I’m not real sure who my favorite actor of all time is but I do know that Paul Newman is near the top of the list. One of the criteria I use to identify those I consider great actors is the ability of the actor to make me see them as the character they are playing, even as I remain aware that it is a movie or play. For me, Newman personified this ability. Newman was Lucas Jackson. He was Butch Cassidy. He was Lew Harper, Fast Eddie Felson, Ben Quick, and Henry Gondorf.
I have not seen every performance of Newman’s from over the years but I do know that in my view, he had fewer of the roles where I was aware at all times that I was seeing PAUL NEWMAN. I guess the best way for me to describe my view of Newman and his acting (and this applies pretty much across the board to most other actors – in most of his roles, I see it as Paul Newman IS (fill-in-the-blank) character rather than Paul Newman AS (fill-in-the-blank) character. I realize this is a subtle distinction but there are many actors who never let you forget that they are THE ACTOR rather than becoming the role.
Newman played sports roles in Winning and Slap Shot. He was in westerns from The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Left-Handed Gun, and Hombre. He played historical individuals in Somebody Up There Likes Me (Rocky Graziano), Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (Buffalo Bill Cody), Fat Man and Little Boy (General Leslie Groves), and Blaze (Gov. Earl Long) as well as Judge Roy Bean, Billy the Kid, and Butch Cassidy.
Paul Newman famously called The Silver Chalice “the worst film made in the 1950s.” When it was first televised in Los Angeles in the 1960s, he took out an ad in one of the trade papers that read, “Paul Newman apologizes every night this week-Channel 9.” In spite of, or perhaps because of Newman’s hatred of his film debut, the passing years have given The Silver Chalice a patina of camp. Seen today, the starkly minimalist sets look ever so mid-century modern. And the laughter at Newman’s pained posturing and tortured line readings, Virginia Mayo’s flouncing femme fatale, and Jack Palance’s bravura turn as a mad magician is more affectionate than derisive.
Newman did have some roles that can best be described as paydays (The Towering Inferno as a prime example).
One of Newman’s comedic roles I have always enjoyed, even though it is not a great movie, is the title character in The Secret War of Harry Frigg. Another late career semi-comedic role is in the film Nobody’s Fool where he plays a bit of a ne’er-do-well. The latter has one of the great movie quotes of all time (though not from Newman’s character). Newman had been arrested by a cop (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and is in the judge’s chambers with his lawyer, the judge, chief of police, and Hoffman and the judge tells the Chief (in reference to Hoffman):
Ollie, you know my feelings about arming morons: you arm one, you’ve got to arm them all, otherwise it wouldn’t be good sport.
What Newman roles do you love most?
Photo from Loren Javier licensed under Creative Commons