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.


randini said...

His very first role of any kind is available on DVD, in the Worlds of Tomorrow collection. It's a cipher from the prehistoric days of live TV, as well as a reminder that most of it was nowhere near the level attained by Playhouse 90. No more han a curiosity. You'd never guess he was destined to "Be Somebody".

The Siren said...

The difference between The Silver Chalice and Somebody Up There Likes Me is a source of wonder. I would love to see Newman's TV work between the films to get a sense of his progress. He must have been working his tail off. Admittedly, The Silver Chalice was destined to be bad but all you have to do is look at Burton in The Robe to know that it didn't have to be THAT bad. And then, as Graziano, Newman just shines.

Vanwall said...

I saw a couple of Newman's old TV works many years ago - he was on more than a few different shows, so he had a certain amount of experience - and "The Silver Chalice" is full of stilted performances, so his is not alone. He just wasn't Paul Newman yet.

It's funny "From the Terrace" coming up so much so allasudden, as O'Hara is officially shite for a lot of the lit set, but the film was a perfect example of his work, if not an exact recitiation, and Newman and the stunning young Ina Balin really had something going - he somehow enabled other actors to play off his charisma, as Robert Redford must've surely discovered. That film is what made an impression on me more than I realized, along with "The Young Philadelphians", where his little session with wonderful Billie Burke was an indicator of how well he let anyone else on the screen look better for the camera if they were receptive to his charm in any way, even in a weak film.

I can't think of an actress and actor combination better than Piper Laurie, always a silken-voiced wonder of vulnerability, and Paul Newman, to put across the relationship in "Hustler" - she was crippled one way, and he another, and they made you believe that, even tho they were both gorgeous and whole - that charm of his made it easier for her to look damaged in a sympathetic manner.

I actually saw him at an early sports car race when he was still an amateur - kept to himself, and kept quiet, I think he wanted it that way. I wasn't gonna bother him, and didn't, but he stood out like a lightbulb when walked around the pits - that charm wasn't just on camera, believe me.

Gonna miss him, but he left one helluva body of work.

The Siren said...

I like From the Terrace and The Young Philadelphians a lot, and wish I had seen them more recently so I could discuss them more fully. He must have been a dream to work with because, as you say, he's a generous actor on screen, not someone who sucks up the oxygen.

Tony Dayoub said...

I'm astonished when anyone leaves "Hud" liking the character. I think it is Newman's most underrated performance, and though his charm definitely shines through early in the film, I feel it is more of a pretext to Newman pulling the rug out from under the viewer later.

Exiled in NJ said...

I was fortunate to have a wife with VHS copies of Young Philadelphians, Long Hot Summer and Cat, and I'd swear the church in the beginning is at 63rd & Lancaster [but IMDB says the picture was shot elsewhere].

We must watch all three every six months or so, and the scene with Billy Burke sparkles, with help from the little dog. And young Robert Vaughan gets a sympathetic role for a change.

I will walk into our kitchen, sniff the air and shout "Do I smell mendacity?"

I think I could watch Ives and Newman in the basement every night of the week. But Maggie says one line that sums up Paul Newman's career: "Why can't you get ugly Brick? Why can't you please get fat or ugly or somthin' so I can stand it?!"

Exiled in NJ said...

One more thing: the quality that so strikes me in most of his roles is his ability to share the screen and no film shows this better than Hud, a film to me that is an American masterwork.

J.J. said...

This is a really good post, and probably the most precise appreciation I've read so far.

The Siren said...

Exiled, Ives and Newman in the basement makes the whole film worthwhile; that, and Elizabeth Taylor just standing around. Actually, she's really very good in the movie, something Newman was always at pains to point out.

Tony, I have no idea why people leave liking Hud either, but then I don't understand how Harry Lime, a child murderer, morphed into some sort of lovable rogue in the radio series later on. To me both movies are very clear. "Pulling the rug out" is an excellent description of Newman's performance, which to me is a high-water mark as well. He equalled that level later on, but he never surpassed it, as he was really that superb.

Thanks, JJ. The aim of the post was just to bring up some earlier movies that I think get short shrift because of the (entirely justified) love for Butch and The Sting and The Verdict.

X. Trapnel said...

Thomson makes the mistake of confusing likeabiltiy, which cannot be faked, with charm, which can. (Fake likeability requires a phalanx of publicists banging on about how "we" want to have a beer with whoever it is that they're selling.)The Siren's excellent examples of the latter,Rex Harrison and Peter Sellers, point up the fact that both actors relied heavily on artifice and technique and rarely attempted the recognizably human in comedy or drama. Harrison may have been a great Shavian on stage but his Henry Higgins compared to (the immensely likeable) Leslie Howard lacks the human side of HH's singlemindedness. All we get is charm. Enough to drown in.
Compared to Brando or (it must be said) James Dean, Newman's career looks curiously low key. He seems not to have possessed Brando's daring and ambition and if he did nothing so great as Streetcar, On the Waterfront, or (insert your own choice) he was never bad or ridiculous as in (your own choice). His best (superb) later performance in The Verdict depends to some degree on the audience's distress at seeing the likeable Paul Newman in such dire straits, but Newman quietly conveys such a powerful sense of the interior pain of the wrecked man that is more human than anything Brando ever did and that reflects back on the understated excellence of so many of Newman's perfomances. I don't think he ever made a "great" film (The Hustler, maybe), but lots of good ones and its possible that his deprecating remarks about acting may have reflected a dienchantment with the state of film in his later years (who could blame him?). I think he was the last of the great stars.

Vanwall said...

One of the things I think that gets lost in the brightness of Newman's performances is his ability to put darker edges to his likable characters, like failure and loss. His Gondorf in the shower scene early on in the "Sting" conveys a lifetime of losing, not winning, something I found incredibly magnetic, and even when he's ice-picking the block in the sink, he seems to be stabbing more than just ice. I love "Slap Shot" for the same reason - he's a not-quite-lovable loser there, too. Perhaps his style masked this aspect for some people, but he was so subtle in ways some actors would've gone over the edge into camp.

Another interesting aspect was his ability to portray many of the literary roles as written, not just as filmed for that particular movie. I like his David Eaton as an O'Hara creation, altho they softened the part for the film, and his Lew Harper, Ben Quick, Eddie Felson, and Hud Bannon are very much the people out of the books and plays for me.

Personally, I'd have to say "The Hustler" WAS a great film, and so was "Hud" and "Cool Hand Luke", and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", but that's just me.

X. Trapnel said...

I agree with Vanwall that Newman never went over the top (no excerptable scenes of "great" acting for documentaries or Oscar shows). His brilliance as an actor shone best in the middle range of human experience--where most of us live. His most underrated performance might be Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.

Frank Conniff said...

Siren, thanks for a wonderfully eloquent tribute to Paul Newman. I find it interesting that with all his serious intensity in the early part of his career that you focus on, Newman did try to mix things up and made several comedies during this period. Unfortunately for him, the early sixties was not a great era for film comedy and most the comedies he made during that time, "A New Kind Of Love," "What a Way to Go," "Lady L," and "The Secret War of Harry Frigg" are all almost completely obscure now. If someone wants to speak up on behalf of these films, I'd love to hear it, because I saw them on TV years ago and have almost no memory of them. We all found out after "Butch Cassidy" and "The Sting" and especially "Slap Shot" that Newman had a light touch and could have been wonderful in any number of comedies had those scripts come his way. Alas, we'll just have to settle for the many brilliant and iconic performances he gave in the classic dramatic movies he made.

One lightweight and not very well known film of Newman's that I have a real soft spot for is "The Prize." It has a screenplay by Ernest Lehman (who wrote "Somebody Up There Likes Me") and it is more or less a rehash of some of the elements in his far superior "North By Northwest" script. But I remember really enjoying it and Newman was very entertaining in it. Not many actors are called upon to play a young, washed up writer who nonetheless wins the Nobel Prize for Literature and then finds himself caught in a web of murder and international intrigue at the ceremony in Sweden, but Newman more than rose to the challenge.

Tania said...

Your film writing is such a pleasure! I was reading bits of this one aloud to the husband over breakfast. Best Newman piece I've read on the interwebs so far. Thanks, doll. -TS

Vertigo's Psycho said...

I did finally see Newman recently in the 1955 production of "Our Town" at the Television and Radio Museum, and his work proves he's a fine, earnest, and yes, charming actor early in the game. He gave what he considered one of his best performances in the same year's "The Battler," and from the brief footage I've seen he was startling in the role. Newman stated in a 1982 Time interview he was always working hard at his craft, and I agreed with you that this dedication to acting was the factor that put him on top for a long, long time. The 1960's may have been his peak (and I'd place The Hustler and Cool Hand Luke at the top of the list- I think he delves deepest into his characters in these two signature roles), but I believe what he pulls off in Somebody Up There and The Long Hot Summer is equal to most of his later performances.

I do think the kind of person he was in real life (a nice, decent, down-to-earth guy) often carries over onscreen, and did help lend credibility to Newman's many fine, carefully crafted performances. No matter how great an actor you are, some of your personality's going to show up on film during a 50-year career. It's easy for an audience to identify with and like Newman, and I think this is a combination of his acting ability, his kind nature, and, yes, his uncommonly good looks. It was an unbeatable combination, and one we'll never see again. Newman once claimed he couldn't really approach Brando's level as an actor. Well, no one can touch Newman's approach to film acting, either.

The Siren said...

X. Trapnel, I think you are on to something with both Sellers and Harrison. Certainly you nail why I prefer Howard's Higgins. I have not seen Mr and Mrs Bridge and I should; reportedly Joanne Woodward told Newman it was the role that came closest to the real him.

Vanwall, I agree about Hud and Cool Hand Luke; The Hustler was good. Cat, well, like I said, messy.

Frank, thanks so much for mentioning The Prize! I love that movie, I think it's very well done, and I don't know why it isn't better known. It's sort of Hitchcock-ish but it's about 100 times better than Torn Curtain, which I found barely watchable. I am also very fond of A New Kind of Love which, as you say, is a goofy little comedy very much of its time, but as it's a time I love, I enjoy it. The idea of putting Newman and Woodward, two of the least fashion-conscious stars in Hollywood history, in a story set against the Paris fashion industry is just so wrong it's right.

Jason Bellamy said...

Chiming in to agree with Vertigo's Psycho, among others, that Newman's off-screen persona had a significant (and welcome) impact on his onscreen presence. That was my take in my rememberance.

For example: Imagine "Hud" with, I don't know, Lee Marvin in the role. In that case, Hud is just a bastard. You spend the whole movie hating him. I'm not knocking Marvin, just pointing out the significance of Newman's incredible charm and general likeability. In "Hud" you WANTED to like him, over and over again, even though the character acted in ways you couldn't stomach. That's what's so compelling.

The Siren said...

aww T., thank YOU! I am dying to catch up and will try to drop a line. Hope you & DH are well.

VP, I *adore* The Long Hot Summer, everything about it. To me it's one of his best, supposedly Faulkner but more like Williams and Inge had a screenplay-baby. I bet Newman was good in Our Town as well. It may well be that part of the problem with The Silver Chalice was that he didn't have enough technique to sort of act around a lousy script, as Burton did with The Robe.

The Siren said...

Jason, thanks for pointing to your well-written tribute. I am afraid I have to strongly disagree with your fundamental premise, though. Three other examples of actors who projected great warmth, likability, charm, whatever we want to call it, on camera while showing much less of it to those around them: Bob Hope, Henry Fonda, Bing Crosby. It's nice to write a reminiscence about an actor who was also a stand-up guy, as I did a while back with Roy Scheider. It gives you more to appreciate and talk about, for sure. But I think that even for a nice-guy actor, projecting good qualities on screen is no more or less a skill than projecting evil ones.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The Siren doesn't understnd Alain Delon who never in a million years tried to be charming. He is Death Eroticized

Homoeroticized in point of fact.

Delon will make love to you and then drown you (Plein Soleil, La Piscine, Nouvelle Vague) He was BORN to wield the icepick that killed Trotsky -- and intone the film's great last line. And he IS Monsoue Klein.

Paul Newman's The Most Popular Boy in School who -- rather than a "Heather" -- is genuinely ice. He toys with rbellion and "non-conformity," but underneath it all he's Mr.s Bridge in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (one of my very favoirte of all his films.) Naturally he can curse like a sailor on speed ( as in the delightful Slap-Shot) but no woman in the world couldn't take him home to meet her father.

What's most becoming about Newman is the act that her understood his extents and limitations so well. As a result he never disappointed us.

There's no one quite like him and we shall not see his like again.

The Siren said...

But that's EXACTLY what I was saying about Delon, D.! He is absolutely a good enough actor to charm little fawns into tiptoeing out of a forest glade to eat out of his perfectly-shaped hand, if so he wished. But he does not wish, as you say. He scorns charm. He is un homme fatal.

As for Newman, I don't find that he projects ice except as it's needed, as in (here comes that movie again) Hud.

Jason Bellamy said...

Campaspe: I'm not sure we actually disagree. I'm not by any means diminishing Newman's skill. Likewise, whether off-camera he was a genuine nice guy or just an imposter makes no difference. Real or not, my point is that Newman's image as a "good guy" affects how we interpret his characters. I'm not suggesting it was his only tool in his toolbox. I'm not even suggesting he exploited it.

But, just for one example, Tony Dayoub points out above that some people come away from "Hud" actually liking the character. Why? Can't we assume that at least some of it is that people just plain liked Paul Newman and that translated into how they received his character(s)?

Newman was much more than just a nice guy. And much of his on-screen likeability was the result of craft. But when Newman opens "The Verdict" for example, he's playing with a lead. The audience is on his side from the beginning. Isn't that fair to say?

X. Trapnel said...

I never found Hope or Crosby likeable, charming (or funny) together or separately. Henry Fonda, a great actor, is a more interesting case. Doesen't he often project, in certain signature roles (T. Joad, Mr. Roberts, Lincoln, Juror 8), a certain removal or elevation above the ruck of common humanity. And something cold and unbending in his rae villainous roles?

Ricky Lee Grove said...

This is a beautifully written post. I've been trying to formulate my ideas about Newman over the last few days and you've hit upon many I was thinking about. I very much like your idea that although talented Newman's acting matured through hard work. Hmnn..the idea that acting is "work" is revolutionary (sarcasm intended).

I wish Newman had done more Theater. Imagine him as Astrof in Uncle Vanya, or Lee in True West. He would have blown everyone out of the theater.

randini said...

For a film with such a senseless, harebrained script it's amazing that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof still has the reputation it does. Has any American drama since the hapless Deane-Balderston "Dracula" gotten by with so much action being described offscreen? Compare it to the somewhat similar The Little Foxes and you'll see. Both films are designed to showcase great performances and, right, the basement scene with Newman and Ives is the heart and soul of a movie that otherwise lost it earlier. (Does anybody besides me wish that the first act went further with its seeming encouragement of infanticide?) The ending, though, with Maggie suddently revealing her pregnancy, seems under the circumstances like a desparate deus-ex-machina device to save the train from completely piling up.

The Siren said...

Jason: "My point is that Newman's image as a "good guy" affects how we interpret his characters." Ah, now there I hear you, and by the time he played The Verdict, yes, absolutely the deck was stacked a bit in terms of audience sympathy. (It's also stacked, in terms of shock value, in quite a different way with Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West.) I honestly think that Hud would exert a pull on us even if Paul Newman had essayed the role after springing fully formed from the head of Zeus. But it is absolutely true that we bring perceptions of off-screen behavior to the movies with us when we watch a star. I've railed against that when I thought it was in some sense unfair (as with Joan Crawford, for example) but we do it nonetheless. I may fancy myself plenty erudite and above-it-all enough to leave stories about Crosby at the door, but to tell you the truth it probably does play a part in why I find him so gruesome in Going My Way.

Which brings me to X Trapnel--I find Crosby and Hope not terribly convincing playing opposite women, or I should say not very appealing. But together they had definite chemistry and I love the Road movies. Now when I watch them I keep thinking I see bits of what colleagues tell us they were actually like peeking through the scripts. But I loved them even as a kid when I took the whole routine at face value.

I also confess straight-up to loving White Christmas.

The Siren said...

Ricky, welcome and thanks. Over at Glenn Kenny's place there is a poster who tells a great story about spotting Newman outside a theater playing The Sunshine Boys. She says she walked over to him during intermission as he stood outside with Joanne Woodward and remarked, "In ten years you do that with Redford." He looked at her and growled, "Hell, we could do it now." And then she walked away, having had her moment.

But you know, THAT would have been one hell of a ticket. He did do theater but that part of his career I'm not familiar with, alas.

The Siren said...

Randini, Cat is an incredibly frustrating movie, but then again as you point out it's a talky, difficult play that Williams even wrote with two endings, if I recall. There's a lot of good stuff going on but ultimately it just comes apart because there is so little real explanation for Brick. Newman, robbed by the censors of the real dilemma, plays his scenes with Taylor as just anger, "I'm so mad at you Maggie madmadmadangry pissedoffImeanIammad." Not much else he can do, but it makes that whole part of the movie a drag. Taylor's best work comes when she's interacting with the family, for my money. I love to watch her squabbling with the great Jack Carson.

Jason Bellamy said...

Campaspe: As you allude, I think the deck-stacking effect is easier to spot when an actor brings "baggage" (negative connotation), but logically it also works in the reverse.

Interesting that you mention Bing and "White Christmas." Both he and that film fall into one of my entertainment blind spots. When several years ago I watched the movie for the first time, I was surprised not only to find that "White Christmas" wasn't actually a Christmas movie in the traditional sense but also to learn (via my girlfriend) that Bing was not the guy you wanted to be staying up late counting sheep with. I had no idea.

Now, with no real ties to "White Christmas" or bing, I can see scenes from that film and not be affected by what I now know of him off-screen. But to jump to another genre entirely, it's hard to look at O.J. Simpson the same way in those "Naked Gun" movies knowing what we know now. That's a silly yet extreme example, but, like I said, it obviously works the other way, too.

Likewise, the deck can be stacked based on the actor's previous performances. If you think Kim Basinger is talentless, then "L.A. Confidential" is a revelation, for example.

I'm rambling now. Point is: I like to think I'm above it all, too. Certainly I strive to be. But it's difficult. And on some level it's unrealistic.

X. Trapnel said...

White Christmas? Song as crooned by Der Bingle or Movie?

Siren, you've hit the point exactly. Boy-girl love generates the best (sometimes the most painful) cinematic comedy and Hope's stammerings and doubletakes are an evasion of comedic responsibility, laffs rather than laughs.

The Siren said...

Re: White Christmas--I do mean the movie. Bing and Rosemary Clooney have the most amazing lack of chemistry and even Vera-Ellen (by then wearing high necks to conceal how gaunt she'd gotten) couldn't make Danny Kaye sexy. But I just dig it, especially the "Choreography" number and "Snow" and those amazing and ridiculous red costumes at the end. If it were on right now I would probably watch it.

X. Trapnel said...

Ah, yes, the movie. I also relish its sublime clunkiness, but is there anything in it to compare to Holiday Inn's "Abraham" and "What do You Do with a General?" Just the thing to create a romantic mood...

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Don't think I made the point as well as Jason (either here or in my blog's post), but I was attempting to allude to the same idea- that Newman's charisma and "nice guy" persona was a factor in his enduring screen image, along with his looks and his incredible talent.

I read "The Hamlet," "The Town," and "The Mansion" trilogy a few years ago, and Summer does a pretty remarkable job of incorporating key elements from the Faulkner novels and his short story "Barn Burning" into movie form. Glad to hear you love the movie as much as I do (its become a film I HAVE to watch every summer).

Love the ". . .I find him (Crosby) so gruesome in Going My Way" comment. Never thought of viewing this touchy-feely hit as a horror movie, with Crosby as Frankenstein. I'll have to try it at Christmastime this year, and hope Crosby attacks Rise Stevens this time as she hits a high C. I kinda love Christmas, and after watching it I always wanna wash my face and hair and hands with snow. Snow.

Does anyone have an "unseen" Newman they're still waiting for? 1957's soaper Until They Sail's at the top of my list now.

Frank Conniff said...

TCM is doing a Paul Newman marathon this coming Sunday and "Until They Sail" is on at 8:AM eastern time.

The Siren said...

X. Trapnel, isn't the "General" number in White Christmas? I suppose I should prefer Holiday Inn, as it's the original and has Fred Astaire doing a great number with firecrackers. But I don't. I do think maybe "Abraham" has something to do with that. Plus the idea that Crosby could take a girl away from Fred Astaire simply does not compute. Hope, I'll believe, but not that!

VP, what I was getting at was that while our attitude is something we bring to a Newman movie, it isn't in his actual performances. Ultimately it's a Chinese-box argument though. Strangling Rise Stevens would absolutely have MADE Going My Way. Or smothering Barry Fitzgerald inside of singing him to sleep.

I have seen Until They Sail and it's a fivefold treat for me: Sandra Dee, Paul Newman, Joan Fontaine, Jean Simmons and Piper Laurie. I can't say it's a great movie but I enjoyed it, and it has something of the same feel as Newman's other early b&w melos.

X. Trapnel said...

Yes, of course. The "General" is from White Xmas. I must have misshelved it in my memory's chamber of horrors.

Marjorie Reynolds seems an apt prize for Crosby. Astaire could always do better.

DavidEhrenstein said...

You know it's funny to think about on-screen/off-screen, especially with Taylor. We know EVERYTHING about her -- and very little. Lately she's been showing up at The Abbey in WeHo alot, with that gay black businessman who is her "walker" (or as she's wheelchair bound now, "pusher.")

The trouble with Cat is that the production code wouldn't allow Newman to play a bisexual, longing for his lost male love, whose death he blames on the wife he's semi-attracted to. I wonder if Newman could have done it as written. As is well known he optioned The Front Runner and then tried to make the gayness a sub-pot by concentrating on the coach's abandoned wife (obviously a Joanne Woodward role.)

Taylor had her greatest sexual and romantic heat when cast opposite gay men: Rock Hudson and James Dean in Giant , and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun and Suddenly Last Summer.

Go figure.

Jason Bellamy said...

Couldn't make Danny Kaye sexy? Heck, she couldn't even make him straight. (And I say that not as a comment on the man but on the character.)

One last thing on the "White Christmas" tangent: My favorite part of the film, by far, is when the general blows out his candles and manages to 'throw' his breath around the cake to extinguish even the candles on the backside. Incredible talent. No wonder they'd follow him anywhere.

Vanwall said...

I'll make a comment about"Cat", regarding the intent and the execution - my very straight father, he's downright upright, had some interesting connections in the movie biz with people in the know I have yet to figure out - he clued me in about Rock Hudson's orientation and a little later, John Ireland's escapades, just for example and he ain't talkin' how or who - seemed to be surprised that anybody watching Newman's Brick performance could NOT go away without realizing he was gay or bi - and he saw it in the theater when it was released. My Dad wasn't too receptive of alternative lifestyles, but he figured anybody who wouldn't sleep with Liz Taylor in a 1950s Hollywood movie, pining about his dead football buddy, well, brother, that was an unspoken indicator you could take to the bank - if you couldn't catch that inference, you were pretty obtuse; it was as gay as you could get in a 1958 Studio film. And he'd heard just that from someone in the film industry.

Outside of NYC, the play wasn't really well known to most movie-goers, and my Dad remarked on the number of people he knew in our desert environs that were a bit shocked when they saw it, Hays Coded even as it was. The press pretty much went along with the dumbing-down as well, and when we watch it, as I did much later after my Dad had given me his review, we are looking backward - with the pernicious skewing of contemporaneous impressions by our hindsight, which also colors anything we take away with us from Newman's performance.

Remind Myself said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
VP81955 said...

I believe TCM's Paul Newman tribute (including "Until They Sail") is set for Oct. 12, not this Sunday.

Re: White Christmas--I do mean the movie. Bing and Rosemary Clooney have the most amazing lack of chemistry

Ironically, Bing and Rosie did some albums later on, and I believe she was on one of his final tours. I sense any "lack of chemistry" was strictly in the cinematic sense; both were at their most comfortable in the recording studio, although Crosby developed far more of a feel for film than Clooney ever did.

gmoke said...

Charm can indeed be learned. I have met two real spies in my life and the distinguishing characteristic of both of them was that they were utterly charming. Because of that, I don't trust charming people.

Newman came from interesting stock.

I first heard this poem in a version by the late, great Lord Buckley and understand that Bob Dylan did his own version in his early career. It was written by Paul Newman's uncle, Joseph S. Newman.

Black Cross

Hezekiah Jones of Hogback County
Lived on a hill in a weather-beaten hovel
And all that he owned was a two-acre plot
And a bed and some books and a hoe and a shovel.

Hezekiah, black as the soil he was hoeing,
Worked pretty hard to make ends meet;
Raised what he ate, with a few cents over
To buy corn likker that he drank down neat,

And a few cents more that he put in the cupboard
Against what he called “de rainy season,”
But he never got to save more'n two or three dollars
Till he gave it away for this or that reason.

The white folks around knew old Hezekiah...
“Harmless enough, but the way I figger
He better lay off'n them goddam books,
'Cause readin' ain't good fer an ignorant nigger.”

Reverend Green, of the white man's church,
Finally got around to “comin' ovah
To talk with you-all about the Pearly Kingdom
An' to save yo' soul fer the Lawd Jehovah!”

“D'ya b'lieve in the Lawd?” asked the white man's preacher.
Hezekiah puckered his frosty brow,
“Well I can't say 'yes,' so I ain't gonna say it,
Caze I ain't SEEN de”

“D'ya b'lieve in Heaven?” asked the white man's preacher,
“Where you go, if you're good, fer yer last rewa'hd?”
“Ah'm good,” said Hezikiah, “good as Ah'm able,
But Ah don't expect nothin' from Heaven OR the Lawd.”

“D'ya b'lieve in the Church?” asked the white man's preacher.
Hezekiah said, “Well de Church is divided;
Ef they can't agree, than Ah cain't neither...
Ah'm like them....Ah ain't decided.”

“You don't b'lieve nothin',” roared the white man's preacher.
“Oh yes Ah does,” said old Hezikiah,
“Ah b'lieve that a man's beholden to his neighbas
Widout de hope of Heaven or de fear o' hell's fiah.”

There's a lot of good ways for a man to be wicked...
They hung Hezikiah as high as a pidgeon,
And the nice folks around said, “He had it comin'
'Cause the son-of-a-bitch didn't have no religion!”

Dahlia Lathwick writes about her observations of Newman when she was a camp counselor at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp at He will be missed, greatly. Sympathies for all his family.

The Siren said...

X Trapnel, you're right, Astaire could definitely do better!

David, when Taylor's time comes (may it be a long way off, we shall never see her like again) that will be a doozy to write about, because her life IS in some sense her work. But Kimberly Lindbergs at Cinebeats has written some pieces on her late movies, including the much-maligned Boom!, that try to separate what she's doing as an actress from all the sound and fury that go along with her.

Jason, 'tis true. And part of why I love "Choreography"-- he is camping it up all over creation.

Vanwall, I dunno, to me Newman evidently made the choice not to play it bisexual. It would be one thing if it weren't in the lines but were there in his performance, but I don't see it.

The Siren said...

VP81955, you have a big month coming up, what with Carole Lombard on TCM! I will be watching your place and I hope everyone else does too. I do like Clooney and Crosby as singers, I just didn't buy them as onscreen lovers. I don't think I have seen Clooney in anything else, come to think of it.

The Siren said...

TheJunction, thanks.

Gmoke, I agree, glad you got what I was saying. That's a fascinating, grim poem.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Rosie has more chemistry with chorus boy George Chakiris than she does with Der Bingel.

The Siren said...

HA! You are so right! gad, now I want to watch White Christmas, what the heck is that impulse doing in a Paul Newman thread? I never know where these comments are going to go.

*sings* Looooove, you didn't do right by me, like they say in the sooong, you done me wroooong...

randini said...

I'd like to second the Siren's plug for "Nobody's Fool", the last real "Paul Newman Movie" and one I really liked when it was new and liked even better (and at my age identified with even more strongly)when I reacquainted myself with it in the wake of his death (Cat was the second feature and I knew it was going to be a mistake). The character was so obviously and lovingly written for Newman as a kind of summing up of all his earlier keynote roles without geting heavyhanded or film-buffish. It's a long movie and one otally against the grain of Hollywood in the 1990s (and evenmore today). Somebody needs to write a picure like that for Jack Nicholson. I'll just add that it says something when I, who have remained a fan all along while totally disagreeing with his politics, has regularly bought Newman's Own products and will continue as long as I can. (Can you imagine anybody else among your favorite film icons doing something like what he did? And not grandstanding about it?)

Vanwall said...

Campaspe -

Regarding Newman's Brick, I didn't see any indicators very much either, but I saw that frustrated jock aspect of Brick very well - I'd seen similar in real life; I was just fascinated that my Dad, and many people from that time, had been primed by popular culture to make connections based on basic situational plotlines, regardless of acting, while we're looking for character development and acting to accomplish that.

Linkmeister said...

Here's a nice memory of Newman from his neighbor Frank DeFord on Wednesday's Morning Edition

NicksFlickPicks said...

I really treasure this post. Not a rich or original sentiment, but sincerely felt!

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

Either you choose not to use it, as the Siren presumes Delon has chosen

Your assumptions are very true. This is why I love Delon so much and find him so interesting as an actor. He was always trying to play against type and often used his beauty as a weapon. He also had an underlying angry/rebellious streak like James Dean or Brando that I personally don't think Newman possessed until later in life (I think this explains while people "like him" as Hud). Newman's anger was directed outwards where guys like Dean, Brando and Delon seem to direct their anger inwards. I think this kind of explains why Newman's performance in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof doesn't completely work for a lot of people.

Any other actor with Delon's looks would have spent a lifetime playing romantic leading men or pretty heroes. Delon spent most of his youth playing unlikable killers and conmen. He has much more in common with actors like Lee Marvin and Peter Lorre. Besides their obvious good looks, Newman and Delon are almost polar opposites in my mind.

cdt said...

Hell, I'll stand up for What A Way to Go! -- it's a hot pink mess, but his segment's funny and sharp and knowing.

His taking the Mickey out of French movie pretentiousness -- or, more importantly, the American ladling of pretentiousness onto French naughty movies -- is still memorable.

The Siren said...

Linkmeister, thanks for the link!

Nick, thanks. I think.

Cinebeats, glad you understood what I was saying about Delon. I find his taste in roles fascinating; usually it seems calculated to undermine whatever expectations are created by his looks.

Pat R said...

I have always admired Paul Newman for putting his money to work in such productive ways... i buy Newman's Own stuff because it's high quality stuff and the proceeds go to good causes