Paul Newman couldn’t have existed today – at least, not the way we came to know him.
Sure, the talent would have been there, the classic good looks, the magnetism, the easy charm. But the privacy he demanded (and won), which helped establish and solidify his mystique as a bona fide movie star, never would have been afforded him in our tabloid-driven, celebrity-obsessed culture.
Sad but true. Part of why we were fascinated with Newman, who died Friday at 83 of cancer, was because we didn’t know every gory detail of his life, even though he’d reached the zenith of fame and popularity. He left us craving more – and that he lived and died far from Hollywood’s glare in the small town of Westport, Conn., in the converted farmhouse he shared with his wife of 50 years, Joanne Woodward, speaks volumes not only about who he was but who he didn’t want to be.
It’s hard to think of an actor today who compares in that regard: someone who’s blazingly confident on-screen but maintains some mystery about who he really is off of it, someone who would make even hardened, cynical journalists go weak in the knees upon meeting face-to-face. Newman’s longtime friend and co-star, Robert Redford, certainly qualifies. But of the current generation of stars? We know too much about Tom Cruise. Will Smith? Leonardo DiCaprio? Johnny Depp, maybe – though he’s carved out a path of quirky character roles, despite his leading-man looks.
George Clooney springs to mind, but even he has fought public battles with the paparazzi over the need to respect celebrities’ privacy. Clooney himself seemed to recognize the legacy Newman left in reacting to his death Saturday morning: “He set the bar too high for the rest of us … not just actors, but all of us. He will be greatly missed,” he said – through his publicist.
Larger than life? Sure. But looking back at Newman’s career, which encompassed nearly 60 feature films over the past half-century, it’s the range that leaves an impression. You never forgot you were watching Paul Newman. He was a superstar, after all. He was the draw. But he could fit into a wide variety of parts – unlike some other actors with longevity and stature, who shall remain nameless for these purposes, who have devolved into caricatures of themselves as they’ve aged.
In just a sampling, Newman played:
– A washed-up football player in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958).
– Pool shark “Fast Eddie” Felson in “The Hustler” (1961), the role he would reprise in “The Color of Money” (1986), which, surprisingly, earned him his only Academy Award in 10 nominations.
– A bad-boy cowboy in “Hud” (1963).
– A rebellious prisoner in “Cool Hand Luke” (1967).
– A train robber alongside Redford, iconically, in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969).
– The player-coach of a small-town hockey team in the comedy cult favorite “Slap Shot” (1977).
– A wrongly accused suspect in a rare film that gets journalism right, “Absence of Malice” (1981).
– A cantankerous grandfather in “Nobody’s Fool” (1994).
– A formidable mob boss in “Road to Perdition” (2002).
Newman came up in the Method-acting tradition, a la Brando, but there was never anything obviously studied about him; he made the swagger look natural. And his evolution over the years – from young and dangerous to middle-aged and struggling to older and wiser – constantly carried with it the aura of dignity.
“His powerful eloquence, his consummate sense of craft, so consummate that you didn’t see any sense of effort up there on the screen, set a new standard,” said Martin Scorsese, who directed him in “The Color of Money.”
Newman himself didn’t enjoy talking about acting, and could come off as a bit distant in interviews when asked about it. He did offer some insight to his motivation, however, in 2002:
“I used to make three pictures a year, and now I make a picture every three years. Things change. There have been a lot of good things out there, but they weren’t the kind of pictures that I wanted to make. I didn’t want to do pictures about explosions. I don’t want to do pictures about shattered glass and broken bodies and blood. That just doesn’t interest me.”
Of course, we came to understand what interested him through his off-camera pursuits later in life. His passion came shining through in his love of, and talent for, auto racing. But it’s through his philanthropy – the Newman’s Own Foundation, which has raised more than $250 million for charities worldwide, and the Hole in the Wall Camps for children with life-threatening diseases – that he showed his true heart.
Maybe Paul Newman wasn’t so hard to figure out after all.