WEIRDLAND: Cool Hand Paul

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Cool Hand Paul

"For many years, wherever he went, Paul Newman was asked the same questions. Where did your blue eyes come from? Is Robert Redford your best friend? How have you stayed married so long? When the actor became fed up and stopped giving interviews, he was labelled a recluse.

Now, at least, there is a new line of inquiry. Last week the movie world was abuzz with reports - first denied, then confirmed, then denied again - that he was close to death. The story began with the emergence of pictures of the 83-year-old actor, his face gaunt and ghostly, attending a charity event near his home in Connecticut.

On Wednesday, the Associated Press quoted his close friend and business partner, A?E Hotchner, as confirming that cancer had been diagnosed. The following day Hotchner insisted he had been misunderstood, and to add to the clarity, Newman's own spokesman stated that the star was "doing nicely". This, as was widely observed, is the kind of thing doctors tell anxious relatives.

If the curiosity appears unseemly, it is also understandable. Perhaps even refreshing. Newman is one of the few surviving links to the golden age of American film and stage acting, but remains a strangely elusive presence.

The Apollonian features and faint air of hauteur smack of something in the psychological mix that Newman has never been inclined to explain, or, perhaps, even to think about. He exists in the public mind largely as the residue of the characters he has played - the disaffection of Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler, the incorrigibility of Cool Hand Luke, the elegant delinquency of Hud.

"People want to know about him," says his latest biographer, Shawn Levy, "while he's still here to tell them."

Not that Newman has ever said much. He distrusts almost everything in the star system, with its shallow vanities and colliding egos, and the distance he has kept from Hollywood is only partly down to a preference for living in New England.

"Once you start to believe in celebrity, it's impossible to take yourself seriously," he once said. "You're busted, when you take that road."

He modestly claims that he can no longer remember any of his best lines, but can still quote the worst ("Helena, is it really you? What a joy!" from a bizarre 1954 Old Testament toga-and-sandals epic, The Silver Chalice).

Newman's background is thoroughly documented, without being unduly revealing. He was born in 1925, in Shaker Heights, a well-to-do but otherwise nondescript suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, the son of a Jewish sporting goods shop owner.

His father, he says, was "funny, erudite, hard-working, extremely ethical - and distant". If, as many have deduced, the theme of stern masculine values lies at the core of Newman's work, the likelihood is that it stems from the emotionally-deficient relationship with his father. It was, nevertheless, a relatively secure and comfortable childhood.

His stage-struck mother, Theresa, nudged Paul and his brother Arthur (later a film producer) towards the theatre, and both acted in local productions as children. Paul attended university in Cleveland, but was thrown out after a brawl in a bar, and after working briefly in the family shop, where he was forced to come to terms with his shortcomings as a salesman, landed a small-time acting job in a theatre in Wisconsin.

"If it hadn't been for that fight," he mused many years later, "I probably wouldn't have become an actor."

He served in the US Navy during the Second World War, but his hopes of becoming a pilot ended when he learned that those trademark sapphire eyes were colour-blind. This blow, moreover, was only the start of the troubles those mesmeric peepers have caused him. All his life, complains Newman, he has been plagued by people demanding to gaze into his eyes.

"To work as hard as I have," he once said, "to accomplish what I've accomplished, and then have some yo-yo come up and say 'Take off those dark glasses, and let's have a look at those blue eyes'. It's really discouraging."

The eyes soon settled on Jacqueline Witte, a tall blonde actress who, in 1949, became his first wife, and the mother of his first three children.

They moved to New York, where Jacqueline modelled and Newman studied at Lee Strasberg's Actors' Studio among a vintage collection of classmates including Marlon Brando, James Dean and Rod Steiger. Between them, these actors perfected the deadly art of cool, although Newman admits that it was a while before he came to grips with the concept of sexuality.

He broke through with a starring part in the 1953 Broadway production of William Inge's Picnic, and it was during the run that he met Joanne Woodward, a blonde, delicate-featured actress from Georgia, who was in the cast as an understudy and became his second wife. They have been married for 50 years - a feat almost unrivalled among major movie stars, albeit one that neither of them is much inclined to discuss. Newman once unwisely told Playboy magazine that "if you've got fillet steak at home, what's the point the point of going out for hamburger?" Mrs Newman took great exception to the imagery, and they now let the longevity of their union speak for itself.

The great movies that made his name as a working-class hero, with just the requisite touch of defiance, soon began to flow - The Hustler (1960), Sweet Bird of Youth (1961), Hud (1961), Cool Hand Luke (1967), and the most famous buddy film in history, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). This collaboration with Robert Redford - who only got the part when Steve McQueen refused it because of dispute over which actor would get top billing - gave Newman both a fresh lease of life and another headache.

Almost 40 years after the release of Butch and Sundance the two stars have never fully extricated themselves from each other.

"People think we're like brothers," says Redford, "that we're on the phone, and round each other's house all the time. It isn't like that." Nor is it: "polite familiarity", is how those who know the pair characterise the relationship.

His extra-movie life has been dominated by a lifelong attachment to liberal politics (he backed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination), motor racing, at which he has been wildly and improbably successful, and the running of Newman's Own, the salad dressing and pasta sauce business that has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for his Hole in the Wall Gang children's charity.

Last year, when he announced his retirement, he bluntly declared: "I can't work any more. You start to lose your memory, to lose your confidence, to lose your invention. I think that's a pretty closed book for me." The epilogue, however, remains to be written2. Source:
See this previous post "Neman style"


Xenia said...

Flattering comparison between Jake and Paul, Kendra: two talented actors and handsome men with beautilul blue eyes, let's hope Jake will have the same career longevity as Paul...

But most of all I like the parralelism between Newman&Redford and Jake&Heath: it confirms that the audience has always projected all its fears and wishes onto actors of all ages.

Kendra said...

And both share a preference for beautiful blonde actresses, too:
see previous posts:

cuddly cuties

recurrent typical love stills