Newman’s Own, by John Ostrander
I liked Paul Newman. I should’ve hated him; bastard was too damn good looking and should’ve given me an inferiority complex. The fact is I didn’t always like how I looked but what I learned was that he didn’t always like the way he looked, either. Newman felt his looks got in the way of his being an actor, affected the roles he was offered, the roles he wanted to play. He was a character actor trapped in a leading man’s body. That allowed me to identify with him as a person as well as an actor.
Paul Newman died about two weeks back. I expect you heard. He had a long and varied career as an actor and not every film was great. I won’t pretend I’ve seen them all but I do have my favorites among them. While I liked Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting and admired his collaboration with Robert Redford, those films aren’t on my list of faves. Nor is The Hustler or The Color of Money, in both of which he played Fast Eddie Felson. It intrigued me – the idea of portraying the same character 25 years apart but they don’t appeal to me enough personally to make my own list of personal favorites.
As I said in last week’s column, our likes and dislikes about anything – film, comics, food, whatever – can say more about ourselves than about those likes and dislikes. So I’m not sure what this list says about me. What follows is not a critical evaluation of the films or their place in Newman’s body of work. They’re just the ones I like best and the reasons why.
Hombre. 1967. Martin Ritt directed this western adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel. In it, Newman plays John Russell, a white man raised by Apaches. For various plot reasons, Russell winds up on a stagecoach with a varied lot that includes Diane Cilento, Martin Balsam, and Frederic March. The stagecoach gets robbed by a gang led by Richard Boone who is after the money that March, as a crooked Indian agent, has accumulated. Russell foils the robbery, recovers the money, and becomes de facto leader of the others as they try to get out of the desert, pursued by Boone and his gang.
Newman has a great quality of stillness in the movie. His character is capable of sudden and effective bursts of violence but I was also taken with the sense of patient waiting that Newman projected at moments. Very still with little or no body movement, yet he had a sense of attention and focus. He made stillness active.
He’s also wonderfully deadpan and has some great moments in the film as a result. At one point, the stagecoach passengers led by Newman’s Russell are at the top of an abandoned mine. Boone’s outlaws have them cut off and Boone, under a white flag, climbs to the shack to dictate terms. Martin Balsam’s character negotiates and, at the end, Russell quietly tells Boone he has a question. “How are you planning to get back down that hill?” Boone turns tail and flees down the stairs and Russell puts two bullets into him.
That was cold and that was slick and I enjoyed it so much I later stole it and put it into one of the GrimJack stories. Worries me some for what that says about me, but there you go. The character of John Russell definitely influenced the character of GrimJack. I’m not going to tell you it’s a great film but it’s a fave of mine.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.1972. Another Newman western, this one was directed by John Huston from an original screenplay by John Milius. While there actually was a real Judge Roy Bean, let’s just say this film is a historical fiction with an emphasis on the fiction part. Newman has a scruffy beard and his Roy Bean is determinedly eccentric (which could also be said of the original Bean). It really is a character part and something you would associate with a character actor but Newman really pulls it all together. The film itself is something of a mess but Newman makes it work and I always watch it when I get a chance. It’s far from a great film – it may not even be a good film – but it’s a film I like – because of Paul Newman.
Nobody’s Fool. 1994. Screenplay and direction by Robert Benton from the book by Richard Russo. Newman plays Donald “Sully” Sullivan and the film includes Bruce Willis and Jessica Tandy in what was her last performance before she died. Okay, no apologies on this one – this is a good film. Newman plays an aging rascal who gets by on his charm but has never dealt well with responsibility; it’s the sort of character that Newman has chosen to play often in his life. It’s Hud, it’s Fast Eddie, it’s Cool Hand Luke. They’re all cut from the same cloth yet they are all peculiar unto themselves.
Sully lives in a rust-belt town called North Bath in upstate New York (where Russo sets a lot of his work) and things change when his son and grandson move into town. The son’s marriage is breaking up and Sully was never much of a father. Now, however, he has a chance to be a grandfather to his grandson and it starts to teach him something about responsibility and living up to his potential – a little. I don’ think Newman hits a single wrong note in this and he makes it look easy – which makes it all look real and true. Effortless and true = quintessential Paul Newman.
Road to Perdition. 2002. Directed by Sam Mendes with a screenplay by David Self, adapted from the graphic novel by my old buddy Max Allan Collins and drawn by Richard Piers Rayner. (When your non-comic book reading, perhaps comic book disdaining, friends talk movies, you might point out that Road to Perdition started life as a graphic novel. Amazing how few people grasp that.) Newman technically plays a supporting role here as the gangster, John Rooney, who employs and then betrays the lead character, Michael Sullivan (another Sullivan!), who was played by Tom Hanks.
I like this movie a lot, even though I think Hanks is miscast in it. Daniel Craig (our current 007) plays Newman’s son and in retrospect I think it would have been a better film with him in the Hanks role. What is important in this discussion is how good Newman is. He is paternal and, at the same time, murderous. We like the character and despise him. We understand why he chooses his son over Hanks’ character even though we – and he – knows it is the wrong choice. His face reflects it and it breaks his cold heart. His acceptance of the inevitability and even the rightness of his own death at the hands of the man he has betrayed is harrowing in its simplicity. It is the best performance in the whole film.
Cars. 2006. Animated film from Pixar, directed by John Lasseter and Joe Ranft from a script by a whole bunch of people, including the directors. Newman voices Doc Hudson who is Mayor, Judge, and head Medical Doctor in the little desert town of Radiator Springs where the lead character, a stock car racing bad boy called Lightning McQueen and voiced by Owen Wilson finds himself lost and trapped. Turns out Doc was also a big time stock car champion himself back in the day.
Originally, I passed the film by. NASCAR doesn’t really do anything for me. I should’ve given Pixar the benefit of the doubt; I’ve at least enjoyed all their films and some I love. It also somehow escaped my attention that Paul Newman was in it. Newman playing a former stock car racer? Given his long love of auto racing, that in itself is brilliant casting and I should’ve gone just for that. As it is, I picked it up on DVD and now own my own copy.
Newman at last was free from that well-known face and those well-known eyes. It was just his voice and his own soul going into Doc Hudson and, once again, he created a complete character. It’s a growl and a grunt and a snarl; Doc Hudson is a curmudgeon who, nonetheless, cares deeply for those in his care. It’s a minor role for Newman, I know, but he helped me like the film so much more.
I admired Paul Newman for a lot of different reasons. I liked his politics and the fact that he regarded being on Nixon’s “enemies list” as one of his great achievements. I respect and admire his philanthropy, how he created a line of pretty good products to help fund things like his own Hole-In-The Wall-Gang camps for kids. Unlike the characters he loved to play, Newman had a sense of responsibility.
He was an icon and a definition of masculinity without reveling in machismo. The men he played were conflicted and that made it easier for the rest of us guys to consider and confront our inner conflicts. In the Sixties and Seventies, only Steve McQueen was as cool and he didn’t have the same depth. I only ever met him and knew him through his work but it was honest work so there was a lot of him in it. So the Paul Newman I knew is still there.
In all his blue-eyed glory.
Writer and playwright and former actor John Ostrander is still at it, scribing Star Wars Legends at Dark Horse and a new series for ComicMix… and is that a Who I hear coming ‘round the bend?