Saturday, September 27, 2008

So. Farewell Then, Paul Newman

What made Paul Newman a great actor was not what made him a star. It is often thus. Jazzmen loved Sinatra for his phrasing; the masses wanted to hear him eat it up and spit it out. So it is with Newman.

Today’s obituaries speak of transcendent performances in Hud or Sweet Bird of Youth, but who watches those movies, really? They’re the definition of classics in that they are movies that are respected but never watched. Very few people say I put Hud on the DVD there last night again; God, you never get tired of it.

This does not mean that Paul Newman wasn’t a great actor. He was, and a very great actor. Just how great is expertly outlined by William Goldman in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade. In reminiscing on his time as the scriptwriter on Harper, Goldman remarks on Newman’s almost complete absence of ego. Even though he was a major Hollywood star, Newman was willing to work off-camera, to supply reactions in scenes for Robert Wagner, who was just starting out, and to up the ante if he saw Wagner was taking off. Most Hollywood stars hate and despise other actors getting any good lines at all, as they believe it takes from their own luminosity. Newman was bigger than that; Newman realised that movies are a collaborative art form, and hogging the limelight just doesn’t wash.

To An Spailpín’s mind, Paul Newman will be remembered for two roles above any others. The first of these is Luke – we never do find out his second name – in Cool Hand Luke. Cool Hand Luke is often seen as a rebel-against-the-system picture but it’s much more complex than that. It’s not The Wild One, for instance, a picture to which thy years have not been kind. The Christian allegory is striking and repeated throughout Cool Hand Luke – the camera pans back after the egg scene to show a loin-clothed, crucified Luke; Luke addresses God as “old man” in the church at the finale; Dragline is sitting slightly higher than his audience at the end of the picture, telling them about “that old Luke smile,” just as the teachers are often elevated in medieval and Renaissance religious paintings. There’s a lot going on in that movie, and there’s always something more to see.

But An Spailpín’s favourite Paul Newman movie is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is often described as the progenitor of the buddy movie in Hollywood but Butch and Sundance isn’t a buddy movie at all - the Sundance Kid’s role is just as subservient to Butch’s as Robin’s was to Batman back in the day. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is about Butch Cassidy, and that means it’s about Newman’s performance. The only imbalance is that Sundance gets the girl, but the Raindrops scene is done with Katherine Ross and Newman, not Robert Redford. That’s not an accident.

Just a couple of years ago we got a glimpse of just how hard it is to make a movie like Butch and Sundance. Mr and Mrs Smith was a buddy movie, and it should have been ever better, because it starred the two most beautiful people in Hollywood at the time. But whereas Butch’s ending is sublime and magnificent, Mr and Mrs Smith’s was just a shameful copout that should have been lustily booed at every screening.

The ending is part of what makes Butch and Sundance great of course, but the centre is Butch himself, that most charming man. Butch Cassidy charms us the audience completely, just as he’s always charmed Sundance, the Hole in the Wall gang and even Woodcock, representative of EH Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad. He is a man of vision in a world of bifocals, and his three minute scene on the bicycle with beautiful Katherine Ross is one of the most joyous scenes every committed to celluloid. Reader, remember Paul Newman this way. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal.

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