Newman once told a reporter that he had signed 500 autographs “Marlon Brando” and quipped, “Two years ago they thought I was Jimmy Dean
When Paul Newman died of cancer, at the age of 83, in late September, he received the obligatory tributes the networks broadcast when stars die, the long obituaries, the professions of loss from friends and co-workers, and the critical expatiations on his legacy. But Newman received something else too: personal reveries and a sense of national mourning reserved for those rare individuals who have touched the American soul. Paul Newman wasn’t just any 83-year-old, any more than he was just any movie star. He had long since passed into a pantheon where stardom had transmuted into heroism, onscreen likability into something more than movie star love. In one of Newman’s most memorable films, Hud, Melvyn Douglas as Newman’s father observes, “Little by little, the look of the country changes because of the men we admire.” That was certainly true of Paul Newman. We admired him, and because we admired him he helped redefine modern America in general and modern American manhood specifically.
Of course it is easy to attribute his appeal to his wry smile, his ease, his insouciance, his cool, his preternaturally cerulean eyes, and to the vicarious jolt he provided to men everywhere. Newman himself chalked it up to the fact that “I have a face that does not belong to a thief,” which is not entirely glib: Newman did project integrity even when the characters he played had none. As the critic Pauline Kael put it, he was one of those actors who displays “such a traditional heroic frankness and sweetness that the audience dotes on them…”
But the truest metaphor for Newman’s appeal may have been the old Volkswagen he drove from his Connecticut home to the Broadway theater in which he appeared onstage in Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth in the early 1960s. Newman wanted more giddyap to his ride, so he had his mechanic install a supercharged Porsche engine in the Beetle. That was Newman: half-Porsche, half-Volkswagen; half-oversize Superman, half-unaffected Everyman. Other stars may have drawn on either their glamour or on their similarity to us. Paul Newman was the only star who could draw on both.
Bursting onto the movie scene in the mid-1950s, after first making a splash on Broadway, Newman was one of a generation of young actors who represented a new kind of American man. Before him, the traditional male film stars – Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, Jimmy Cagney, John Wayne – weren’t cool; they were actually kind of square. But what they lacked in diffidence, they made up in command. As Joan Didion once wrote of Wayne, but was equally true of them all: “In John Wayne’s world, John Wayne was supposed to give the orders.” These men asserted themselves – in romance, in war, in work, in society – because that’s what men did then: be tough and uncomplicated. Wayne and company weren’t racked by self-doubt or tormented by their shortcomings. Alpha males all, they exuded certainty and power. In a sense they were pre-Freudian, even pre-psychological: streamlined manifestations of American confidence. They couldn’t be stopped.
Newman’s generation was different. Where John Wayne was big, hard, stubborn, self-assured, and self-righteous, boldly lumbering into action, Newman and his confederates were small, soft, malleable, self-doubting, and ironic (about the last word one would use to describe Wayne), sliding their way edgewise into a scene. This attitude was identified as cool, and it was. Where the previous generation of actors always seemed to be on a mission, these young actors were disdainful toward everything – everything, that is, except themselves. They certainly didn’t believe in missions, and their contempt was a large part of their appeal to other alienated young men in the 1950s and early 1960s. What they had was a sense of superiority, as if they had understood something that the John Waynes hadn’t; namely, that nothing was worth the kind of energy Wayne and the others expended, nothing was worth the sacrifice or the risk or the faith. Not anymore.
In their cynicism, these were new men for a new age – a less arrogant, more anxious nuclear postwar world in which Freud was very much in evidence and you faced down danger not by vanquishing it, as John Wayne did, but by denying or ignoring it. In any case, they felt that the greatest dangers weren’t outside them; they were within them in their own roiled psyches. That’s why Newman and his contemporaries even felt compelled to adopt a different style of acting. The old stars worked from the outside in – makeup, accents, body language – which was perfectly appropriate when the threats were external and you were going mano a mano with the world. The new stars were proponents of the Stanislavsky Method, which taught one to work from the inside out, and which was more appropriate when the threats were internal and you were wrestling with yourself.
Competing against them for roles, Newman would inevitably and repeatedly be compared to two other stars of th
is generation, James Dean and Marlon Brando, whom he physically resembled. Newman once told a reporter that he had signed 500 autographs “Marlon Brando” and quipped, “Two years ago they thought I was Jimmy Dean.” Like them he was regarded as another young, moody, misunderstood, tormented rebel who challenged the stultifying social order of 1950s America, and he seemed to underscore the affinities when he was arrested for drunken driving and resisting arrest in 1956, just as his film career was taking off.
But even then Newman sought to dissociate himself from his two rivals, and the differences he cited would speak to his popularity and durability as an icon. Brando, he said, had a “rebellious attitude, which I don’t believe I had.” Brando and Dean were bent and angry. They conveyed the sense that they had been wronged, victimized by hypocrisy. Newman’s characters, on the other hand, were not so much wronged as they were wrong – internally warped and defective. In some of his greatest roles, as the conniving Ben Quick in The Long, Hot Summer, as pool shark Eddie Felson in The Hustler, and as the amoral cad Hud Bannon in Hud, Newman is less disaffected than he is corrupted, a word he often used to describe his characters. These men are antisocial, like Brando’s and Dean’s alter egos, but they are also self-absorbed and narcissistic – seemingly irredeemable. As Newman said of Hud, “He didn’t give a goddamn what happened to anyone else.”
This would have made Newman less than likable, a rat, were it not for something else in his characters that became as much a part of his persona as his indifference: In the course of his films the Newman narcissist turns out not to be irredeemable after all, invariably arriving, after some shock, at a realization of the limitations of his selfishness. His characters aren’t searching for anything except self-satisfaction, but they come to discover the awful price of their own self-interest, and they come to understand the need to consider others or remain imprisoned by their venality. From his star-making role as the middleweight boxing champion Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me, in 1956, this transformation became Newman’s brand, and it lifted him above the bohemian maunderings of other 1950s icons. Virtually alone among stars, he showed the way toward normality – one of the few stars, Pauline Kael observed, who operated “in a normal emotional range.” He taught America how to be both iconoclastic and socially engaged.
Of course it didn’t hurt Newman’s image that while he was a misfit redeemed onscreen, offscreen he strove to be an ordinary guy. Brando and Dean were noted for their various romantic entanglements. Newman, in the 1950s, was a married man with three children and declared, “I have two interests: my family and my acting career.” Went one magazine account: “He drinks beer by choice. He plays bridge well. He plays chess badly. He loves to play cheap poker. He smokes two packs of cigarettes a day and on rare instances can be seen smoking a cigar.” His hobby was go-kart racing, his clothes were unfashionably casual, and he chose to live in New York, where he often zipped down the streets on a motor scooter when he wasn’t making a film in Hollywood.
The offscreen Newman was also, for a movie star, startlingly self-deprecating. He constantly disparaged his talent, a modesty that made him seem even more accessible and made his audiences more protective of him. “I don’t think I ever had an immediate gift to do anything right,” he told one interviewer, and he called himself “an emotional Republican” because, unlike most actors who are exhibitionists, he was always afraid of revealing too much of himself. He was a ruthless self-critic, telling interviewers how far short his performances in various films fell by his own standards. “I’m just now beginning to learn a little something about acting,” he told a reporter in 1981, after he’d been acting for three decades.
Newman would even disparage his famous chiseled looks, complaining about the corruption – that word again – inherent in being an actor because of the premium that acting placed on appearance. “If blue eyes are what it’s about, and not the accumulation of my work as a professional actor, I may as well turn in my union card right now and go into gardening,” he said on one occasion; and on another, “To work as hard as I’ve worked to accomplish anything 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,’ is really discouraging.” He claimed to be baffled that women found him sexy and pleaded ignorance about why anyone would make a fuss over him.
Though he had trained in the Method at the famed New York Actors Studio, plumbing his own emotional experiences for correlatives to the emotions in his roles, he always stressed the discontinuity between himself and the man on the screen, often saying that he had very little in common with the men he
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