Paul Newman, who died at age 83 on Sept. 26 in Westport, Connecticut, may not have been one of the all-time best Hollywood actors. He was, however, one of best Hollywood actors of the last three decades or so.
Watching Paul Newman in his younger days, doing Marlon Brando-ish impersonations in films such as Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Left Handed Gun, The Long, Hot Summer, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Young Philadelphians, Exodus, From the Terrace, and Sweet Bird of Youth, I was thoroughly unimpressed. Newman’s playing was capable in The Hustler and Hud, but when I think of the actors in those films I think of Piper Laurie, George C. Scott, Melvyn Douglas, Patricia Neal.
Even though he made millions of hearts flutter the world over by smirking and blue-eyeing his way through The Prize, Torn Curtain, Harper, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, and The Towering Inferno, I find his performances subpar and his much-touted charisma calculated in those star vehicles. (One exception here: his complex, white “Indian” in Martin Ritt’s underrated 1967 Western Hombre.)
The Paul Newman characterizations that have left an indelible impression on me are those of his latter career: the man whose life is nearly ruined by a news report in Absence of Malice; the down-and-out, alcoholic lawyer in The Verdict; the self-centered father in the poorly received Harry & Son; the Southern politician in Blaze; the eccentric husband in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge; and, most of all, his elderly mobster in Road to Perdition (above, with Tom Hanks). (Ironically, Newman won a best actor Oscar for what may well have been his weakest performance of that period, in Martin Scorsese’s 1986 The Hustler sequel, The Color of Money.)
There’s also much to admire about Paul Newman the director: Rachel, Rachel and The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds are two sensitive, touching dramas, with Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, delivering two of the best performances in film history. Newman’s 1987 version of The Glass Menagerie – a commercial flop – remains one of my two favorite screen renditions of a Tennessee Williams play. (The other one is the 1951 version of A Streetcar Named Desire.)
And then there’s Paul Newman the liberal sociopolitical activist, speaking out for the rights of ethnic minorities and gays, providing financial support through his philanthropies to those in need, taking to the streets to protest the Vietnam War. According to reports, Newman was thrilled to have been included in Richard Nixon’s enemies list.
“A person without character,” Newman told the New York Times magazine in 1966, “has no enemies.”