Of all the actors and actresses in Hollywood’s firmament, Paul Newman is the only one beloved by everybody. I mean really, there’s people who dislike Gene Kelly’s wide smile, Bette Davis’ fabulous bitchiness, Robert Redford’s blond hair and sly smile (which hides his acting liability), DeNiro’s intensity (and Jack Nicholson’s, too), Marilyn Monroe’s sexy ditziness, and Bogart’s… oh, all right, everyone loves Bogart, too. So let me amend that: everyone loves Bogart and Newman. But we also really, really like Paul Newman.
You’d have to be the most insufferable ass of a right-winger to disdain Paul Newman simply because the guy was a liberal. Newman’s charities help kids all over the world (and the poor, and the arts, and…), the guy didn’t go waving the green-colored flag of the left, and he was married to the same woman (Joanne Woodward) for just under fifty years. In a sense, the man was a testament to old-fashioned values. Plus, he raced cars and he cared about the people in his life, was never arrogant, nor did he get slivers in his feet standing on the soapbox preaching.
And then there’s the movies. There’s probably no cooler pair of films in any actor’s career than Newman’s Cool Hand Luke and The Hustler (well, again, I ask you leave Bogart out of the equation.) This two-fisted epitome of cool is so damned impressive that they’re anchoring not one but two Paul Newman film series, beginning with “Newman Rocks”, this year’s name for the Walker Art Center’s Summer Movies & Music in Loring Park, which begins tomorrow with a showing of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Come fall, the Riverview Theater presents “King Cool”, starting October 8 with Slap Shot. Both series have their pluses and minuses.
It’s always a joy to watch the movies in Loring Park, and this year, with the balmy weather and diminished mosquito population, the Newman movies will be comfortable as well. The Walker series is certainly the most conservative of the lot, with the aforementioned Cat, Hustler, Luke and Hud rounding out the bill. It’s worthless to tell you that Cool Hand Luke and The Hustler are great movies–they are, of course, and I entreat you to see them, if not outside then inside at the Riverview come October. Everyone I know loves not only the “I can eat fifty eggs” scene in Luke, but who hasn’t slipped into that nasal Southern accent and said “what we have here is failure to communicate,” Strother Martin’s great line. We all love those mad billiard scenes at the beginning of The Hustler, too, and the moment when poor Paul gets his fingers broken and then returns to face Minnesota Fats for a rematch. Crazy. Cool.
But Hud is also a great movie as well, a really edgy film and one in which Newman really took nastiness to its extreme. Martin Ritt’s direction is spot-on, James Wong Howe’s black and white cinematography is stunning (I hope it shows through on 16mm), and Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas deserved their Oscars for their supporting performances (as did Howe for his photography.)
Thing is, I wish I could say that these are all great movies, and three of them are, but Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a dud. Newman’s miscast as Brick, Richard Brooks’ direction is totally flat (as is the lighting, in which every scene is swamped in bright white light, like it was shot in a K-Mart). Elizabeth Taylor is great as Maggie the Cat, but she stands alone–everyone else dons a crappy accent and overacts like this was “General Hospital” and not Tennessee Williams. They don’t even visually communicate the damp heat that’s supposedly bothering the characters-nobody sweats or fans themselves. (If you think this is excessive complaining on my part, just look at Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Heat was vital to Williams’ plays, and it’s totally ignored in this production of Cat.)
That having been said, if I hadn’t seen Cat recently for this piece, I’d be there, and I’d have enjoyed myself to boot. It’s just great to watch movies in the park, especially when Paul Newman’s topping the bill.
But there’s a ton of great Newman movies that aren’t being shown. I spoke with Dean Otto, Associate Curator for Film & Video at the Walker, and he explained that they were limited with what they could screen, for numerous reasons. To begin with, Otto is a film nut, and by that I mean he prefers, as do many others (myself included), to show a movie on film, as opposed to DVD. Typically, the Loring Park series is shown on 16mm, and the number of prints available on 16mm is limited at best. This year’s Newman pictures are what the Walker could get, and Otto admitted that it might also be the last year you’ll see movies in the park on 16mm. “We may have to bite the bullet,” he admitted, meaning go to high quality DVD or Blu-Ray. “We also need to make certain they’re family friendly,” he told me.
Thus Slap Shot, with all its vulgar language, can be shown at the Riverview in the fall and not to crowds of kids in downtown. So, too, with The Sting’s one scene of violence (also showing at the Riverview, which makes me happy as that’s my personal favorite.) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Hud, with their suggestive language, are probably already pushing the envelope.
Perhaps my only beef with the Riverview’s lineup–which includes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Hustler and Cool Hand Luke–is that it, too, is fairly conservative. Though I’m excited to see The Sting (one of my late grandmother Schilling’s favorite movies, and by extension one of mine) and Slap Shot, which I’ve never seen, but which hockey-mad movie buffs keep telling me I have to watch (I’m talking about you, McClanahan), there’s a whole lot of Newman movies I’d rather see.
Ideally, there’d be more Newman film series, to round out what’s not being shown at either one of the aforementioned programs. In my mind, there were very few actors who put in so many great performances in their old age as Newman–The Verdict, The Color of Money (which won Newman his long-awaited Oscar and is the sequel to The Hustler), Nobody’s Fool, The Hudsucker Proxy (awful, but Newman’s great), Road to Perdition (same complaint), and his most overlooked role in my opinion–Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.
Yes, that last movie is the same, bland, “Masterpiece Theater” crap Merchant/Ivory pumped out every fall for their bushel basket of nominations, but Newman’s performance is thrilling. I would really almost say that its his best performance–angry, melancholy, funny, raw, vulnerable.
And what about crazy 70s Newman? You could do a double-feature alone of his Altman movies, both of which are flawed but have an interesting central performance by Mr. Blue Eyes–Buffalo Bill and the Indians and Quintet. I’ve never seen Sometimes A Great Notion, which he directed and which I heard in interesting, though also flawed. Toss in Harper from ‘66 and its sequel The Drowning Pool, both of which are good, and that’s another great series.
You could make one of his westerns only: The Left Handed Gun (Newman as Billy the Kid… who’s seen it? I haven’t), Hombre, Hud, Butch Cassidy, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (a nominee for weird 70s), Buffalo Bill… heck, I’m sure you could make a number of Newman series without overlapping titles.
Or you could grab some from the video store or library and have your own. Newman’s films, like all movies, deserve to be seen on the big screen, with everyone oohing and aahing to the handsome man Shaker Heights, Ohio. But it’s also fun on the small screen with a few friends, too.
I’m reluctant to call movie stars heroes, especially since you could look a hundred feet in every direction in every neighborhood in America and find people who qualify for that title. But Paul Newman was special. Entrepreneur, humanitarian, a good husband and friend, and… well, heck, a race car driver, a sexpot, and star of a good dozen of the coolest damn movies you’re ever going to see. Paul Newman makes me happy. Judging from the crowds I know we’ll see in Loring Park and The Riverview, I’m guessing that’s the case with most everybody.