As the beautiful, if fawning—it is a tribute—mini-coffee table book that accompanies this Tribute Collection more than once attests, Paul Newman himself was conscious of the distracting effects of his blond/blue looks, and, more pressingly, that he was initially seen as someone who happened to look perhaps more than a bit like Marlon Brando. The Newman/Brando rivalry is as besides the point as the “Beatles or Stones” argument, but the comparison does serve to establish what was so ineffably “Newman.” Brando was a genius tethered more than once by his genius: The man was too extraordinary to play ordinary, and his attempts at ordinariness were either brilliant in an entirely different direction or just plain weird. Some of his oft-quoted moments, such as the mitten exchange in On the Waterfront, are technically amazing but somehow not-right to the circumstances. Brando can never quite convince you that he's anything other than something not entirely of this Earth—incredible, but not universal, which suits the poetic-animal of Stanley Kowalski and shortchanges the wounded, fading Terry Malloy. Newman gave the everyman his due, and idealized him, of course, as all stars must, while still retaining a bit of the everyman's grit and nuance; disappointment and waste looked great on Newman, but it still looked like disappointment and waste. Newman would've been a better Malloy, but, on the other end, he was strangely drained and labored and out of his element in his own stab at Williams, the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which called for the sort of grand, flamboyant emotional fireworks that exploded from Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.
This Tribute Collection has an admirable b-sides quality to it. We see parts of Newman in his peerless groove, but we also see him as someone admirably trying things that don't work. Of the 13 movies (spanning 17 discs) there are the obvious choices, the pictures the casual fans of Newman expect and want: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Hustler, The Verdict, and, I suppose, The Towering Inferno—and they all get the double-disc treatment, which has been carried over from prior DVD releases. But the set also includes two little-seen Robert Altman collaborations, Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull's History Lesson and Quintet, as well as three of Newman's six movies with director Martin Ritt, The Long, Hot Summer, Hombre, and Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man. There's also the Otto Preminger picture, Exodus, with the set rounded out with a few other relatively unknown items of variable quality: From the Terrace, written by Ernest Lehman; Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!, directed by Leo McCarey; and What a Way to Go! with Shirley MacLaine, Robert Mitchum, and Dean Martin.
A cynical person could assume, with reason, that Fox saw the first year anniversary of Newman's death as opportunity to pair several forgotten pictures with several famous ones, and sell them all a few times over. But it's more constructive to see the glass more optimistically this time: The collection, regardless of intentions, is an interesting sketch of one of our shrewdest of iconic performers. We see variations of the most successful Newman character: the misunderstood, shifty, cocky stud in Long, Hot Summer, and we can pair that with Hombre, a picture that explores, until the end, the character's more bitter, openly mercenary implications (see also The Left Handed Gun). We can see variations of Newman's collaboration with wife Joanne Woodward, which began with Summer and was probably never surpassed, particularly in an unusually revealing moment with Woodward's old maid in the making; exasperated, worn, she confides in Newman (who she sees as a snake) everything she could give a man who'd bother to understand her. Watching Rally right after this picture, however, is a distinct disappointment, as the latter trivializes the sorts of sexual misunderstandings and frustrations that were, movingly, taken at face value in Summer.
This collection also gives us a glimpse of Newman working under auteurs: His Buffalo Bill, with Altman's guidance, is a deconstruction of showbiz and myth, and of the privileged and the famous writing the history books, and of America as one big chaotic melting pot of dirt. But Newman (unlike, say, a Brad Pitt) doesn't assure us that he's in on the punchline, and he doesn't make a farce of the character's cruelty; his Bill is elusive, confident, his eyes a knowing mockery of expectation that gives Altman's black joke an extra dirty twang. Quintet, a sci-fi picture that plays as if Altman were aiming for a cross between Bergman and Peter Hyams, is ridiculous and deadly dull (I'm sure there's an enterprising Altman grad student or two who think it a masterpiece), but Newman, like Connery in Hyams's Outland for that matter, doesn't embarrass himself by shirking away from or apologizing for the material—he's straight on, invested, there—and he dignifies lines that should be impossibilities.
And there are the classics, which, with the inclusion of Verdict, gives us a bit of the older Newman persona, which usually played, implicitly (except for The Color of Money, which was quite explicit), with the other side of Newman's most celebrated troubled-rebel roles: the actor as the aged warrior of years of disappointed, just-barely-mid-class living, melancholic, and a tad regretful of a past spent in indulgent/burning turmoil and confliction. My favorite of this particular cut of Newman hasn't been included here (Nobody's Fool, different studio), but Verdict, while a little heavy overall, is a striking testament to that cliché of how much someone could do with so little. The turning point of this picture, with Newman's attorney watching a photo develop that's clearly meant to mirror his blossoming conscience, should be too much, overly worked out as a “signifier,” except that doesn't matter in this case, because it's Newman seeing the photo; with his eyes as guide, you don't see contrivance, you see the horror, because he believes it. In the entirety of this collection, no matter how good or bad the picture at hand may be, you never catch Newman not believing it—this package reaffirms why we love this actor so much.
The big boys of the set-Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Hustler, The Towering Inferno, The Verdict-have clearly been remastered; the image/audio is strikingly clear and beautiful, without that "too clean" newer-school perfection that occasionally riles the purists, the balance is just right, and this is particularly evident in the poignant landscapes of Butch Cassidy and in the crisp black-and-white squalor of the superb The Hustler. The lesser known pictures clearly haven't received the same care, as they have a softness of image that we associate with VHS or even less expensive, particularly early, DVDs. In the Altman pictures, which I watched first, this doesn't matter so much, as a certain look of blurry, subversively unappealing turmoil is obviously the director's intent. But this hurts the Martin Ritt pictures, especially if you've seen the gorgeous Criterion treatment of his The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Ritt's sensibility couldn't be further from Altman's: He's an optimist, and he brings out the tensions of his pictures with a lean, seemingly just-the-facts framing that lets the characters' interior messiness fill in the lines. The bare prison, bars, and desertscapes of Hombre could use that honed, rich quality of a good DVD treatment. And The Long, Hot Summer, a broad but unusually moving and empathetic treatment of sexual confusion until the disappointing end, could use a cleanup that refurbishes the Saturday Evening Post colors of Ritt's implicatively lurid '50s images (the picture was produced by the man who gave us the movie of Peyton Place) further contrasting them with the elegantly direct longings of the characters.
The applauded pictures again get the lion's share of attention. Butch Cassidy, The Hustler, etc. include a variety of documentaries and director/writer/actor commentaries (Newman contributes to Hustler and Verdict), with features, when appropriate, on the actual subject counterparts. The other pictures, mostly, include trailers and a few promotional odds and ends. The black-and-white/color photo book included, simply titled Paul Newman, is composed of anecdotes and hundreds of pictures that are mostly (obviously) concerned with preserving the myth of the actor, though, if you're of the mind to buy this set already, you most likely won't mind too much.
Nothing revisionist, but Paul Newman: The Tribute Collection is a warm, pleasant reminder for fans and a good start for newbies.