WEIRDLAND: Paul Newman - Graceful Exit

Monday, August 11, 2008

Paul Newman - Graceful Exit

"He's going to act, and act as if he's not acting.

He's going to be Hud. Cool Hand Luke. Fast Eddie. Butch.

He's going to be a beautiful loser, a self-made orphan, adrift and misjudged, as scornful as he is scorned.

He's going to be the adolescent fantasy of a man's man, a cocky, gritty, hungry motherfucker, tough inside and out, all smirk and sinew, opposed -- not by choice but by the helpless purity of his nature -- to the laws that govern everyone else.

"I don’t know what I've learned," Paul Newman growls in a voice smoked and cured by seventy-five years, many of them spent inhaling Marlboros, Scotch whisky, and high-octane exhaust.

Then comes the pause. Long pause. Loooooong pause. It's a by-God-vintage-Actors-Studio pause, a quiet billowing like fog, a hush that gathers, waiting, falling like the dark. You can hear the tape recorder whirring.

He looks like Paul Newman. That sounds moronic, I know -- he is Paul Newman, jag-off -- but that's still the first thing you notice. Fast Eddie and Hud, Butch and Luke. No gut, no dewlaps, no fancy pants. Loafers, cords, and a crewneck sweater.

His wrinkles are creases now; vertical seams stitch his lips. He is an old man, yes . . . and yet unbent. He is lithe, well oiled, loose -- a sleek old tom. He takes smallish steps, but with a quick, athletic grace. He may have been five feet eleven inches tall, as he used to claim -- his height was once a matter of hot media dispute -- but he's no taller than five nine this evening. The pale wisps remaining on his pink, perfectly formed skull are sufficient to convey the impression of a full head of hair. The eyes, those eyes, are blue, yes, but a blue washed of depth. He seems tired, a little beat. Hell, he's seventy-five, it's after five: Maybe he's just hungry.

What the fuck is that on the left side of his nose? A bolus, a mass, too large to be a pimple, purple and swollen with blood. It's not huge, but it's a presence, something you can't avoid looking at.

He just sits there on the couch, hands clasped behind his neck, looking up at the ceiling. He's in no hurry.

You want him to open and spill himself? He won't. He doesn't think of himself like that, as a subject. Long ago, he decided that his inner life would stay that way ("This is the great age of candor," he told Playboy in 1983. "Fuck candor."), that celebrity was another, lesser role, empty of meaning and not to be trusted, that the jabbering media and the panting women and slick men fawning and pawing and thrusting themselves upon him -- that fame itself -- had come to him for stupid, superficial reasons. He does not gaze at the mirror and say, Holy shit, look at my beautiful eyes.

His right hand lifts his sweater and scratches absentmindedly; his belly looks flat, taut, tanned.

"Maybe that's the problem: I don't know what I've learned that's going to make these golden years golden."

He laughs, laughs to himself.

"It just seems like burnt umber."

This is textbook Newman. He is an ancient mariner, a survivor of a generation of tough guys, a stranger to self-congratulation and self-parody, a man who busted his nuts and yet found it unnecessary to seek release and affirmation in moshing with hotel furniture, punching pencil-necked photographers, or dancing the Watusi when he hit the end zone. Rarer than a virgin in Vegas is a Paul Newman interview in which luck, whimsy, and serendipity don't get the credit for his success.

"It is luck. It is . . . stunning. I didn't think very much about the future. I never felt like a leading man, never felt it. You've gotta feel like a leading man in order to be a leading man, and I never had that kind of confidence."

The first time he actually saw himself on a movie screen, in 1954, he was shit-faced drunk, a blessing. The Silver Chalice was the title, a costume drama, the kind of crap that is laughable kitsch even when done well, which this wasn't. Jack Palance, playing the pagan magician, was lucky enough to be disguised by an evil goatee; Newman, wrapped in a mini toga, played the slave turned sculptor whose task was to craft the goblet Christ would use at the Last Supper.

At a movie house in Philly, slumped down with a case of brew, he watched himself, a cigar-store Indian in ancient Rome, turning slowly to deliver his first line of film dialogue.

"I hope these hands never again have to perform such a sad duty," he said, his voice as flat and dead as dirt.

Surviving that dog took luck.

James Dean dying and bequeathing to Newman his first plum role, as Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me -- good luck, too, at least for Newman.
Meeting Woodward, not just a great actress but the daughter of a publishing executive, a Georgia peach who not only could live with Newman's obliquity and rough edges but could also share her passion for literature, for politics -- and who was willing to set aside the meat of her career to raise their kids: That was lucky, yes.
But he had something beyond the luck. It was Newman who refused when Warner Bros. suggested that he change his name to something that sounded less Jewish, who bought out his first and last studio contract in 1959 for half a million dollars he didn't have and became one of the first movie stars of his time who would control his value and his work, who said goodbye to Hollywood and bought a home in Connecticut in 1962 and lives there still, who marched in Alabama in '63 and campaigned for Gene McCarthy in '68, who spoke his beliefs in public and backed them with deeds and dollars at a time when most citizens sat mute -- especially those dolls whose earnings were based on an image of insouciant glamour -- and who refused to mail in the same tired, smirking, tough-guy, buddy-buddy shite in movie after movie, choosing instead to grow as an actor and as a man.

Luck?

Sure.

Great good luck -- and the will to work and the stamina to endure.

Luck, heart, and a pair of big stone balls.

Brando? A lunatic, an island.

Dean? Dead.

McQueen? Dead.

Monty Clift? Dead.

Little Sal Mineo? Dead.

Tony Curtis? Um, you tell me.

Newman? Loooooong pause.

"Let me retire to the john," he says. "This beer has gone through me fast." He has consumed one seven-ounce pony of Bud.

He comes back rubbing his cheek. He has seen the fireball on his nose.

"I go to the doctor once a year," he explains, "to have my face scraped. All the rough edges -- it's sore as hell. It's what they call a precancerous growth. One of those choice things that come with age."

He is seventy-five years old now. He has seen his colleagues come and, most of them, go. He doesn't kid himself about the future.

"You can't be as old as I am without waking up with a surprised look on your face every morning: Holy Christ, whaddya know -- I'm still around. It is absolutely amazing that I survived, survived all the booze and the smoking and the cars and the career.

"I'm at that age when you really start thinking about what the end is going to be like and how gracefully you're gonna do that. That becomes almost a -- if I would have to say I was preoccupied with anything, it would be that: just wondering how graceful that exit is gonna be.

"Is it just gonna be non compos mentis? Is it gonna be whining and screaming? Is it gonna be graceful? Is it gonna be quick? Is it gonna be one of those long, drawn-out . . . you wonder about it. It doesn't occupy my day, but you wonder about it."
Suddenly, Joanne Woodward enters the room.

"This is my lady," Newman says, introducing us, and the gravel in his voice is gone. His voice is rich and warm and full of joy.

Lucky, yes. She is seventy years old, more rounded now than curved, and more beautiful for that. She smiles at him with that look that women have who have stuck it out, who have come to cherish the boy in their man.

"Don't believe any of it," she warns me on her way out to dinner. "It's all one big joke."

But this much is no joke: He has slowed. He retired from auto racing in 1995, after winning the GT-1 championship at the Daytona Rolex 24 at the age of seventy, and the movie work is sparse, redundant, cued by his creases and old white head and dusty pipes. Since Nobody's Fool in 1994 -- a fine job, garnering him his eighth Oscar nomination for Best Actor; he lost, of course, to Mr. Box o' Chocolates -- he has played a creaky shamus in 1998's pat but watchable Twilight, and he did his level best as Kevin Costner's pop, crusty and wise, in Message in a Bottle, the purest celluloid tribute to nausea since Mickey Rourke died. His new film, Where the Money Is -- he plays yet another cranky alter kocker, a bank robber who fakes a stroke to get out of prison and into a nursing home, where Linda Fiorentino, playing the hot 'n' nasty nurse, cajoles him into one last heist -- was shot two years ago.

And since?

"Lean stuff out there. It's dry, a dry season." His voice, solemn to begin with, trails off into a grunt.

I ask about The Homesman, a project he's talked about the past few years, a character-driven western he's written and rewritten. He has said that he'd like to direct it and star in it with his wife -- they've done eleven pictures together -- and then call it quits.

"I can't seem to get anybody interested," he says. "I may have just run out of steam on it."

Hard to believe, I say, that no one's interested.

He squints, frowning. Tell him you love his popcorn and red sauce and salad dressing and he'll thank you kindly with a twinkle in his eyes, but don't blow smoke up Paul Newman's bony old ass. Don't even try.So, if the scripts he sees these days are few and far between, if the directors now come from MTV and NYU, if the writers are fresh from Harvard, and if the actors are from the San Diego Zoo, digitally enhanced planks of pine who piss and moan about the emotional agony, the soul torture, of playing a part in a fucking movie -- if he never acts again, so what?He began to produce and direct his own films; the first, Rachel, Rachel, starring Woodward, earned a Best Picture nomination in 1968. It lost to Oliver!

In 1969, he formed First Artists Production Company with Barbra Streisand and Sidney Poitier; later, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman joined up. The idea was that they would produce quality films, films they cared about. The reality was that the lunatics couldn't run the asylum, and he himself was bored, frustrated, sick of playing Paul Newman playing Paul Newman.

"I'm running out of steam," he said in 1968. "Wherever I look, I find parts reminiscent of Luke or Hud or Fast Eddie. Christ, I played those parts once and parts of them more than once. It's not only dangerous to repeat yourself, it's damned tiresome."Besides, he had discovered racing. This circle he liked -- fast and faster, no thought beyond the screaming cockpit, no introspection, no box office. You won or you didn't. He kept his filming schedule clear from April to October -- racing season -- and turned pro in 1977. He was fifty-two years old, and acting was now something he did on the side.

And this -- fuck it, just fuck it; just drive the bitch like you stole it and pass the fucking Scotch -- this he could use to become the actor he'd always wanted to be, free of all the smirking boyo shit and freeze-framed machismo.

The transformation began in yet another movie no one saw, 1976's Buffalo Bill & the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, in which Newman played the living legend as a drunken buffoon and a showbiz fraud. Then Slap Shot: Newman on skates, playing a muff-diving hockey lifer who sports a brown patent-leather leisure suit off-ice and isn't above diddling a teammate's wife. And when Redford pulled out of The Verdict because playing the boozehound shyster wouldn't gloss his image, Newman took the part, pouring himself into a raw wound of a character and -- stripped of all mannerism -- bared the soul and spirit of the man, coming out on the other side in the flat-out best ride of his career.He is what his father was, a family man. Five daughters. His first child, Scott, his only son, overdosed and died at the age of twenty-eight, in 1978. Scott had tried to become an actor, had tried stunt work, had changed his name to William Scott and tried to become a singer. It had been bad between them for a long time before the pills and alcohol carried Scott away, worse than it had been back when he himself was his father's son and a fuckup.

When the phone call came, he was not surprised to hear that Scott had died. What shocked him was the anger and the hurt. What enveloped him then was the length of the shadow his own father had cast, and the darkness of the shadow now belonged to him.Then a line of dialogue drifts back to him from twenty-five years ago, from when he played Buffalo Bill for Robert Altman: "The last thing a man wants to do is the last thing he does.""I don't ask any questions about it," he says. "I'm afraid that if I ask any questions about it, I could come up with the wrong answer. It's the act in itself that is the important thing, not seeking out the motivation for it. Every donation that I ever made to anything was always anonymous. Now I have to broadcast it. I really don't like it."

He is now a spokesman for the Committee to Encourage Corporate Philanthropy, whose goal is to increase the total annual amount of corporate donations from $9 billion to $15 billion by 2004. He spoke late last year at the kickoff banquet to a gaggle of CEOs -- Chase Manhattan, Kmart, Citibank, Xerox, America Online: more than two dozen of the lucky bastards, all self-made, rugged individualists who weren't born in Papua, New Guinea -- and told them, "Wipe your minds," and asked them to commit 2 percent of their annual after-tax profits to charity.

Well, they said, they'd have to think about it. They'd have to consider their responsibilities to the shareholders.

They thought about it. They discussed it. They voted no.

Loooooong pause.

"With all the questionable things we're capable of doing," he tells me, and this clause is followed by a pause so long that a bunch of skinny Europeans could plant a net on either end of it and start a soccer match, "it seems that all entities should participate in holding out their hands to people who have less than they have."

Frankly, I could go for another piece of chocolate, but I left my wallet in the car. So I figure it's a good time to ask him something -- loooong pause: two can play that game -- deep. Something about Paul Newman, the man sitting here with me, being more than the sum of the parts he has played.

If he ain't Hud, ain't Fast Eddie, ain't Cool Hand Luke, ain't Butch, who is he?

Who is Paul Newman?

"I don't know," he says, sipping the dregs of his coffee. "You can't not absorb some of those character traits into your own personality. You try to separate those little fragments you've created. You don't know. The only time you'll know is when you're on your deathbed, and then you'll say, 'Okay, now we're down to ground zero.' That's when you separate what's real and what isn't real."
He knows that the last thing a man wants to do is the last thing he does". Source: www.esquire.com

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