Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paul Newman's Coming of Age

This week will feature a TV feast of his movies, showing the seriously sexy young stud of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "The Long Hot Summer," "The Hustler," "Hud," "Sweet Bird of Youth" and others that brought Paul Newman fame in his thirties.

But almost alone among superstars of our time (Clint Eastwood is the only other who comes to mind), Newman eased gracefully into a partnership with Robert Redford in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Sting" in his forties, followed by "Fort Apache the Bronx," "The Verdict," and "Absence of Malice" after 50, capped with his only Oscar for reprising Fast Eddie in "The Color of Money" at 61.

His on-screen persona as a cocky risk-taker was deepening over those years into a knowing, damaged yet decent-at-heart older man, but it was only after he turned 70 that, for my taste, Paul Newman did the vintage acting of his life in a serious of movies written by arguably the best American novelist of our time, Richard Russo.

In the 1994 "Nobody's Fool," Newman was paired with Jessica Tandy in her last picture as a denizen of one of Russo's falling-apart old New England mill towns, as the irresistible reprobate Sully, finding some semblance of redemption (but not that much) for a totally selfish life.

This was followed by Russo's stylish geezer noir, "Twilight," a made-for-HBO film in which Newman played an elderly PI with his peers James Garner and Gene Hackman, still spry enough to bed Susan Sarandon and, more age-appropriately, Stockard Channing.

All this was only prelude to Newman's bringing to life, again for HBO, in the four-hour film of "Empire Falls," Russo's epic novel, Max Roby, a hyperactive food-in-his-beard, scheming, swindling father and grandfather who lights up the TV screen, more a creation than a performance.

In between, Newman did a turn as an imprisoned bank robber who fakes a stroke and sits frozen in a wheel chair for much of the mediocre "Where the Money Is," not moving a muscle even when Linda Fiorentino gives him a lap dance. Now that's what AARP members would call an award-winning performance.

Young or old, Paul Newman was a star for half a century by the classic definition that, when he was on the screen, it was hard to see anybody else. New generations will keep discovering the man who invented cool before most of us knew that the condition had a name.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

According to iMDb, Stockard Channing is only 2 years older than Susan Sarandon. So, I'm not quite getting your "age appropriate" remark.