MIXED FARE : The incredible Rightness
A strikingly handsome blue-eyed actor who quickly rose to fame as one of the most respected and popular performers of his generation, Paul Newman briefly ran his family’s sporting goods store in Cleveland before venturing, in 1950, into stage work at the Williams Bay Repertory Company in Wisconsin. He attended Yale from 1951-52, during which time he also worked in TV in New York and attended the Actors Studio. After attracting critical attention with his 1953 Broadway debut, ‘Picnic’, the compact, good-looking actor with the devasting pale blue eyes was signed by Warner Bros. Newman’s first screen appearance came as the star of ‘The Silver Chalice’ (1954), a curious biblical epic that brought him as much attention for his miscasting as for his talent. His first positive film notices were for his performance as boxer Rocky Graziano in ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ (1956).
Early in his career, Newman was often labelled a Brando imitator or a James Dean successor, more thanks to the characters he played than to any conscious mimicry. Several of his early performances as Southerners, ‘Cat On a Hot Tin Roof’ (1958), ‘The Long Hot Summer’ (1958) and ‘Sweet Bird Of Youth’ (1962), developed his screen image as that of a volatile, cynical if troubled opportunist whose sex appeal was balanced by his seeming contempt for women.
Some of Newman’s finest portrayals were of alienated but cocky misfits, characterisations that perhaps began with the early, very strange showcase, ‘The Left Handed Gun’ (1958). He maintained a high batting average of quality films in which the sly, sometimes cruel machismo of his persona was undercut by moments of vulnerability and a propensity for playing losers. Newman’s most acclaimed roles in the 60s include his aspiring pool champion in ‘The Hustler’ (1961), the sexually predatory ne’er-do-well ‘Hud’ (1963) and the prison inmate ‘Cool Hand Luke’ (1967) (featuring the famous egg-eating challenge). His less successful roles during this period completely emphasised either his animal energy (his bandit-rapist in the American revamp of ‘Rashomon,’ ‘The Outrage’, (1964) or his keen intelligence (the romantic comedy of ‘A New Kind Of Love’, 1963; Alfred Hitchcock’s dreadful ‘Torn Curtain’, 1966, with Newman as a physicist!).
The late 1960s saw Newman branch out into both production and direction. Fuelled by commercial success and a degree of artistic dissatisfaction, he joined with Sidney Poitier, Barbra Streisand, Steve McQueen and several other stars to form the First Artists production company in 1969. The venture, though much imitated, did little for the careers of its fou-nders but did result in some interesting, if intermittent work. His deliberately modest yet highly sensitive directorial debut ‘Rachel, Rachel’ (1968), showcasing his second wife Joanne Woodward as a lonely teacher, garnered the best director award from the New York Film Critics Circle.
Newman continued to enjoy popular success in front of the camera, scoring at the box office with lightweight films such as ‘Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid’ (1969) and ‘The Sting’ (1973), both opposite Robert Redford. The late 70s saw some bold project choices that enjoyed varying degrees of success, from the sly critique of Robert Altman’s ‘Buffalo Bill And The Indians’ (1976) to Altman’s unsuccessful futuristic saga ‘Quintet’ (1979), with the engagingly raucous if uneven ‘Slap Shot’ (1977) and the offbeat detective yarn ‘The Drowning Pool’ (1976) in between.
Newman proved highly effective in a number of senior roles in the 1980s and 90s, his physical prowess maturing into a lean asceticism in films, with an especially outstanding performance as an alcoholic lawyer attempting a comeback in ‘The Verdict’ (1982). His Huey Long in ‘Blaze’ (1989) was vaguely reminiscent of his misbehaving Southerners from days of yore, and his character turn in ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ (1994) played upon his status as one of Hollywood’s elder statesmen. This position, in some ways surprising given the moody, dangerous persona of his youth, was confirmed with an honorary Academy Award in 1985 and a best actor Oscar the following year for Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Colour Of Money’, in which his “Fast” Eddie Felson from ‘The Hustler’ passed on secrets to a younger generation (Tom Cruise). Newman also earned acclaim for his fifth directorial outing, an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ ‘The Glass Menagerie’ (1987), again starring Woodward. He and Woodward also spent a great deal of their time building a camp for children with life-threatening illnesses with the profits from “Newman’s Own” brand of food products.
For each of his directors, from Mark Robson to Arthur Penn to John Huston to Robert Altman, Newman has been able to find a nuance of character and a litheness of being that has maintained his longstanding repute as a prime box-office attraction. This extraordinary versatility, combined with a charismatic aloofness, is the hallmark of his craft.
(Compiled by Anjita Pradhan)