The passing of Paul Newman is a terrible loss for his family, friends and charities, but to the cinema and his fans he had already given more than we ever deserved from one star.
He spent more than 50 of his 83 years performing to the height of his ability for some remarkable directors, in front of many great cameramen and reading from several excellent scripts. One might say he had it easy, that the material he was given to work with was often exceptional, and certainly that can’t be doubted. But he still acted it better than anyone else could have. There were many of his generation who might have played Fast Eddie in The Hustler, but it would not and could not have been the same.
Was it all in his face, that always looked like it tightrope walked between self-confidence and utter shame? Or his voice that had as much power soft and subdued or yelling in anger? Whatever it was that made him so great, it clearly came from the man behind the characters, and what he gave to them, rather than just these characters himself. So many of them seem similar to one another, his charming but unsympathetic rogues for example, and yet not one of them is the same as any other – we have Newman to thank for that.
It is perhaps a shame that it is only when a legend dies that there is a suggest resurgence in interest in their work. No doubt sales, rentals and TV viewings of Newman’s work will quadruple in the weeks ahead. But better now than never, and we should all take this occasion to become reacquainted, or acquainted for the first time, with this remarkably restrained powerhouse of the screen.
I myself have a number of his great films to rewatch, and even more to see for the first time. The Verdict, The Sting, Cool Hand Luke… All will come in time.
It may seem sad that his final screen role should have been in what was in fact a below standard Pixar film, but surely we can imagine that Newman’s passion for racecar driving made it a special treat for him to play the role of a racecar, numbed by age but still fighting on. Newman did likewise, and only his cancer could stop him in the end.
Of all his works, it is Hud that I am now left thinking of, recalling its ending most of all and feeling empathy for the character that I had never thought to before. Newman is gone, and like Hud, for whom everyone he professed to love has died or gone away, we too are left alone. We can’t afford Hud’s fecklessness, but perhaps we can take some inspiration, go inside, grab a beer and sit down to watch an old Newman flick. What could be better than that?