Monday, September 29, 2008
Paul Newman, 1925-2008
The problems of being beautiful are something the Siren does not generally worry her little head about, such difficulties ranking in her mind with whether it is hard to maintain a large house in Manhattan and what on earth will become of Dirk Kempthorne on January 20, 2009. But in the case of Paul Newman, one of the great male beauties of the American screen, it's an underlying critical theme. How much of his appeal was based on his amazing looks?
David Thomson declared himself "suspicious of such blue-eyed likability," but he was only the most forthright of critics. As you go back through reviews of Newman's work, and even now as you read the obituaries with a heavy heart, here come the references to his charm, his charisma, his alleged "cool." The subtext, frequently, is that this was somehow all natural, that Newman was gifted from birth with certain genetic qualities that were fated to pop up on screen. He came from a well-to-do Cleveland family and grew into a beautiful man whom the camera was bound to love. Even his admirable charity work fits into the myth, in that it's taken for granted that his tremendous good luck made him want to give something back. (Phooey. There are others far luckier who never give back a thing--what has Pia Zadora done for us lately? Giving away $200 million is a far deeper statement about character that merely wanting to share the wealth.)
But the Siren is here to talk about Newman's acting, and to remind us that charm does not follow naturally from being handsome, nor does possessing that quality in life mean you can bring it to the screen. Consider Alain Delon, an excellent actor with looks so perfect they seem a cosmic joke, but resolutely uncharming in role after role. Think of George Brent, a well-loved man in Hollywood but often a limp screen figure. Look at Peter Sellers and Rex Harrison, despised by colleagues but the picture of charm in so many movies. Charm is a learned technique for an actor. Either you choose not to use it, as the Siren presumes Delon has chosen, or you can only bring it out when the stars align, like Brent, or you learn to project it despite your real personality. Newman seems to have been a wonderful man in real life, but that's irrelevant to his talent. The things he was able to bring to the screen came from his dedication to acting, not the Good Fairy Merryweather hovering over his cradle.
For further evidence, you don't have to sit in a dark room with Newman's entire filmography on disc. All you have to do is watch The Silver Chalice, his first movie, from 1954. It is neither, as Newman variously described it, the worst movie ever made, nor the worst movie made in the 1950s. It is bad, however. And Newman, as he would tell every interviewer for the rest of his life, is terrible. As the Bible Films blog points out, The Silver Chalice hits every cliche: "a young man becoming a Christian as a result of his pursuit of an early Christian relic...pagan-finds-faith falling for beautiful-Christian-girl." The movie couldn't even capitalize on the genre's mystifying popularity in the 50s, and it lost a fortune. What astonishes a latter-day viewer isn't the ridiculous sets, or the disorganized screenplay that veers from a search for the Last Supper cup to a search for a witness to Newman's adoption and then back again, nor is it even Jack Palance bringing his modern gait and All-American vowels to the role of a Roman-era magician. No, what leaps out at you is this: Newman isn't charming. I mean, look at him in that still above. He is anticharm, in the sense of antimatter. When Pier Angeli looks at him, it isn't with love, but with wonderment that this gorgeous man has the personality of a just-caught red snapper, with lifeless eyes (can you believe it?) and ungraceful movements.
Well, that was his first role. He was never that bad again. Two years later he took the part intended for James Dean in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Boxer Rocky Graziano was a well-loved figure, but many's the character beloved in real life who comes across far differently in a biopic. This is, after all, the story of a guy who starts out more familiar with jails and reformatories than schools, a member of the Greatest Generation who declines to contribute to the struggle, instead repeatedly going AWOL from the Army and eventually earning a dishonorable discharge for striking an officer. That this selfish, immature delinquent becomes quite lovable is due in part to a screenplay that takes care to show the roots of Graziano's behavior, but even more credit is due to Paul Newman. Some will take this as heresy, but the Siren doubts very much that the intense, fiery Dean would have been as sweetly tentative in the love scenes (again with Pier Angeli, looking as though she can't believe her costar's improvement) or as sympathetically big-lunkish when behaving badly.
What was he doing for the two years between roles? Some television, some theater, classes at the Actor's Studio. What flicked the switch? Hard work, definitely. Accretion of experience, I suppose, and perhaps the knowledge that the movie was a do-or-die second chance. Not to mention the fact that Graziano, a street tough who was about as close to the real-life Newman as Rosalynn Carter is to Sandra Bernard, was nevertheless a part far more suited to the actor's ineffably modern sensibility than some silly Greek slave. Somebody Up There Likes Me was the first inkling of Newman's unique talent for playing antiheros, an ability to burrow down into the lives of the small-time and hard-luck cases and find what could bring the audience to the character's side.
The Siren finds his next part, as a soldier who cracked under torture in The Rack, fascinating both for the subject matter and for the place it occupies in Newman's development as an actor. While the screenplay offers him some backhanded compassion, Newman's character is ultimately condemned as a vague example of some kind of weakness in the younger generation. Here again, however, you see that Newman reserved charisma for the parts that demanded it, and the tormented officer he plays gives off no glow. It's an interesting forerunner to another self-hating man Newman would play to far greater effect many years later in The Verdict.
Newman's roles up to the early 1960s are often seen as a sort of romantic-lead holding pattern for the actor, until he could reach his destiny in brilliant turns as The Hustler, Hud and Cool-Hand Luke. These early films have their rewards, though. The drifter in The Long, Hot Summer in some ways is a dry run for the venal but mesmerizing Hud, and his chemistry with Joanne Woodward is delicious. Glenn Kenny pointed out to the Siren that Martin Scorsese mentioned From the Terrace in his tribute to Newman, right alongside Butch Cassidy. Walter Chaw may call it a film "only a dinosaur Republican could love," but the Siren sees it of a piece with Newman's later work. It is, after all, the story of a man materially gifted from birth who still has a reverse Midas touch in his personal life, a type of role that emerged with a slightly different spin the year before as he climbed the ladder in The Young Philadelphians. Moral choices dog early Newman characters. He was usually asked to come down on the side of the Establishment, but you believe him more as he mocks the system, describing his Wall Street office in From the Terrace as an "aging fortress of banking integrity" and sparring bitterly with his father and wife, not when he cleans up in the last act. These are men whose appeal burns fitfully, usually in the love or flirtation scenes. The confrontations and ethical dilemmas are played straight and truthful.
Moral choices dog Newman, too, in the two Tennessee Williams plays he filmed, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, alas, is a hot mess, but it isn't Newman's fault, although he might have tried to make Brick less petulant. The main problem is that there is no way in hell you can make a heterosexual man's refusal to sleep with the 1958-vintage Elizabeth Taylor believable. Even being gay wouldn't completely explain it but at least that's a start. Newman seems to know this, and if you ask the Siren, he's pretty much punting his scenes with Taylor in favor of the scenes with Burl Ives as Big Daddy, which are quite touching in spots. Newman's expression as he watches his father grapple with imminent death makes you forgive Brick, momentarily, for being such a putz in the rest of the movie. While Sweet Bird is flawed, Newman is quite convincing as a would-be actor and pseudo-gigolo in the second film, his follow-up to The Hustler and Paris Blues. Plus the Siren confesses eternal love for the scene where a shirtless Newman does slant-board sit-ups. I deeply admire his acting, I think he was so much more than a pin-up, but still, I could watch that thing on a loop for as long the film held out.
Anyway, what you have, up to the watershed of The Hustler in 1961, is an actor already working at a high level and, for the most part, attacking roles with great fervor and seriousness. The only movie from this period in which the Siren really sees Newman on autopilot is Exodus, and she can't say she blames him for that one. Otherwise, in his early films he isn't relying on his looks and his charisma comes out sparingly. Maybe that's why his 1960s work, which brought him a number of roles that required allure in spades, was and remains such a thunderclap.
With 1963's Hud, Newman would eventually express dismay that the amoral, ruthless title character was taken for his charm and not the viciousness underneath. That audience reaction was the result, however, of perfect playing. Orson Welles's depiction of Harry Lime had the same fate. How else would these men do their dirty work, if they could not make a surface so dazzling it blinded people? In Cool Hand Luke, allegory goes down so easily at least in part because Newman takes Luke and gives him more allure than any straight-up movie Jesus ever had. The Siren likes to think it was maybe a bit of payback for that earlier exercise in Christian mythology.
In later years Newman contributed to the "blue-eyed likability" meme by describing acting as unfit work for a grown-up and pouring his efforts into other interests, like auto-racing, politics and his charitable endeavors. It may well be that at some point the parts he was being offered began to bore him--another irresistible devil, ho-hum. Well, talent Newman had in abundance, but technique and ability must be kept in shape, something Newman acknowledged when he retired a couple of years ago. The Siren does not for one minute believe that he truly despised acting. He stayed too good for too long, his performance in 1994's Nobody's Fool as fresh and true as any he gave in the first golden years of superstardom. His Absence of Malice costar, Sally Field, remarked that "He's so easy you keep thinking he's not doing anything. You know, 'When is he going to act?'" The secret to Paul Newman, and what has the Siren missing him so badly this morning, is that he wasn't just lucky. He was working for the audience all along.