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Paul Newman: A Natural Born World Shaker

Paul Newman (Photo: MGN) Paul Newman (Photo: MGN)

10/29/2008

With the recent death this year of legendary actor Paul Newman, it sadly affords me the opportunity to talk about someone who was undeniably one of the greatest actors who ever lived. Newman died at the age of 83 on Sept. 26 of lung cancer, and, as I like to do, when someone of his caliber passes, I normally hold a retrospective of his or her works.

Newman's career stretched for over 50 years, and, for his efforts, Newman was nominated ten times for the Oscar. Eight times were for being a lead actor. Yet, Newman also directed five features in his life. The one that got him the most acclaim was Rachel, Rachel (1968), starring his wife Joanne Woodward. However, for my retrospective, I stuck to only two films in which Newman starred back in the 1960s.

Among Newman's other accolades were the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for the brand of products known as Newman's Own. The proceeds of which went to various charities. The Golden Globes gave Newman the Cecil B. Demille Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Newman also received an Honorary Academy Award in 1986, "In recognition of his many and memorable and compelling screen performances and for his personal integrity and dedication to his craft."

This came about thirty years after some regarded Newman as a Brando-wannabe, pretty boy. In the Oct. 10 issue of Entertainment Weekly, staff writer Mark Harris pointed out, "Newman was appreciated more for his beauty than his talent through his early years."

In fact, one of Newman's earlier films that was supposed to be made in black-and-white was instead shot more expensively in color in order to take advantage of Newman's beautiful blue eyes. Entertainment Weekly's managing editor Rick Tetzeli said in terms of attractive men with attractive blue eyes, his mother instilled that Newman stood above all others, including Frank Sinatra.

No doubt, Newman was gorgeous from head to toe. What was stunning, however, was that by the time he became a hit on the silver screen and became a bonafide sex symbol, he was already pushing 40.

SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH (1962) is probably the best example of Newman's sex appeal, despite his close proximity to middle age. Newman plays Chance Wayne, an aspiring movie star who bides his time as a Hollywood gigolo. Here, Newman plays a character easily ten to fifteen years his junior yet he pulls it off and is absolutely convincing.

Director Richard Brooks, who in his previous film with Newman had to deal with a man whose sexuality was a bit more restrained, got to exploit Newman's sexuality and more especially Newman's body, which here gets put on display more often than not. There is no actual depiction of sex, but there's plenty of implication.

Geraldine Page co-stars as Alexandra del Lago, an agin movie star who deals with her twilight in Hollywood with alcohol. In one scene, after Alexandra has sobered up, she inquires as to why Chance is holding out on having sex with her. Chance replies that he worries that the more sex she has with him the less she'll want him. Alexandra retorts, "My interest increases with satisfaction."

A dynamic that was once seen in Newman's film Young Philadelphias (1959) is teased. Chance, a man barely beyond boyhood, is having an affair, an illicit affair, with a woman, some might call past her prime, who might say could be old enough to be his mother.

Later, Chance gives Alexandra a sensual massage with papaya cream, a cream that's intended to be an aphrodisiac. From their interaction, there's nothing but titilation. From their movement, their close quarters, and especially their dialogue, they all invoke prurient thoughts.

In a following scene, Newman, fresh out the shower, struts around their hotel room half-naked. Continuity errors with his towel aside, it's all an opportunity yet again to ogle the chiseled torso and the perfectly sculpted physique of Newman.

Newman's character had already reminisced in an earlier sequence about his days as a swimmer. Chance sits at a bar and remembers. Director Richard Brooks shows us Chance giving a swan dive in slow motion in only a speedo. It offered a glimpse of Newman's enticing body.

This film flaunts Newman's good looks. It holds him up, rightly so, as a pretty piece of meat. It's a recognition and a purposeful hammering of the fact that good looks are a commodity in the movie business. Chance proclaims at one point, "My trade was youth."

Even as Newman himself neared middle-age, he still retained a boyish appearance. His muscular shape when seen shirtless certainly helped him to maintain the fantasy exhibited here. His character, Chance, who was tantamount to a prostitute, sold his youth. He wanted to sell it on the screen, but had to settle to selling it to old ladies in the bedroom.

Geraldine Page, who garnered an Oscar nomination for her role here, is one of those so-called old ladies all too willing to buy. But, why is she willing to do so? It seems that she values youth, above all else. It's worth more than anything to her, more than probably family and love.

It throws into question what everybody values. Alexandra represents one extreme. At first, she thinks of Chance as another in a sea of faceless bodies, and that's basically what he is. Yet, he's trying to change that, to be more than that, perhaps like her, to be a star.

Set in the steamy south, and based on a play by Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), this film is brimming with the heat of passion, people's desires, as well as their frustrations. Could it have been a perfect metaphor for what Newman was actually feeling and experiencing in his own career?

Newman served in the Navy during World War II. He studied acting at Yale University before moving to New York City and attending the prestigious Actor's Studio under the great Lee Strasberg. No doubt, Newman had the credentials to match Marlon Brando. Like Brando, Newman even made the transition from stage to screen using a similar path and trajectory. But, at the time of Sweet Bird of Youth, Newman wasn't placed in the same acting tier as Brando who by then had been nominated six times for the Oscar and won once.

COOL HAND LUKE (1967) came after Newman had delivered several solid and truly above board performances. Yet, I think his work in this film cemented that Newman was more than just a Brando-wannabe, pretty boy.

Based on a novel by Donn Pearce, this film was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Actor for Newman. The Library of Congress added this title to its National Film Registry, as a film to be preserved and remembered. The American Film Institute also recognized the movie twice in its listing of the best films ever made.

Newman plays Lucas Jackson, a disaffected war veteran who has become supremely anti-authority and somewhat anti-social following his discharge. He gets sent to work in a chain gang after he's arrested for a drunken vandalism spree.

There are some very interesting visuals. Some include Panavision shots of the prisoners working alongside the road. Director Stuart Rosenberg opens up vistas of long, empty stretches of pavement, bounded by empty fields or forests. The tired and sweaty men swipe at grass or weeds, dig ditches for long hours in extreme heat, and even tar the black top in similar conditions.

Rosenberg keeps it simple, allowing his actors to convey the heat and exhaustion, and the somewhat dehumanizing and stifling result of it all. His only real inventive shot involves a zoom into the sunglasses of one of the police officers, which offers a perfect reflection of the chain gang's work.

Despite a naughty scene of a woman washing her car while the men watch soap and water slowly dribble down her breasts and legs, as drool dribbles down their mouths, and, despite undercurrents of homoeroticism with men sleeping on top of each other in nothing but their underwear to a fully nude shower scene, which also ends with the men on top of each other, this film is less about the camerawork and more about the acting.

Throughout the breath of this 126-minute masterpiece, Newman's character, simply referred to as Luke, exhibits elements of a man with an indomitable spirit, a man who will not be broken, and a man who will never give up, no matter the odds against him. Whether it's an egg-eating contest, a boxing match, or whether it's digging an endless ditch, Luke will not break.

What the movie becomes is an endurance test. Most times, it's out of a show of respect, respect that Luke has to give or respect that he wants to get. Even when his energy is drained, his body is broken and bloody, and it takes everything he can muster just to draw breath, Luke will not give up. Newman shows a man at his wit's end, with nothing left, who still continues to fight. Even in moments of quiet and little action, Newman is so strong. He's very understated at first. You see a little bit of that hustler, only conveying things subtly. Yet, by the time of the climax, Newman punches boldly and loudly and satisfies with the power that his character possesses.

Newman is brilliant here. His breakdown is raw and forceful, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, so that all who watches feels what he feels. It is by far his best work.

It's ironic that the film should end with Oscar-winner George Kennedy's line when he remarks on Luke's smile. Kennedy's character says that Luke was "a natural born world shaker." For Newman, who was originally born in a suburb of Cleveland, called Shaker Heights, it seems perfectly fitting.

Yes, he was a man with a pretty smile, but it was through his heights on the silver screen that shook the world, not only all around it, through his charities, but also inside each person he saw his films. He certainly shook me. Thank you, Paul!
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