Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Farewell, Newman

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Farewell, Newman

Looking over his shoulder, riding into the frontier twilight (literally and figuratively), Butch and Sundance see the posse kicking up a dust cloud in the near distance: still hot in pursuit, unflappable. In disbelief the outlaws look at each other and ask, Who are these guys? Today we ask ourselves the same question about Butch Cassidy himself, Paul Newman, who passed away two days ago at the age of 83. And we ask it for the same reason: just like those pursuers, Newman was unflappable, cool without being hysterical or morose, completely self-possessed but seemingly not arrogant.


During the coming week, I will watch and write about several Newman films, including two of my favorites, The Hustler and The Verdict, and one I've never seen, Hud. In the former two, Newman is not completely unflappable. In fact, he's as conflicted as any juicy Method part played by Brando or Clift. So am I just speaking of his public persona when I describe the effortlessly cool but also confident and unpretentious personality Newman projected? Well, partly. Certainly the charitable, long-married, calmly smiling Newman appeared, in public at least, as someone who had all his ducks in order or, if he didn't, wasn't going to show otherwise.

But in many of his most famous roles, Butch certainly and also Cool Hand Luke, Newman played characters whose circumstances were not easy, whose lives may have been lived on the wrong side of the law, and who often met a violent end, but who were completely and confidently themselves. More than the explicitly revisionist Westerns, Cool Hand Luke provides the missing link between the independent, self-assured drifter heroes of the American past and the outlaw criminal existentialist antiheroes of American present. Yet he differs from both archetypes in that he doesn't seem morose or grim in his heroism. What wins him admirers and hardens his enemies against him is his refusal not only to back down but to project his suffering and misery. He's the eternal America optimist, stubborn in his individualism but not one to bury his head in the sand: he faces up to all of life's challenges head-on but with a smile on his face.

And even in his darker characterizations, as a self-styled "loser" in The Hustler and a broken-down alcoholic lawyer in The Verdict, Newman pushes and pushes, stubbornness in full throttle, redeeming himself through pain and hard work. He may not be smiling as much, but neither is he beating himself up. Even when he tortures himself, refusing to answer the ringing phone at the end of The Verdict, he isn't weeping or gnashing his teeth. He just sits there silent, pensive, taut.

Even if he's not smiling, even if he does become morose, he still isn't going to break down the dam and let the emotions come flooding out. That was the cool the onscreen Newman presented to the world, not a flamboyant cool but a restrained, smoldering, intensely attractive cool. It's why Cool Hand Luke bridges the gap between American left and right, between different generations of rebels, and different conceptions of the ideal masculine behavior. Nobody else could grin and wink like Newman could. Nobody else could convey the pent-up joy in a somber grimace before sizing up a cue ball or a jury or a potential breach in a prison camp. Nobody else more fully justified George Kennedy's line at the end of Luke:

"You know, that, that Luke smile of his. He had it on his face right to the very end. Hell, if they didn't know it 'fore, they could tell right then that they weren't a-gonna beat him. That old Luke smile. Oh, Luke. He was some boy."

Paul Newman
1925-2008

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