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Indelible Ink: Paul Newman

This is not meant to be an overview of Paul Newman’s career, or even a list of favorite performances.

Indelible Ink: Paul Newman
Photo: Paramount Pictures

This is not meant to be an overview of Paul Newman’s career, or even a list of favorite performances. A life as long as Newman’s is inevitably filled with many dips, valleys, peaks, and missteps. I have really enjoyed reading the tribute pieces about him, which have served to deepen my understanding of what it was that made Newman so special. His is a story of endurance, certainly, but also one of tenacity. His early work in the 50s can have an over-studied feel to it (albeit engaging, and boy, was he beautiful)—it’s like he’s being a “good Method student” trying to get an A in class. Marlon Brando so dominated the atmosphere at that time that Newman (whose resemblance to Brando in his youth was always irritating to him) struggled to find a way to separate, to stand out. But it was in the 60s and 70s when Newman took off, in unexpected singular ways—sinking into his persona, inhabiting it like a well-worn sweater … and by then nobody would think to hold him up next to Brando because his work was so, well, his own. This was not an easy journey for Newman, and it’s sometimes easy to forget that because of his many successes. But he made his mark. Indelible ink.

There’s so much to say about him, so many great roles: Hud, Cool Hand Luke, The Hustler, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Nobody’s Fool, The Color of Money. Mr. and Mrs. Bridge is a detailed, exquisite examination of a cold bottled-up man, one of his best performances in my opinion. There’s also Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Fort Apache, the Bronx, Blaze (I love him in that), Slap Shot (Hallelujah!), Sometimes a Great Notion. And I can’t forget his beautiful, sensitive work as a director. He directed his wife Joanne Woodward in two of her most searing performances: The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-the-Moon Marigolds—an almost unbearably intense performanceand The Glass Menagerie.

Playing failed southern Belle Amanda Wingfield in Menagerie, Woodward has said that Newman gave her one piece of direction: “Don’t cry.” If she ever shed a tear, he’d ask for another take. Having seen many a tear-drenched, maudlin Amanda Wingfield in my day, I can say that Newman was a genius for understanding that it is the surface of Amanda—her flouncing, pretentious surface—that will make the audience ache for her, not any tears that she might shed, which would, necessarily, come off as self-pitying. Tennessee Williams was always ferociously specific in his stage directions and notes for actors—to play the survival of these characters, not their victimization. He said that he had never written a “victim.” (Words to live by for performers approaching those great parts.)

I’m a bit overwhelmed right now, but I want to home in on three specific roles (or moments) of Newman’s because, first of all, they span his career (beginning, middle, end), and, second of all, they illuminate the Newman-ness of Paul Newman, that indefinable thing that makes a good actor specific, memorable, and alive under imaginary circumstances.

Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)

Paul Newman originated the role of Chance Wayne, the washed-up stud in Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth, on Broadway, and reprised his role in the 1962 film with Geraldine Page (who also played her role on Broadway). I sometimes think that the later Paul Newman, the more grizzled tough guy of the 70s and 80s, would have been even better in this part. Newman still has the glow of youth about him, and the truly corrupt nature of this character (a tragic corruption) is soft-pedaled in the film, which weakens it. Regardless, Newman is wonderful here: riveting, sexy (that dive off the diving board!). You ache to touch him.

There’s a moment when Geraldine Page, as the pot-smoking crazy washed-up movie actress, pulls back his shirt to stare at his chest, and the expression on her face is like she’s looking at a scrumptious piece of key lime pie. It’s a startling moment of objectification, and Newman, lying on his back on the bed, is so “over” her in that moment, so ashamed of who he has become, so taken up with his dreams of failed glory and the love he has ruined that he barely notices her voracious eye. Perfect Tennessee Williams moment of missed connection. The male offered up to the fading female as eye candy, as comfort in her mania and loneliness … but at what price to the male? What echoes are in his head? What does he want? Newman, in an unselfconscious unself-important way (he never seemed all that interested in how beautiful he was, although he knew how to use it to great effect), manages to suggest all of that torment in his characterization. We forgive him. Steve Vineberg writes in his book Method Actors (which has a whole section on Newman):

“There’s an old-fashioned Hollywood moralism at work in both the touchingly well played The Hustler and the vastly entertaining Hud that keeps threatening to dampen the proceedings. This is the stage in Newman’s career when he’s expected to pay for his good looks and easy charm—for making everyone fall in love with him when he flashes those bedroom eyes … The ending [of The Hustler], a mixed triumph for Eddie, makes it possible for us to live with the fact that the movie has used the very qualities we love Newman for to score points against him.”

In Sweet Bird of Youth, Newman’s beauty is an undeniable fact of nature, like a rainstorm or a sunset. You can’t dispute it, you just have to deal with the reality of it. And in the context of that play, his beauty is seen as somehow dangerous, disingenuous, hinting at a shallowness of character. Perhaps if Chance hadn’t been so damn good-looking he might have, you know, developed into a better man.

Newman does not have the crazy, cocky charm in Sweet Bird of Youth that characterized his later roles, but there is one moment which, for me, movingly illustrates Newman’s interest in the craft of acting, in imbuing it with a natural dignity:

He’s in the bar in the hotel, and, naturally, all caught up in the moment-to-moment reality of his situation. He’s back in town where he’s enemy number one, he’s playing stud to a failed movie actress, he’s hoping against hope that he will have a reunion with Heavenly—the local girl whom he ruined by giving a venereal disease. So he’s got a lot going on. Not to mention the fact that Newman is also creating the drunkenness (Chance always has a flask in his pocket) and the “high” that accompanies the pills he pops. Chance is polluted. Perhaps he needs to pollute himself after polluting the once-pure body of his girlfriend. Newman’s work here does have what I would call a “workmanlike” quality to it. He came out of the Actors Studio where “sensory” work was paramount: creating heat, drunkenness, headache, a head cold, horniness … whatever it was. So you can see Newman doing all of that, obligating himself to the demands of the script.

And there’s a moment where suddenly, in the midst of all the activity going on in the bar, he hears a scrap of music from the next room, or maybe it’s from the bandstand by the lake … and it stops him in his tracks. You know how sometimes you hear a bit of music and it is not as though you are transported back in time, you really feel you are back in time: when your mother sang you that song as a toddler; when you heard that song on the radio the moment before you got the news your father had died; when you had your first kiss to that song … whatever it is … and that is what Newman plays here. It’s startlingly good. It’s what sensory work should look like.

The best part about it is that it is not done in closeup, which would have meant that the director would have had to cut (then Newman would have had a chance to privately create the moment for himself). No, it’s all done in one take. He’s babbling, drinking, laughing … and then, in the same take, he stops, head cocked, and you watch him flow back in time. There’s sadness there, a wistful quality that is quintessential Tennessee Williams … and it is Newman’s freedom with his own process, his own imagination, his craft, that I remember. It’s not easy to act a moment like that. The traps are all over the place—it could seem mawkish, sentimental, or, worse, fake. Newman also had to do it within the larger context of the scene, so it had to actually happen to him—which makes it more like something you would see on the stage, rather than on the screen. It is why so many film actors fail when they try to do a play. They are used to having prep time for their big scenes. They are used to the cutting and interrupted flow of storytelling. To use their imagination in the moment is difficult. Newman, with all his stage work, and his devotion to the craft of acting, had none of those problems. He knew how to do it. It’s a true piece of poetry!

The Sting (1973)

The second thing that came to mind when I heard of Newman’s passing was his raucous, campy performance as Henry Gondorff, the con man in The Sting. It’s a mere 11 years after Sweet Bird of Youth and the transformation is so startling that you can’t believe it’s the same actor. Newman has none of that studied quality anymore, none of that “let me show you my sensory work” Method-type acting from earlier in his career. He has, to put it mildly, arrived. This is an example of perfect casting, as well, and I think that Newman, because of his looks, took hits harder when he was miscast. There’s an Adonis-like quality to his younger face which, naturally, led him to be cast in certain kinds of roles. He was in Picnic on Broadway, his debut, where he played Alan Seymour, the preppy college boy whom Madge throws over for Hal, the sexy drifter. It’s interesting to consider that Newman’s actual personality was far more suited to the Hal part: the wild-boy ways, his undomesticated charm, and the fact that every woman—married homemakers, spinsters, intellectual bookworms, or high school beauty queens—looks at him and can’t help but think: “That man knows how to fuck.” Mrs. Potts, the hard-working Kansas woman who has hired Hal to work on her house, has a monologue in the last couple of moments in the play where she admits the effect Hal had on her:

“With just Mama and me in the house, I’d get so used to things as they were, everything so prim, occasionally a hairpin on the floor, the geranium in the window, the smell of Mama’s medicines … He walked through the door and suddenly everything was different. He clomped through the tiny rooms like he was still in the great outdoors, he talked in a booming voice that shook the ceiling. Everything he did reminded me there was a man in the house, and it seemed good … And that reminded me … I’m a woman, and that seemed good, too.”

If that doesn’t describe who Paul Newman was in his best roles, then I don’t know what does! But Newman’s natural devilishness had not yet gotten a chance to express itself. The 60s freed him up. The Yale-educated preppy boy faded and the rakish “man who knows how to fuck” persona ascended.

The reason I bring up The Sting is personal. When I was a little kid, my parents let my brother and me stay up late (on school nights, no less) only two times. Once was to see What’s Up, Doc?, and I still remember my brother, probably 8 years old at the time, hunched over on the ottoman, holding his stomach he was laughing so hard at the Chinese dragon flying through the streets of San Francisco. The other time was to watch The Sting. I was probably 9 years old when I first saw it, and to this day it has the glow around it—a personal glow—that my parents wanted my brother and me to see it. They thought we would love it, and that we were ready for it. I do remember being shocked by the strip club scene with the dancer twirling her tassels (this on primetime!), and I also remember being utterly gobsmacked by the last “sting” in the film—the one where the film itself “stings” the audience. I didn’t get it. My parents had to explain it to me: “See, that F.B.I. office wasn’t real ….”

Paul Newman’s performance in The Sting was probably a walk in the park for him. This was not new territory for him, neither was working with Redford, but one of the things I love so much about it is how much of a kick HE is getting out of the entire thing. Newman took acting seriously. He was the president of the Actors Studio, after all. He had worked hard at his craft. He has said that he felt that his wife was actually a genius … a natural talent, and he was the one who really had to work at it. But by the time he did The Sting, you rarely catch him “working.” He is fearless, funny, campy, crotchety, sexy in a mischievous (yet always friendly) way, never soft. He is behaving in front of the camera. All moments feel “caught” rather than “performed.” He is having a blast. That translated to me as a small child. Even though he was a grown man, I related to him. He behaved inappropriately. He had fun for the sake of fun. He messed with people. He burped. You know. That was all in the day of a life for me as a child!

Again, to imagine that Newman got his start playing Alan, the upstanding domesticated waiting-for-marriage good boy of Picnic is just indicative of how hard Newman really worked, and how he seemed to understand very early on that it would be his acting that got him ahead, not just his looks. If he skated on his looks, then he would never have played Henry Gondorff in the way that he did. Newman’s relationship with his beauty was always an interesting element in his career, and it just got more interesting the less interested he was in it. It’s not that he grew into his face. It’s that life did a number on him, as it does a number on all of us, and his experiences showed. His became one of the most lived-in faces in movies, and in The Sting we are starting to see the veneer crack. What comes out is a helluva lot of fun.

Our Town (2003)

Lastly, I must mention Paul Newman’s performance as The Stage Manager in the televised production of Our Town (2003), which he had also played on Broadway. I have seen Our Town more times than I can say. I have seen all kinds of Stage Managers. It’s the kind of role that lends itself to pretty much any energy. I saw it at Trinity Rep in 1986, and Richard Kneeland, the actor playing the part, inhabited it with a kind of folksy gentle humor. He strolled through the audience, you’d suddenly realize that he was sitting right next to you on the stairs, nudging you and grinning about the action going on onstage. He was compassionate towards the poor mortals in the play, who had no understanding of their own mortality. You got the sense that he once lived in Grover’s Corners.

I saw Spalding Gray do it on Broadway, with Eric Stoltz and Penelope Ann Miller as George and Emily—and Gray was much more of a modern presence. That guy never lived in Grover’s Corners. He represented the universal eye, the omniscient consciousness. The production, with its completely empty stage and its stunning poster (a picture of the globe from outer space) had a distance to it, as though all of us in the audience were circling the earth via satellite, staring down at the puny problems of the invisible masses below. Gray dressed in unobtrusive gray (the other characters wore period-appropriate costumes, but he was in modern dress), and really did nothing more than be himself, saying Wilder’s words. It fit. While he wasn’t warm, you also got the sense that he “got” it. You knew that he looked on George and Emily’s blossoming romance, thinking, “Yes. Yes. Life sometimes can be like that. I do remember.” Penelope Ann Miller spent the entire third act shrieking at the decibel-level of a Greek-tragedy (please leave some space for ME to cry, Penelope, don’t take up all the tears for yourself!), but Gray emerged as the real tragic figure. He was us … and I realized that the poster was from his perspective, and that was what made him so quietly sad.

Now we come to Newman. The televised production is so worth seeing with many wonderful performances (Jane Curtin, especially), but Newman, looking at the action over his glasses, with a rather forbidding expression on his face, his presence a stern, still reminder of mortality, is truly haunting. I’ve never seen the Stage Manager played the way he played it. Emily looks around for comfort, reassurance, but she’ll find none of it from him. He acts mainly as a tour guide, but the way Newman does it makes it seem like a tour of Pompeii, as opposed to something in the more recent past. Our Town is performed so frequently that I sometimes forget its power. It becomes diluted. Not so here. The set is shadowed, Newman stands silhouetted in the background, and there are times when he seems almost tired in his role. Life wearies him. He’s over it. It’s so effective. He too, to quote James Joyce, is becoming a “shade.” And so Emily’s new-found grief is nothing to him, because his concentration is already starting to turn to the end, his own end.

Patricia Neal tells a chilling story in her autobiography about one of her first conversations with Paul Newman, when they began working on Hud. Her daughter Olivia had died the year before. Neal had not recovered. Neal writes:

“We had not yet played a major scene together. In fact, we may have been discussing the work to come. Suddenly, I found myself not talking about the picture at all. I was telling him about Olivia. I went on about her loveliness and talent and her fragility and how much I loved her …

“My sisters-in-law took charge of everything. They did not let me do a thing. I didn’t even see Olivia.” I found myself admitting. “Do you think that’s right?”

“Paul didn’t answer.

“I just saw that damned closed coffin. I should have taken a stand at the time, don’t you think? I was her mother. I had a right to see her.”

“Paul finally looked at me. For a long moment, he just stared through me with those blue eyes. Then he got up and said quietly, “Tough,” and walked away.”

Neal was crushed. Maybe Newman felt like she was over-sharing, maybe he was uncomfortable, or maybe he felt that whatever dynamic they developed had to be expressed onscreen, not off … and in this vein, Neal writes:

“I began to realize that although I had poured out my heart to Paul Newman, it was Hud Bannon who had responded.”

I bring this episode up because Newman’s blunt “Tough” in response to Neal’s story is what I see him capturing in the Stage Manager, and his performance highlights, in a very unusual way, the true brutality at the heart of that American classic.

In the last moments of the play, Emily turns to the Stage Manager and says:

“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”

The Stage Manager replies: “No,” before softening it a bit with, “The saints, poets, maybe—they do some.” Richard Kneeland, at Trinity, said it in a sorrowful way, feeling Emily’s grief as his own. Spalding Gray had more of an existential shrug in the line, he had to tell her the truth, but he was so used to it that there was no sense getting sad about it!

Paul Newman is ruthless in the moment. She barely gets the line out before he fires back, “No.” Total shut-down. Total rejection of her concerns, and her sadness. Truth: unvarnished. Don’t bother kidding yourself, sweetheart. This is the reality. Get used to it … and stop sniveling. His elaboration of “saints, poets, maybe,” then, comes off as a careless afterthought, relatively meaningless. Instead of being a contemplative moment of acknowledgment that yes, some people do “get it,” it feels more like he’s throwing her a bone. Brilliant. Devastating.

“No.” I can see the entire trajectory of Paul Newman’s diverse career in that one ruthless line-reading.

There was always a cool-ness to Newman in his best roles. He didn’t cheapen himself by giving it all away. He did not make a commodity out of his own emotions, like so many actors do. He worked. He knew what he was good at, and yet when he needed help he took it.

Sidney Lumet, in his book Making Movies, shares a very moving anecdote about Paul Newman, when starting work on The Verdict:

“He is an honorable man. He is also a very private man. We had worked together in television in the early fifties and done a brief scene together in a Martin Luther King documentary, so when we got together on The Verdict, we were immediately comfortable with each other. At the end of two weeks of rehearsal, I had a run-through of the script … There were no major problems. In fact, it seemed quite good. But somehow it seemed rather flat. When we broke for the day I asked Paul to stay a moment. I told him that while things looked promising, we really hadn’t hit the emotional level we both knew was there in David Mamet’s screenplay. I said that his characterization was fine but hadn’t yet evolved into a living, breathing person. Was there a problem? Paul said that he didn’t have the lines memorized yet and that when he did, it would all flow better. I told him I didn’t think it was the lines. I said that there was a certain aspect of Frank Galvin’s character that was missing so far. I told him that I wouldn’t invade his privacy, but only he could choose whether or not to reveal that part of the character and therefore that aspect of himself. I couldn’t help him with the decision. We lived near each other and rode home together. The ride that evening was silent. Paul was thinking. On Monday, Paul came in to rehearsal and sparks flew. He was superb. His character and the picture took on life.

“I know that decision to reveal the part of himself that the character required was painful for him. But he’s a dedicated actor as well as a dedicated man. And … yes, Paul is a shy man. And a wonderful actor. And race car driver. And gorgeous.”

The 20th century is marked by his work. Gorgeous, indeed. Gorgeous, indelible ink.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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