Friday, September 11, 2015

PAUL NEWMAN

 
 
 

Newman grew up in an affluent suburb of Cleveland, where his parents ran a sports supply shop. A bright, sports-loving boy at school, Newman took an early interest in the theatre. Upon graduation from high school, Newman hoped to become a Navy pilot, but his ice-blue eyes were actually blind to colour and, for the duration of WWII, he had to be content with being a radio operator.
Discharged in 1946, Newman won an athletic scholarship to Kenyon College, and he played football until an ‘incident’ at a bar got him kicked off the team. Upon graduation, he relocated to Chicago and married actress Jackie Witte, who quickly gave birth to their son, Scott. When his father died, he sold his share in the sport store business to his brother, and took his chances at Yale Drama School. After a year at Yale (during which two daughters were born, Stephanie and Susan), he moved to New York to pursue work. In 1952, he was then accepted into the renowned Actors Studio, studying under the legendary Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan, who taught ‘method acting’, a new style of acting later made famous by Marlon Brando, Robert de Niro, Al Pacino and Daniel Day Lewis.
In 1953, he left New York for Hollywood, was signed up by Warner Bros and made his debut in 'The Silver Chalice'. Newman was so appalled by his own performance in this costume epic, he took out a full page ad in a trade paper to apologise to any one unfortunate enough to see the flop. He shuttled between New York and Hollywood to do TV work and Broadway; his classical good looks and frank wit made roles relatively easy to come by.
It was as Rocky Graziano in 'Somebody Up There Likes Me' (1956) that Newman made his mark as a serious actor. Bringing great depth to a troubled young character who finds redemption and a new lease of life in boxing, Newman caused the critics to wonder where this 31-year-old had sprung from without notice. But the praise flowed lavishly, and things moved forwards quickly from that point.
In 1957, while filming his next picture, ‘The Long Hot Summer’ (1958), he became romantically involved with co-star Joanne Woodward, who had that year won the Best Actress Oscar for ‘The Three Faces Of Eve’. Divorcing Jackie, he now had it all: screen time with Orson Welles, a successful and glamorous wife, an award at Cannes, and a straight tarmac road to stardom.
His next role cemented him in the big-time. The wildly successful pairing of Marlon Brando and screen goddess Vivien Leigh in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (1951) a few years earlier was repeated. This time Hollywood paired Newman with the sultry bombshell Elizabeth Taylor in another gritty adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’. Revisiting themes of violence, class consciousness in the Deep South and mental frailty, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ (1958) earned plaudits for the leading couple.
In ‘The Left Handed Gun’ (1958), he played Billy the Kid (a role that was supposed to have to gone to James Dean) who was written as another conflicted and troubled youngster. Perhaps it was his worldly experience that enabled him to give depth and accuracy to his sensitive portrayals of teenagers, at the age of 33! 1960s war epic ‘Exodus’ saw him take on a marginally different type of role: a Jewish rebel fighting in the defence of his homeland.
It was in 1961 that saw him take on one of his most iconic roles: the cocksure, fast-talking, troublemaking pool shark in ‘The Hustler’. With George C. Scott (‘Patton’ [1970]) as his manager, Newman drank, swore, punched and hustled his way to true movie immortality. ‘Paris Blues’ (1961) was an impeccably written, magnificently shot and superbly scored film about two jazz musicians (Newman and Sidney Poitier) trying to make a living in Paris. Although it directly addressed the race problems engulfing America at that time, the centrepiece and highlight of the film was the jam session between Poitier, Newman and jazz legend Louis Armstrong.
In ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’ (1962), Newman played true to type again; his character Chance Wayne was flamboyant, pathetically heroic and yet charmingly vulnerable at the same time. It’s no surprise that Newman was chosen for the role; he had after all played Chance in the Broadway version of the play a few years earlier. But it also felt as if he had the measure of a Tennessee Williams lead male character: strong, repressed, at times boorish or violent, but always good at heart. One wonders how he would fitted into the role of Stanley Kowalski or Tom Wingfield (he eventually directed his wife Joanne and John Malkovich in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ in 1987), but no doubt he would have brought the same cheeky humour and undercurrent of repressed violence to it.
An actor with remarkable powers of insight and sensitivity to human nature and behaviour was required to play Hud Bannon in the title role of the intense character study ‘Hud’ (1963). Newman’s nihilistic and ruthless portrayal of a callous and ambitious young man striving to make it to the top of the pile collided sharply with that of Melvyn Douglas as his principled and highly moral father: a clash of generations and ethics in post-war America, themes which ‘The Godfather’ (1972) re-examined a decade later, to more critical and commercial acclaim. But Hud remains one of Newman’s most risky characters, going against heroic type as Hud had no redeeming features whatsoever.
Teaming up with Martin Ritt once more (who had directed him in ‘The Long Hot Summer’, ‘Paris Blues’ and ‘Hud’), he played a Mexican bandit in ‘The Outrage’ (1964) – the Western remake of the legendary Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’. Kurosawa’s masterpiece employed what became later known as the Rashomon effect: the presentation of several vastly differing, yet equally plausible accounts (from multiple perspectives and camera angles) of a single event, in this case, the rape of a newly wed bride and the murder of her husband in rugged bandit country. Newman’s over-the-top portrayal of the bandit (with a pre-Trek William Shatner) makes this a minor classic.
Newman killed some time with Sophia Loren in ‘Lady L’ (1965) and Julie Andrews in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Torn Curtain’ (1966), before starring in two of his most enduring and iconic roles ever in 1967. Martin Ritt’s swashbuckling ‘Hombre’ saw Newman as a white man raised by Apache Indians, inheriting their code of honour. He is initially accepted, then shunned and ostracised by a group of white passengers on a stagecoach – but has to save them in the end from bandits. Newman brought to life the steely-eyed, laconic, almost wooden John Russell as the classic loner.
But it may be a toss-up between 1967’s ‘Cool Hand Luke’ and another film two years later over which will prove to be Newman’s best-loved and best-remembered role. The argument for the powerful, martyr-like Luke, proud non-conformist who does it his way, the inimitable James Dean ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, is a strong one. Gaining the respect of his fellow inmates (and incurring the wrath of the guards) is one thing, eating 50 boiled eggs in an hour to do so is another! One of film’s classic moments indeed.
He tried his hand at directing in 1968 with ‘Rachel Rachel’, starring his wife. It was also at this time that his love for car racing started to manifest itself, with the film ‘Winning’ (1969). 1969 also saw him slip into the role he is most often associated with, as Butch in ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’. With the charming and playful Butch contrasted against Robert Redford’s moody and serious Sundance, the movie was a road trip movie, a Western, a rollicking escape-from-heated-pursuit movie – but above all, it was a movie about the chemistry between two characters out on the road. It was Newman’s finest, or at least one of them.
Newman and Redford teamed up again in 1973 to shoot ‘The Sting’, a high-spirited caper flick that saw the two play conmen trying to cheat the biggest gangster in Chicago. ‘The Sting’ is always compared to ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, and the debates between the movies’ respective fans is vicious and heated, and still ongoing. However, it is generally agreed that Newman’s charm, wit and utter loveability plays off Redford’s wooden, straightlaced exterior the way that no other actor or actress managed.
An all-star billing was the main draw in ‘The Towering Inferno’ (1974), with Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire and a pre-murderer/armed robber OJ Simpson (at that time a running back for the Buffalo Bills)! With the exception of the gritty and violent ‘Slap Shot’ (1977), the latter half of the '70s and the early part of the '80s will not be remembered as Newman’s best period. It was also a time of mourning – Newman’s eldest son with his first wife Jackie, Scott, died of a drug overdose in 1978, which led to the setting up of the Scott Newman Foundation, devoted to educating young people about drug and alcohol abuse. Newman was reportedly racked with guilt over his son’s death; he blamed himself for leaving Jackie and Scott (aged only eight) as well as the two young siblings.
‘The Verdict’ (1982), directed by Sidney Lumet (‘Serpico’ [1973] and ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ [1975]) and written by David Mamet (‘The Untouchables’ [1987] and ‘Ronin’ [1998]) revived Newman’s star, playing a drunk, beat-up, washed-out, ambulance-chasing lawyer who fights a case instead of settling out of court, only to come up against James Mason’s velvet toned, silky smooth and utterly amoral defence lawyer. It may be cinematic heresy to compare this to Lumet’s 1957 courtroom masterpiece, ’12 Angry Men’ (starring Henry Fonda), but there is no doubt that it did Newman a world of good.
But it wasn’t as if Newman was resting on his laurels during this period either. Film-wise, good roles may have been a little scarce, but he was occupying his time with his love of racing, and he and his wife were also heavily involved in Democratic politics – Jimmy Carter even appointed him as the US delegate to a UN nuclear disarmament conference in 1978. Incidentally, in the 1968 presidential election, he incurred the wrath of the Republican candidate Richard ‘Tricky Dicky’ Nixon, for Newman’s strong and vocal support of anti-Vietnam Democratic candidate Eugene McCarthy! In 1982, he started up Newman’s Own brand, selling food products and donating all post-tax profits to charity. One particular beneficiary was the Hole in the Wall Camp (named after his gang in ‘Butch Cassidy’), a summer camp for seriously ill children.
By 1985, Newman had been nominated seven times for an Oscar but had never won, so the Academy presented him with an honorary award for his respected body of work. As it so happened, he won a real one the very next year, this time for reprising his ‘Hustler’ role as Fast Eddie Felson in Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Colour of Money’ (1986). Playing mentor to Tom Cruise’s cocksure protégé, he teaches the new boy the ropes about pool hustling. In 1987, as mentioned before, he directed the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ ‘The Glass Menagerie’.
Newman was definitely slowing down by the time the Nineties arrived, but he roused himself to give a deliciously evil performance in the Coen brothers’ ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ (1994). As a villainous director of a company, he plots to install a bumbling patsy (Tim Robbins) as president to devalue the company’s stock, and so snap it up at cut-price. Robert Benton’s ‘Nobody’s Fool’ (1994) saw Newman at his roguish best, flirting with the wife of his boss right under his nose (Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis respectively), and teamed up again with Robert Benton for 1998’s ‘Twilight’, this time opposite Gene Hackman.
The Sam Mendes-directed mob movie ‘Road to Perdition’ (2002) saw Newman in his biggest big-name role in years – playing an Irish mobster who sends a hitman (Jude Law) after the son of one of his other hitmen (Tom Hanks) after the son witnessed one of his father’s assassinations. With Ciaran Hinds, Daniel Craig and Jennifer Janet Leigh rounding out a star studded cast, this proved that Newman could still hold his own among the new stars.
In the final years of his life, Newman devoted his time to charitable causes while also maintaining a steady if not spectacular presence in stage productions. Shortly before his death, he pulled out of a production of John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ in his hometown of Westport, Connecticut. He died of lung cancer at home, as per his wishes, on 26 September 2008, aged 83.
When the news of his cancer reached the public’s ears, the reaction was immediate and profound – but neither self-pity nor self-glorification was part of Newman’s nature. He approached his impending death with the same calmness with which he had faced Dragline and the prison guards, the same sangfroid while evading the pursuing posse. And yet he approached life as he had onstage with Poitier and Louis Armstrong, with the same jazzy zest and humour and vigour that remained through the years. That slow-spreading grin, the famous blue eyes. The heartthrob of a generation, the inspiration to countless actors and actresses, the natural successor to James Dean, a star among peers that included Redford, Brando, McQueen and Eastwood – he stood tall, whether as Butch Cassidy, Cool Hand Luke, Hud, Fast Eddie Felson, Brick Pollitt, Sidney J. Mussburger, or simply as Paul Newman, he stood tall indeed.