a small city, early on in his career, he was sloughed off as a lightweight. Where his fellow “Method” actors like James Dean and Marlon Brando reveled in showing us all of their angst in creating a character, because Paul Newman’s technique was so invisible and so controlled, it often looked like he wasn’t doing anything. But take it from me, such effortlessness is anything but easy.

Paul Newman found himself trapped by his physical beauty. Like many a gorgeous female actress before him (and even since) it was thought that a pretty head must ipso facto be an empty head. Things I have read about Paul Newman indicate that he was quite bothered by this, but realizing that there wasn’t much he could do about his physical looks he just forged ahead concentrating on just doing the work. For Paul Newman, there would be no chameleon like physical transformations like you see with Gary Oldman and Daniel Day Lewis. There would be no hiding under make-up and prosthetics like Johnny Depp or disappearing into thick impenetrable accents like Laurence Olivier. Nor would Paul Newman find a character style that worked for him and then simply repeated it in variations in lots of films like John Wayne and Gary Cooper did.

Paul Newman could have simply coasted on his good looks and easy charm, like Rock Hudson and countless other pretty boy actors from the fifties, but how many of them will we still be talking about when they die? No, Paul Newman earned his acting chops the old fashioned way, by playing as wide a variety of different characters in as interesting a way as he could conceive.

Once again, it is only by looking back over the breadth and scope of his life’s work that I can see the effort he put into his craft. While I handily remember him as a “star”, looking over his C.V., it’s amazing how many ensemble pieces he worked on. I can’t think of any other actor of his stature who so generously shared the spotlight. I reckon Paul Newman realized early on that on any film, the better everyone else was, the better it reflected on his own work.

So, I end this article by simply noting that Paul Newman has left us one of the richest and most diverse number of films of any major actor who has ever lived. What’s that phrase everyone says? You know it, the one about how you don’t really appreciate something until it’s gone. We haven’t felt it yet, but before long we will notice something quite wonderful is missing from our lives.

R.I.P. Paul Newman.

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movie fan
October 12, 2008 6:16 pm

I have always admired Paul Newman for putting his money to work in such productive ways… His Newman’s Own stuff is high quality and the proceeds go to good causes