I am sure I am hardly alone in the fact that Paul Newman is one of my absolute heroes. Good man, great actor. When I picture the dream version of who I’d like to be aged 70-something, it’s Paul Newman – vigorous, cheeky, with a sparkle in my eye, with a very satisfactory career behind me and co-running a brilliant theatre with my wife.
Also we’re already practically the same – Paul Nugent, Paul Newman, practically interchangeable. And one time, my mum told me she named me after him. It may have been in jest, but I have always assumed she was being serious and now I refuse to believe any differently.
Even at this very moment, he’s my screen-saver, looking impeccably cool in a white T-shirt and a collar-popped peacoat, standing against a wall painted with prices for steak and kidneys. I have meant to change it many times, but I think it’s been there quite a few years now. What better inspiration each time I turn on this darn machine?
I am a deep admirer of his charitable works – the very idea of Newman’s Own, to make fun of himself as a way to raise money for needy causes, that just says everything about the man. I know very well that the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp his charity runs at a castle in Ireland helps so many disadvantaged children. And his Sockarooni sauce is still my favourite thing to throw on pasta.
I love how he and Joanne Woodward took the Westport Country Playhouse in the town they’d settled in in Connecticut, and built it up into a great regional theatre, top class but also very much of its community – one that other actors I know in New York have told me is one of their favourites to work in. It’s one of my shining examples for my own theatre company, AboutFACE.
And I dearly hope I’m brave enough in my latter years to take up a new hobby … like professional motor-racing.
But enough about how great the man is, let’s talk about the joy of his numero uno, his movies. I’ll deliberately and foolishly limit myself to a personal top ten of my favourites, an impossible task but hey, so is eating 50 hard-boiled eggs in under an hour … so a la Paulie, let’s grab a bowl of popcorn and a six-pack and get watchin’ …
in chronological order – My Top 10 Paul Newman Movies:
Newman often tries to downplay the natural likeablity of his generous spirit, because as a good actor, he knows it’s crucial to play characters that are not there to be likeable. To me, Hud best encapsulates this and Newman provides a character that asks us a lot of questions, who is undoubtedly charismatic but also filled with contemptible choices. Plus Paulie makes a terrific modern cowboy – lean, no-nonsense, ready to snap at the first sign of a compliment or a slight. And his scenes of edgy kitchen flirting with Patricia Neal are some of the best of any on the screen: a couple not meant to be, yet meant to be.
Newman is fascinating in this under-rated and engrossing western, as a white man raised by Indians. He intelligently and surprisingly plays the facets of doubt, repressed rage, lack of belonging, grim fatalism and exposed longing inherent in the character, while the film’s Stagecoach–like gathering of a mix of conflicted characters all stuck in trouble makes for a highly tasty ride.
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
In this truly terrific performance, Newman plays all the levels between comedy and tragedy as the glutton for punishment rebel prisoner Luke. Funny and feirce, a truly engaging catalyst for his chain gang and also maybe the loneliest man in the world, Newman’s very joie de vivre atop an edgy vulnerability keeps us cheering for this man who refuses to be broken but is always bound to lose.
Sure it’s become a little sepia-dated in places, but William Goldman‘s script is still terrific, and the chemistry between Robert Redford and Newman is all it’s cracked up to be. Is there a better scene of friendship than that cliffside over the river? And amidst the glorious fun of the movie, is there a more moving film about the struggle to recapture the joys of one’s past, as the world you love dies?
Sometimes A Great Notion (1970)
This is the real dark horse in my selection and a very special, rugged little film well worth finding. In a movie Newman also directed, he captures in deeply moving detail one particular family running a struggling logging business under threat of a strike. It’s lovely to watch Newman and Henry Fonda play with great depth off each other as father and eldest son much set in their ways. And the final forest flood scene is just brilliantly captured, deeply suspenseful and chillingly real. A powerful under-regarded gem.
The Sting (1973)
Is there a more fun movie out there? I can never resist it – God help me if I come across it on TV just before I should be going to bed. And while Redford makes a great quietly mysterious lead, it’s Newman’s booze-drenched, trick-keen, confidence-creaking leader of a den of thieves Henry Gondorff that gives the movie its spine of wry wit and heart-driven hustling. To watch the snarl in his eyes as he smiles and steals from Robert Shaw‘s Doyle in that claustrophobic deathtrap of a poker game in the hurtling train carriage, is pure pleasure. (Still wish Newman and Redford had made more than two films together … sigh …)
It’s just great fun watching Newman having that much fun swearing.
The Verdict (1982)
If you forced me at gunpoint to pick Newman’s greatest acting performance, this is the one I’d choose. In the perfect storm combination of a lethal David Mamet script and Sidney Lumet earthily directing a rich opaque cast including James Mason, Jack Warden and Charlotte Rampling, Newman’s journey from pinball-playing ambulance-chaser to heroic but burnt man of the law is magnificent – specific, gutteral, dark-souled and palpably painful in a very hazy moral world. The scene at the hospital bed where Frank Galvin realizes he can’t just walk away is one of the best playings of a silent turning point in any movie. (This movie is also a great example at how strangely good Newman was at playing the complications of being Irish…)
The Color of Money (1986)
Slightly controversial, but I prefer this to The Hustler. Maybe it’s because I am a child who grew up in the 80’s and I love Scorsese‘s capturing of the colours of the world of games, but there’s something so engaging in the way Newman’s Fast Eddie Felson is only barely able to hide his decades of boiled-up anger under smiles and good intentions, against Tom Cruise at his most effectively potent and smug – with Eddie ready to crack like the smash of a pool first break. I actually just bought the novel of it, and of course, I’ll be picturing Newman with every line.
Nodody’s Fool (1994)
In what I think is his last really great role, Newman is undeniably riveting as a grumpy rattlesnake of a construction worker, who with nothing to lose sets out to make trouble in his small town, but eventually finds out he’s luckier than he realizes, and is softened by lovely turns from Bruce Willis, Jessica Tandy and Melanie Griffith. There’s something so rascallish and mischevious about Newman in it, I just feel it’s the exact right place to finish up.
Thanks Ol’ Blue Eyes. Thank you, Paul.