Thursday, May 31, 2007

Paul Newman: an appreciation

It came as a bit of a shock to hear Paul Newman has retired from acting. This was not because Hollywood is losing one of its titans (although it is), but because I’d assumed he’d done it years ago: his cinematic output in the past two decades has been slim, tapering off into cartoon voiceovers. His early career (the first 30 years!), however, gave us some wonderful performances which his retirement should call to mind.

My favourite one earned him his first Oscar nod, in 1958: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He was perfect as Brick Politt, the troubled husband of the felinely fragile yet cunning Elizabeth Taylor. While she tried to seduce him for the sake of her femininity and their future together, he pined over his best friend and the passing of his sporting glory days. He could flip in a glance from alcoholic anger to deep tenderness for his raw, passionate wife. He had the exact qualities of troubled masculinity – and was handsome enough – to pull off Tennessee Williams’ heroes, which he also did in Sweet Bird of Youth.

The 60s was Newman’s finest decade. Just listing his films from this period should give you some idea why: The Hustler, Hud, Torn Curtain, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, three of these bringing Oscar nominations. Who can forget the egg-eating scene from Cool Hand Luke, or indeed every scene from Butch Cassidy? It was the humanity that he brought to each role that magnified them, even when in jail or on the run.

Newman’s Oscar finally came in 1987, for reprising his Hustler role in The Colour of Money, Martin Scorsese’s sequel. This was perhaps an apology from Hollywood for not rewarding the first performance: better late than never is the Academy’s motto (just ask Scorsese).

Then there are his late ‘chairman of the board’ roles, as Sidney Mussburger in The Hudsucker Proxy, where he tries to run down and then cheaply snap up a company in the Coen Brothers’ grim comedy, and as John Rooney in Road to Perdition, where as a Mafioso he has renegade Tom Hanks killed (and who wouldn’t?). These represent final flourishes in his resume, reminding young Hollywood of just why old Hollywood esteemed him highly.

So as the credits roll on his career, and he steps away to spend more time with wife Joanne Woodward and as head of the Newman’s Own Foundation, which funds summer camps for seriously ill children, I’ll be re-watching Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to remind myself just what made Paul Newman such a great actor.

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