An Appreciation Of Paul Newman

Paul Newman on the set of "Absence of Malice" (1981). Columbia Pictures

"The Sting" is just one of the dozens of films that were graced with a performance by Paul Newman, who died of cancer this past Friday at the age of 83. Anyone who's followed Newman's career has his own favorite memories. Our critic David Edelstein has an appreciation:

Paul Newman is the closest thing we've had in a movie star to a saint - and he'd probably say that was the dumbest thing he'd ever heard, which as far as I'm concerned is more proof.

He was self-deprecating, often self-critical; he never assumed we'd love him because he was, you know, Paul Newman.

When directors built him pedestals, he earned them. He studied Method acting, but never went for fumbly-mumbly self-plumbing. He threw his attention onto other actors - which might be why so many became stars and won awards. Everyone looked brighter in his light.

The light came from those eyes, of course - but it wasn't just their color that had us hypnotized. Two of his most vivid performances were in black and white: the self-loathing pool-hall drifter in "The Hustler," and the mean-drunk, oversexed rancher in "Hud."

Newman didn't use those eyes promiscuously. He hooded them, slit them, closed them in pain. When open, they were sky blue with a milky haze. You could get lost in them; you could also see that he was sometimes lost behind them. Our most wide-open movie star was also our deepest and most unfathomable.

He was so open that we feared for him on-screen, and he was bruised a lot, physically and emotionally. His most famous martyr was the hero of "Cool Hand Luke," a heavy-handed prison movie redeemed by his physical beauty and purity.

One of his best-known roles, in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," exploited that smart-ass delivery, and he was charming. But that's not the performance I want to remember him for.

In the late Seventies, Newman's son Scott died of an accidental overdose. It shattered him. But as an actor, he grew. He pared down his style and hit notes he'd never hit onscreen before - in "Fort Apache, The Bronx," "Absence of Malice" and "The Verdict." His Oscar came for "The Hustler" sequel, "The Color of Money." He was marvelous. But the showboat was director Martin Scorsese, and it has none of its predecessor's power.

Newman tested himself in character parts, but he didn't have great technical range. He wasn't in his element as a patriarch, even when he was very fine, as in "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," a gift to his wife, Joanne Woodward.

The gang boss in the waterlogged "Road to Perdition" didn't tap the best of him.

Newman was unquenchably youthful, always the naughty boy - the joke, I think, behind billing himself "Pa Newman" on cookie packages.

But as a thief in the middling caper movie "Where the Money Is," or the scoundrelly old sponge in "Empire Falls," his spirit is all there.

There is much to say about the hundreds of millions he earned for charity with his Newman's Own; his constant but judicious political activism. Great actors, great artists, they don't have to be role models in life to inspire you with their work. But when they are, they give a special kind of joy.

The character of his life is everywhere in his work, in its lack of self-centeredness, in the way it radiated out. In sad days and sunny ones, Paul Newman bathed the world in blue.
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