Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Paul, Belatedly.

The Picture I Dreaded Running

It was, the worst kept secret in the entertainment community for the last three months.

There was nothing more that the doctors could do for Paul Newman. His cancer had spread and he was going home from the hospital to die.

My face stung and my eyes watered up just tapping out that rough truth.

News had leaked from the hospital he'd been at, battling that internal scourge. For all the confidentiality of medical records, those places leak like sieves when something goes on in them that's attention-getting. And the legendary Newman's sad diagnosis would certainly be categorized as just that.

There was a picture of Paul being wheelchair pushed down a leafy path near the hospital near the day of his release. When I saw it, I choked up. The man who bounced about the ring effortlessly as Rocky Graziano in “Somebody Up There Likes Me”, and peacock-strutted in Texas-macho glory in “Hud”, and yes, rode a bike balanced on one foot in “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid” was now so frail that it made my own knees weak. He was pale, and drawn and small. I cried looking at that shot. Even with seeing in that rushing infirmity still, a hovering image of his smirking, boundless spirit above the small physical form.

The reports were grim. A “friend” of the family leaked the news supposedly. Newman's camp denied it—he was in spite of his ubiquity and place in Hollywood's firmament still a private man. There were whispers from “people who knew” that he'd quietly been giving away treasured things to true friends in recent months. Simplifying. Paring back. Making peace. The day after it was confirmed to me, I began assembling some photos of him for this inevitable post. Shots of him young and vital, grown and radiant, mature and in full flower, then aging well like wine.

And I felt guilty for this preparation. I felt like I was putting him in his grave while breath still came. I put the assembled written bits and pictures aside in a folder on the computer and tucked it away, maybe hoping against hope that his spokesman's “non-denial denial” could be true when I knew it was not.

I went into my own denial, I suppose.

You probably think it odd of me to have such feelings for a person I never met, who admittedly worked in an industry full of shallowness and artifice. But if you have read this blog beyond the political things I write, you'll know that I'm a film buff of the highest order. And a talent like Paul Newman's is a thing you cherish and then miss when it is no longer active.

Paul Newman is one of the last of his generation of strong and deep-charactered Hollywood leading men. Pretty much the last two of his time remaining are Robert Redford and James Garner. (Bob Wagner and Shatner were always more television animals, Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis were more true “pretty boys” and Eastwood while a bona-fide “star never quite had the depth and complication of Newman. Plus, he wasn't a “character-lead” like Jason Robards, Jim Coburn or Lee Marvin) The ones who've gone on from his class? Dean. McQueen. Lemmon. Brando. A veritable “Murderer's Row” of the male stars who bridged the gap between the studio system and the auteur / artiste's way of that second glorious “Golden Age” of American filmmaking.

Newman was of course, achingly handsome—yet, guilelessly so. The sparkling eyes and tousled hair, oh yes—and that smile that could widen from rueful to impish, to full-on ten-thousand watts of klieg-lit power was a helluva package. And is spite of all that, he wore those looks as comfortably as an old sweatshirt.

He had “it”. And so what? His pal Robert Redford, for all his own talent could sometimes be a prisoner of his chiseled and almost caricaturish beauty. He sometimes seems to almost be fighting against it for gravitas. Newman however simply bent with the force of his looks, and in that “bending” could exude an everyman's depth that few could match. George Clooney's taking that tack these days, bending with the force of those roguish good looks to reveal more at the root, but for the better part of fifty years folks... Newman has been Clooney before Clooney was Clooney.

Effortless seeming and complicated all at on once—the actor's holy grail. And Paul Newman appeared able to dash that off as easily as an autograph. But we all know that the doing it is a lot harder than it appears.

It helped that Newman didn't “agonize” as many of his method acting contemporaries often did, tearing at himself to validate the depth of a performance. Oh, he was deep. Well-deep. But he never bought into what I call the “making the elephant disappear off the stage” school of acting, where the hugeness of the trick / actorly athleticism of the performance left you gasping in wonder and in awe of the “magic”—as opposed to just enjoying the story and what this character you believe in does and why. He didn't so much transform, as he conveyed.

Two things made Newman “work” so well for film-lovers across the board.

One: He came across on- screen as “just a guy”. Those casually devastating good looks and his unpretentious personal nature never distanced him from the viewer. Newman was the guy women loved and guys wanted to hang out with. Not be, themselves as he made them comfortable in their own skin—but wanted to have as a friend...a pal.

Redford was almost so damned perfectly pretty at his peak that it was hard to picture yourself hanging with him. Those kinds of looks call for a crowd as beautiful as he is surrounding him. And again, he often appeared to fight those God-given (before the distressing botox) looks so hard to fit in that he commanded a sort of bubble around him to go to war in. A bubble viewers could not enter.

McQueen however, was the guy you wanted to be, as he fairly shot cool from his pores. But with that cool came a detached-ness, which precluded befriending by others. You wanted to be him. Not be with him. He was a loner—a cool loner—but a loner nonetheless. Notoriously prickly to his peers, as well as (I'm saying this about one of my favorite actors of all time here) famously prick-ish to boot. Paul Newman didn''t have broad physical range as a performer—although he was easily athletic and at home in his body on screen and off. He didn't buy into the school of altering one's self physically, but he could run the complex characters he played through his externally pleasing, but deep, emotional internal self. His characters oozed backstory without exposiition. I discovered this when I first saw his Oscar™-worthy turn in “Cool Hand Luke”. Without any exposition, I watched Newman's ol' “Lucas Jackson” early on in the film (my first time in my early twenties) and just gathered from little nuances in the performance that this character's father was just not there for him, and that his Mama was maybe a little bit overwhelmed. So when Jo Van Fleet showed up borne by that “near-death” wagon to see Luke that one last time, and those truths came out. I was kind of astonished. Paul's above-the-rim skill put that across for me. He fairly sweated a character's history while going through said person's daily paces, like real people do while living their lives. That's acting, folks. At its best.

The second thing that made Paul Newman so damned good was his ability and willingness to play characters with deep contradictions and oft-times moral ambiguities, but play them subtly and without the showy histrionics a lesser actor would fall back on. He could play scalawags and compromised men better than pretty much anyone of his generation, and did so with an honest realism that even if it didn't make you like these people, at least gave them a context—and thus an anchor for a viewer to believe them in.

His turns as the lout-ish, grasping Eddie Felson in “The Hustler”, the avaricious, boozy loser “Reggie Dunlop” in “Slap Shot”, and the cheating and con-crazy Henry Gondorff in “The Sting” were such compromised men. But human, too—with feelings and an ability to every once in a while, do right, and make you believe their reasons for doing so. And then,you get to two of my favorite Newman performances—in “Cool Hand Luke”, and of course, “Hud”

Newman's Luke was a jerk. A little bit a-moral, and yes, an unrepentant fuck-up. He played Luke as our selfish “id”—what we are when you strip away hope and dreams. A just-here blob of humanity trying to get by and stay a little bit happy doing it. But his severely compromised Luke—he was no saint for sure, and we catch him stupidly breaking the law in the first scene—still had that certain little spark of humanity in him. Enough to if not save himself, to at least inspire others. And for all of his fuck-ups, Luke's driving force was that of not letting the tyranny of authority steal his joy and break his soul. Yes, he was a Goddamned knuckle-head, but he was also about keeping the spark of life alive inside you—even when the darkness and weight of cruelty threatens to smother it like a flicker under a blanket. That smile and eye-twinkle of his throughout the movie, even as he's being carted off that last climactic time could have in the hands of less talented actors come off as smarmy. But Newman projected 'Yeah...I'm a fuck-up, but I'm just one little ol' man. Ya'll however represent a system that fucks individuals up. And I ain't gonna let you do that to me. No way, no how.' with that life-affirming grin.

His turn as “Hud” in the eponymous film was something else again. Hud was a classic example of what it is like when the devil is among us, and of us, and how we live and love one another in spite of that. His Hud...was a cold-hearted bastard. A cold-hearted, selfish bastard you couldn't look away from or ignore as God in his infinite wisdom made him just as seductive as he was morally damaged. He was a proudly “unprincipled man” as evidenced in these defining scenes where Hud, his nephew and father have discovered their herd of cattle may have the dreaded hoof and mouth disease.

“Well, I always say the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner...and that's what I try to do, Sometimes I lean to one side of it, sometimes I lean to the other.”—“Hud” Bannon

Newman's Hud was the capper on a trifecta of Hollywood portraits of what happens when misplaced Texas macho meets the lust for money—the other two portrayals being James Dean's Jett Rink in “Giant” and Bob Stack's wastrel oil scion in “Written On The Wind”. A spiritual Godfather to George W. Bush if ever there was one. And he played this heel for all he was worth. There was no redeeming feature in the character. In the movie he tries to rape Patricia Neal's Alma—a brutal, simple power-grab that is thwarted by his worshipful nephew Lon (as played by Brandon DeWilde), a move that effectively kills the hero-worship Lon has for in spite of his evil, magnetic (like a moth to the flame) Hud. What you do gather from Newman's swaggeringly blunt performance is that he's been on a hell-driven run for years. His venality is not new. His damage is deep. And he will not change. He is alone in himself and will ultimately end up that way.'ll still want to look in on him, because as said above:

“God in his infinite wisdom made him just as seductive as he was morally damaged.”

Newman plays both to a “T” here. No mean feat, either.

I love him in “Hud” and “Luke” and “The Hustler”. But his performances in his breakthrough “Somebody Up There Likes Me” as a marble-mouthed Graziano, “The Sting” as the sozzled Gondorff (He could play the hell out of booze-addled guys fighting back—as in “Slap Shot” and “The Verdict” as well) and his Butch Cassidy stay with me too. Even little gems, like 1960's “From The Terrace” wher he subtly plays a Cheever-esque young businessman disillusioned with his life is a wonder to behold. And as he aged, and wizened—that face acquiring craggy character and his voice a bit of rumble, you could see the actor in him that much more almost, as his nimble physicality waned. His twisted but sympathetic portrayal (“The Hud in Winter’ if you will) of mobster John Rooney in 2002's underrated “Road To Perdition” is an amazing one and was his last great screen role.

I loved watching him work. In his youth, I picked up on an actorly little tic of his—“The Newman Brood” I called it, where he'd mull over a line or a moment or two with his head downcast and a pronounced pout and blinks. (McQueen's tic was a blank “I'm giving you nothing while internally giving you everything” dead-eyed stare and mouth-shift, and Redford's was sudden eyebrow leaps from melancholy.) It was done un-self-consciously. That funny sort of face a person makes when they think no one is looking.

But we all were looking, weren't we?

He was also a devoted family man, and according to many anecdotes from just plain folks, a kind soul. Jesse summed him up as a man, nicely:

In well over 50 years, I am certain it was the journey and the people met along the way which were most valued, not the awards earned. Which is not to say that the awards were not valued, I am certain they were. At the time, I remember how much the Oscar for The Color of Money meant to Mr. Newman, to finally win a competitive Academy Award after so many nominations. He had even refused to show up -- politely of course, sending word he still hoped to win one in person -- when he was honored with an honorary Oscar. It took a while... a LONG while... but a number of nominations later, Mr. Newman had his very own, competitive Oscar. *smiles* And even nominations to follow.

Still, what I remember most about Mr. Newman is not his movies or his Oscars. Or even his timeless marriage, which, even with its ups and downs, clearly put family first and without question, women were equal in THAT home, long before they were in the rest of the country.

What I remember most about Mr. Newman is how gracious he always was. It did not matter to him if someone was a star, a day player, a grip, a star-struck fan, a waitress or waiter, or simply an ordinary woman or man trying to earn a living. Mr. Newman was kind and warm to everyone. He especially loved children.

What I hate about writing this is, it sounds like the kind of crap one writes in a hagiography, as if I am in the bag for Newman.

1. There are worse people to be in the bag for, than Paul Newman. And
2. Every word of this is the Gods' straight truth.

I am in the bag for Paul Newman. Proudly. I watched Turner Classic Movies this weekend as host Robert Osborne hosted a special memorial night of Newman's best film work. I saw “Hud”, “Cool Hand Luke”, “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof”and even his delicate directorial bow “Rachel, Rachel” starring his wife Joanne Woodward and reveled in all of that talent. What a night!

I never met Mr. Newman. I came close twice. I used to house-sit for a ridiculously well-off co-worker some years ago in Westport, Connecticut where he lived for the last forty years or so. Missed him as he peeled out of a gas station I was pulling in to in a trail of exhaust and the sound of canvas-ripping horsepower. I apparently also missed him at the Coffee an' Donut Shop up there, arriving a few minutes after he did for a cruller and a cup of joe. It would have been grand, and I would have been of course, a mess before such a mega-talent. I would have liked to have seen him in person and experienced those flashing blue eyes. Maybe even a handshake. He was an unabashed political animal too, and a friend of the left for many years. I remember his coming out for Ned Lamont against the execrable Joe Lieberman in 2006. Just one more reason to love him. I'll miss him, as we all will. Why?

Let George Kennedy's “Dragline” from “Cool Hand Luke” sum it up.
“He was smiling... That's right. You know, that, that Luke smile of his. He had it on his face right to the very end. Hell, if they didn't know it 'fore, they could tell right then that they weren't a-gonna beat him. That old Luke smile. Oh, Luke. He was some boy. Cool Hand Luke. Hell, he's a natural-born world-shaker.”

Yes indeed he was. Rest in peace, Paul.