by Brett Parker
When I think of the word charisma, Paul Newman automatically comes to mind. I can think of no other actor, or human being for that matter, who possessed it more and exuded it better. You hear of specific actors being referred to as “naturals.” Newman was the ultimate one. He could slip his charm and grace into any cinematic situation and completely command the screen. It’s a testament to his talents that he could play anything from handsome heroes to cold outsiders to hopeless losers and still draw our attention and sympathy. Nowadays, performers seem to fall under one of two categories: movie star or character actor. Newman was that rare star who was both of those at the same time and pitch perfect on both accounts.
It’s always hard to believe it when one of your favorite actors passes away, so it’s extremely hard for me to believe that the Academy Award Winning Paul Newman passed away on September 26th, 2008 after a battle with cancer. Newman was an actor who possessed an easy self-confidence and charm that any young man like myself would kill to possess. Watching Newman on film was truly an inspiration, for no matter what role he undertook, he always seemed to be the guy who shakes up his surroundings and marches to the beat of his own tune. While his characters weren’t always admirable people, they always stood up for what they believed in and stayed true to themselves right to the very end. It’s quite amazing how seamlessly Newman’s personality could slip into such a varied gallery of characters. His death is truly the end of an era. There will never be another Paul Newman.
Newman’s film career began in 1954 with The Silver Chalice and appeared to finish up in 2006 in Pixar’s animated Cars. To fire off the names of all his films would be to name some of the most significant classics of the past century. Below is a list of essential Newman classics that wonderfully display his talents and helped to solidify him as a Hollywood legend. They’re the ones we remember him for, whether he was charming us or surprising us. If for some unfortunate reason you haven’t been lucky enough to see the following films, then you must shoot them to the top of your Netflix list immediately:
The Hustler (1960)
They called him Fast Eddie, and he went on to become the essential Hustler character in all of Hollywood history. As a talented pool hustler with a reckless ego, Newman wonderfully displayed traits in his Oscar-nominated performance that would become a staple with most of his later work. Eddie makes us smile with his schoolboy goofiness and cocky swagger, yet it’s his hidden vulnerabilities and gloves-off confrontation with his demons that truly wins our hearts. To this day, it is still the deepest and most thoughtful portrayal of the Hustler persona Hollywood would recycle time and time again. The main characters in films like White Men Can’t Jump, Rounders, and Lucky You all owe something to Fast Eddie.
Not one of the more well-known Newman films, but it’s interesting in its light-hearted and quirky take on the hard-boiled private eye flick. As Lew Harper, a private detective on a kidnapping case in Los Angeles, Newman turned our every idea about private eyes upside down an successfully reinvented it. He was handsome, didn’t drink, and always had an amused smile on his face. The heart throb Newman is the last person you’d expect to play a cynical detective, and that’s why it worked so well.
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
If Paul Newman is an actor who bursts with charisma and color in his speech, than the surprising thing about his Cool Hand Luke performance is how subtle he is. Newman stars as a disillusioned chain-gang prisoner in the south who becomes a reluctant Christ figure to the dim-witted prisoners that surround him. Newman kept most of the performance internal, relying on minimal dialogue and his expressive face to convey Luke’s internal pain. The interesting thing is how Newman’s trademark smile and prescience helped to make Luke instantly compelling, making his enigmatic nature more fascinating to watch. It’s one of Newman’s very best performances.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
A unique tale of friendship, this is one of my ten favorite movies of all time, making it my favorite Paul Newman film. In telling the story of western outlaws on the run in the West then South America, George Roy Hill crafted a quirky and thoughtful meditation on western legends and both Paul Newman and Robert Redford set the standard for buddy movie chemistry. Newman gave one of his funniest performances as the cheerful Butch Cassidy and fit perfectly with Redford’s straight-arrowed Sundance. It was a legendary pairing that demonstrated what movie star chemistry can achieve when it hits on all cylinders.
The Sting (1973)
Newman and Redford teamed up with director George Roy Hill once again for some Hollywood fun in this con artist caper. It only made sense that Newman played the seasoned veteran who knows all the tricks that teaches his trade to a young hot shot on the rise. What’s interesting about this film is how easily the “con” game can resemble the “acting” game, allowing the dynamic duo of Newman and Redford to show audiences the zest and skill they put into crafting unforgettable performances.
Slap Shot (1977)
This vulgar and hostile sports comedy is one of the funniest movies ever made. Newman teamed up for a third time with director George Roy Hill to create a look at Hockey that was not only raw and accurate, but also crazy and hilarious. It’s great fun watching Newman revel in the role of Reggie Dunlop, an immature man-child who completely surrenders to his masculine impulses. Audiences had never seen such a raunchy and buffoonish side of Newman before and his conviction in the role is one of the movie’s greatest treats.
The Verdict (1982)
In Sidney Lumet’s superb courtroom drama, audiences got to see Newman at his most desperate and conflicted. As an alcoholic lawyer taking on a giant medical malpractice case, Newman made no apologies as he slipped into the role of a reckless lowlife trying to redeem himself. Gone was his usual self-confidence and endless charms as Newman went to the depths of his soul to express his characters needs and pains. Ben Kingsley may have taken the Best Actor Oscar that year for Gandhi, but there are still those who think Newman deserved the prize for his heartbreaking performance.
The Color of Money (1986)
After winning an honorary Oscar for his unforgettable career, Newman went on to win his first Best Actor Oscar by returning to the role that made him a legend in the first place, Fast Eddie Felson. In Martin Scorsese’s sequel to The Hustler, an elder Fast Eddie decides to show the hustling ropes to an upcoming pool whiz named Vincent (Tom Cruise, who at the time was favored to become the next Newman, although many now would differ with that). It was fascinating to see the cocky and conflicted Fast Eddie all grown up as a wise and smooth expert. Newman had an undeniable coolness in the role, seasoned with street-smarts the younger Eddie may not have possessed in the first film. You get chills watching Eddie stepping out from the role of “mentor” and slipping so seamlessly back into the role of the “cool hustler.” As he goes from being Vincent’s mentor to his toughest competition, Newman’s performance taught us a very important lesson: it’s never too late in life to stand up and take back what’s yours.
Like his film career, Newman devoted himself to perfection in all aspects of his life. He was a devoted race car driver who could drive with the best. He was an astonishing humanitarian who devoted himself to many charities, including the Hole-in-the-Wall Camp, a summer camp for sick children. And the fact that he stayed married to his actress wife Joanne Woodward for 50 years up until his death suggests that the guy figured out the key to marriage as well. Whether in life or in movies, you could learn a lot from observing Paul Newman. He was an American icon who stood for what he believed in and could always be called a class act. His characters used all their charms and confidence to get a hold on their inner character and stand by their ideas of right and wrong. Newman himself once said, “A man can only be judged by his actions, and not by his good intentions and beliefs.” If that is the case, than Newman’s actions make him a remarkable and unforgettable man whose craft and generosity will be celebrated and discussed for generations to come.
by Brett Parker