I remember once my Mother expressing fearfulness over her own mortality when one of her favorite movie stars passed away. At the time I thought she was being a bit melodramatic—after all, movie stars are only human beings, right?—and yet with the recent news of the death of Paul Newman, and my 55th birthday right around the corner, I suddenly felt my breath clutch in my chest. Losing one of the true stars in the firmament, the remaining few decades of my own existence now seem irrevocably less illuminated. Sure, there are new actors glittering up the horizon with each new issue of Entertainment Weekly; but, few of them shine consistently like the true stars of yesteryear, let alone guide the way for the rest of us—like torches held aloft to ward off encroaching darkness—icons to emulate.
I have four specific images of Paul Newman which wing to mind. The first, him lying flat on his back with the impression of dozens of eggs pushing out from his stomach, projected larger-than-life on a drive-in screen in Twin Falls, Idaho. Such madness! That sequence impressed me so much as a young man. I got as far as six boiled eggs one time; but, never as many as Cool Hand Luke! Could one ever be as cool as Cool Hand Luke? No. But one could try to be.
Then I think of him as Brick Pollitt resisting the advances of "Maggie the Cat"; Elizabeth Taylor at her most voluptuous. Only a star of Paul Newman's stature could resist the likes of Liz Taylor in a white slip lingering seductively on the edge of a bed full of rocks. She talked about him making love to her with confident aloofness and—as an impressionable young male—that set a standard for masculine behavior. Even later, when I learned that the role had been adapted from Tennessee Williams' original intent to guise Brick's insinuated homosexuality, it didn't matter. Gay or straight, Newman set the bar for provocatively aloof masculinity.
He expressed the flip side of that as well with his portrayal of Hud. Confident, assertive, and hazardously attractive; the epitome of every crash-and-burn type I sought out during my wild years. I completely understood how it took every bit of moral turpitude for Patricia Neal to resist that naturally sleek body and those baby blues. He proved beyond a doubt that beautiful butch men were sheer hell.
And yet the final image I have of Paul Newman is a description I read in an interview with Joanne Woodward. Woodward was asked what it was like to be married to such a simmering beauty? She was quick to stress that it wasn't his looks that made her devoted to him; but, the fact that he could make her laugh. And with that one statement masculinity was reconfigured all over again for me and the way was lit for me to follow.
I've no doubt that I'm going to stumble now and then in the next 20-30 years I have left. It shall have to be the memory of radiance that wards off darkness now. The memory of blue eyes lit up with mirth, sensuality, intelligence, defiance, humanity.
At The Greencine Daily, Dave Hudson has gathered the obits. And Turner Classic Movies has just announced a 24-hour commemorative marathon on Sunday, October 12, 2008. Here's the line-up ET (PT).
6:00 (3:00) AM, The Rack (1956)—Paul Newman plays a Korean War veteran who has been brainwashed and is now on trial for treason in this taut drama based on a Rod Serling teleplay. Walter Pidgeon and Wendell Corey co-star.
8:00 (5:00) AM, Until They Sail (1957)—This drama directed by Robert Wise tells the story of four sisters each struggling to find love and happiness in New Zealand during World War II. Newman plays a Marine captain who falls for one of the sisters, a widow played by Jean Simmons. This film marks Newman's emergence as a matinee idol.
10:00 (7:00) AM, Torn Curtain (1966)—An American scientist pretends to be a defector in order to get some vital information in this Alfred Hitchcock thriller co-starring Julie Andrews. Newman's fight scene in a small farmhouse is a brilliant but disturbing Hitchcock set piece.
12:15 PM (9:15 AM), Exodus (1960)—Otto Preminger directed this epic adaptation of Leon Uris' history of the Palestinian war. Newman plays an Israeli resistance leader, while Eva Marie Saint co-stars as an army nurse. Ernest Gold won an Oscar for his memorable score.
3:45 (1:45) PM, Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)—Newman and co-star Geraldine Page reprised their Broadway roles for this adaptation of the Tennessee Williams drama. In it, Newman returns to his hometown with an aging movie queen in tow. Ed Begley won an Oscar for his performance as the town boss.
6:00 (3:00) PM, Hud (1963)—This modern western, based on a book by Larry McMurtry, features impeccable performances by Newman and Oscar winners Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas. Newman plays a restless youth who destroys nearly everything he touches. Also earning an Oscar for this drama was cinematographer James Wong Howe.
8:00 (5:00) PM, Somebody up There Likes Me (1956)—This Robert Wise-directed biography of boxer Rocky Graziano traces his rise from the streets of New York to packed arena. Pier Angeli co-stars.
10:00 (7:00) PM, Cool Hand Luke (1967)—Newman gives a powerful and endearing performance as a member of a prison chain gang in this drama laced with ample doses of anti-establishment humor. Co-star George Kennedy took home an Oscar for his performance, while Strother Martin nearly steals the film as the warden.
12:15 AM (9:15 PM), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)—Tennessee Williams' classic drama comes to the screen with an outstanding cast headed by Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. The story involves a rich Southern family of greedy vultures hovering around while their patriarch, played by Burl Ives, prepares to die.
2:15 AM (11:15 PM), Rachel, Rachel (1968)—Newman co-stars with his wife, Joanne Woodward, in this sensitive drama about a spinster trying to come out of her shell. This film marked Newman's directorial debut.
4:00 (1:00) AM, The Outrage (1964)—Newman stars as a Mexican bandit accused of rape in this adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. Edward G. Robinson, Claire Bloom, Laurence Harvey and William Shatner co-star.
Cross-published on Twitch.