The Rest of the World Wears Bifocals

May 30, 2007

A story broke yesterday that sent my stomach for a flip (although it could have been all the eyes that I bit – it was one of those days). Paul Newman essentially announced his retirement from acting.

Some info regarding Mr. Newman’s announcement can be found here, courtesy of The Movie Blog, courtesy of Good Morning America. The gist of it, though: Paul is finally, at 82, feeling old.

At first I was sad. I wanted to see that rumored “one more picture” (it would have been a picture, not a movie) that Mr. Newman and the one and only Robert Redford had discussed doing, if the right script came along. That rumor eventually spawned a title, hinting that a script might have been found, but I forget what that title was and now I don’t care.

At this point I should explain that I have been mentally preparing myself for Paul Newman’s umm…retirement…for about three years now. I know he’s been “old” for longer than that – but he’s just not a man you believe will…retire. That should illustrate just how much Paul Newman’s very living-breathing existence means to me on a day-to-night-to-day-to-night basis. To take it one step further: this is almost exactly how I feel about my grandfather.

Look (see! put on ya bifocals!) ibiteyoureyes has never denied it – he’s a throwback when it comes to books, movies…American culture. And that’s not a grammatical error, I often feel like I am actually connected to such older materials, and, thus (thus on the bus Gus) consider myself a part of said (here lies Fred, he is dead) “throwback” movies, books, culture. This is why my favorite poem is Miniver Cheevy. Not even a great poem – but it’s all I got.

Except I also have Paul. Many of us have Paul. And now, he’s retiring. Because he’s tired. Because he’s old. And I don’t blame him. It’s an unsurprisingly class move. And not many people in the modern era have even been in the position to make such a move.

I’m sure the articles will start soon. “Paul’s hung em’ (boots, pistols, cue sticks, etc) up. He’s tired. I love Paul. Here’s a list of all his movies, along with a few thinly veiled self-serving lines about why I, [insert name of writer] loved them.”

And you know what? That’s fine.

I will not bite their eyes. Because movies, books, acting performances are not put out there for writers, critics, dogs, cats, anyone, to chew on for awhile before striving at an objective opinion. Paul Newman was Paul Newman for a few simple reasons:

  1. His talent. God-given, or chaos-driven, or whatever sinks your submarine.
  2. His eyes and their stare.
  3. His voice.
  4. That elusive, indefinable, magnetic quality that surrounds both him and you in such a way as to draw something greater out of life, for one scene, for one second, for one moment, as it’s presented by Newman in its raw emotional form.

Maybe that last one isn’t as simple. In fact, I know it isn’t. If it were, Newman’s efforts might have been duplicated. If you ask me, Paul Newman took items one through three on that list, and did his best, for fifty years, to mix them up, whenever possible, to create item four. He did something that few actors can do period, something that, if you ask me, few actors will even have the opportunity to do, moving forward, and that is this:

Paul Newman managed to become a legitimate icon without ever acknowledging this status – though of course he knew of it, took advantage of it, used it to feed the fight that must have gone on inside him just like it would anyone else. You see your first “classic” Paul Newman movie, and then you watch another, and another, and somehow, every time, he accomplishes his goals, and in such a way as to immerse you completely in his character, while at the same time keeping you cognizant of the fact that you are watching Paul Newman act.

And that’s really all I feel like pointing out. Except that I want everyone who reads this, be it five, ten, (a million!) people, if they have never seen one of his performances, to watch just one Newman flick, or, if they have seen some, to watch more, or to watch those that I feel are the best. So, with no further a-doo-doo, here’s my subjective list of the best Newman movies that I have seen. Haven’t seen them all. I am saving a few…though I think I’ve hit most of the best titles already:

  1. The Hustler. My personal favorite. The writing is fantastic, Newman is tops, Piper Laurie (female lead) is excellent, George C. Scott plays the main antagonist, the direction supports all of the aforementioned in near-perfect fashion. Other major strengths of this film include its expert use of silence (observation credited to -Ham-her-scold) the overall deliberate, careful construction of the film (my screenwriting professor in college claims that movies like The Hustler just won’t get bankrolled anymore – not really true, but I get his point, and it’s almost true), and a high level of rewatchability.
  2. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Everybody else’s favorite. That’s not necessarily true either, however this is one of those films that leaves you hard-pressed to find any serious detractors. Plenty of attention has been paid to this film, and rightly so, and I don’t have to say much more. I once spent twenty pages trying to explain how Butch and Sundance was the archetypal film for an entire sub-genre, and I mostly failed, because this film, much like Newman himself, encapsulates more life themes than you realize, and in such ways that you can’t tag them with words.
  3. Cool Hand Luke. I’m going to open a debate, if I can, with this one. I need to know if women like this movie, and if they do, I need to hear why. Many of Paul Newman’s films appear to cater to men, and while I’m not sure I’d go too far with that, Cool Hand Luke is the one that makes me wonder the most. I have met women who love this movie, and, to tell you the truth, they ain’t the sort who walk around in anything more than jeans and a t-shirt at any times other than special occasions. And I’m not saying that’s only a manly quality – I’m asking if it is…or was, or if I’m just getting caught up on a historical fact that’s causing an artistic bias. The point: this film is primarily about pride. It’s an exploration of the redemptive and/or revolutionary power of pride – both the goods and the bads of it. Story revolves around a chain gang in the south. So, if you is woman and you love Luke, help me round out my opinions on this. Regardless, a powerful, iconic performance by Newman. Many would call this Newman’s defining role, and they may be right. But as close as I was to saying it myself…I can’t. Not with The Hustler’s Eddie Felson in the way. It’s a stalemate, and a great one to tangle with.
  4. The Verdict. My most common observation about this one has more to do with the writing than Paul’s (great) performance. The writing is very good, and I don’t really like the writer, Mr. David Mamet. The reason why I believe this one is good: Mamet stays out of his own way in The Verdict, and let’s the writing alone instead of burdening it with an over-stylization of his own style. I don’t know the history of this project – maybe he knew that Paul Newman was involved, and that you don’t ask Paul Newman to deliver certain lines. Probably that’s just what I want to think. Either way, a great Newman performance, particularly because it’s one of those situations where, here and there, you can see the actor translating some of what he’s experiencing as a natural consequence of getting older, in his performance of an older character. Kind of like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon 4, except, like, good.
  5. Hud. Paul Newman playing the anti-hero. That’s the appeal of this one. As pointed out by Ryan Stewart on Cinematical, Hud is gaining more attention as time goes on. My guess as to why: younger generations who “find Newman” may be more willing to see him playing “the bad guy” than those who grew up idolizing him based on earlier performances. This is a shaky idea at best. More likely, it’s just that the film needed time because it represents a largely uncomfortable experience overall. This is not to say that Cool Hand Luke, or The Hustler, or The Verdict make you feel like you’re wrapped up in puppies, but with Hud, Newman does something that he can’t really do with his characters in any of the aforementioned – at least, not to the extent to which he does this in Hud: he says and does morally questionable things that you can’t help but empathize with. And he leaves you wondering about morality period. Hud is something like a Western-Noir. Powerful film.
  6. The Color of Money. Few directors could have gotten away with making a sequel to The Hustler, and, lucky for all of us, one of them was tapped to make this film. For anyone who doesn’t already know, I’m talking about Martin Scorcese. This film does not survive as well as some of the others on the list, maybe due only to its strictly-80’s set and wardrobe design. Strong performances by Tom Cruise and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonionioionono are set immediately up against Newman, who provides a very good update to the Eddie Felson character. While Scorcese is definitely present in the direction, and while the overall quality of the film is probably due just as much to his reputation for working well with actors and his cinemtography, I can’t help but feel that this film still shouldn’t have been made. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to wonder if maybe Scorcese made it so that no one else would. But I can wonder until I am blue in the face. And then I should breathe. Before I die. It says a lot about The Hustler that a very good sequel just didn’t quite take me all the way along for the ride. That being said…The Color of Money does something that those movies below this list cannot do. It gives you more Eddie Felson.
  7. The Sting. Fun flick. Re-teams Newman with Redford. Less substance than some of the others on this list, but the drama is there when it needs to be, and the peformances of both men mirror the life perspectives of their respective (elective! subjective!) characters. The name of the mirror: Wised-up.
  8. Nobody’s Fool. Probably the most subtle acting job on this list. The story is good, actors in the supporting roles do a good job as well. But Newman carries the film, and carries it slowly, easily. If you haven’t already seen it, watch this one on a Sunday afternoon, and feel good about it.
  9. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. I have trouble thinking about plays-that-turn-into-movies, so I’m not going to try it this time. Usually, I thoroughly enjoy them. This film is no exception. I enjoyed Long Days Journey Into Night quite a bit more. But I feel personally attached to that script and Sidney Lumet was involved in that one. The great thing about Cat On A Hot Tin Roof: two beautiful people playing characters that fight all-out, against each other and in defense of their own wounded pride/egotism (pridegotism). Spectacular writing (Tenessee Williams…) sharp performances by the three leads.
  10. Road to Perdition. I’m going to point to Ryan Stewart again, because he’s right: this movie is underrated. But notice that I called it a movie. Could just be a coincidence, but one reason why I may have written “movie,” instead of film…this is one of those…umm…moving picture entertainments…that does a good, quality job in entertaining an audience. It also makes you think, but it doesn’t make you think much. Road to Perdition is one of those neo-noirs that chooses to explore more of the “black and white” end of the moral spectrum than the “everything is gray” end. This is not to say that the movie doesn’t try hard enough, that is just how this particular story proceeds.
  11. Hombre. [DIGRESSION:] This one made me lament the career trajectory of Elmore Leonard, because (I think) he wrote Hombre earlier in his career, and its script offers a much cleaner, much more honest representation of his writing as compared to (most of) his later works. These later pieces, even when they are good, tend to favor style over substance, even when you can see the substance trying to peek out from under the writing. Raymond Chandler, an undeniable Leonard influence, said it best (poorly paraphrased) : “Your man shouldn’t crack-wise all the time, or when the person he is cracking wise to expects it. What makes your man’s wise-crack effective is that he knows exactly when to say the right thing, when to crack-wise in such a way as to put a dent in the exterior that the other is putting up.” Another quote from my screenwriting professor: “You’re dialogue should crack like gunfire.” Leonard’s dialogue certainly comes at you like gunfire most of the time, but it’s more like the scattered, machine-gun fire that you’d see in an action movie. It may still hit you, but only through frequency and volume. [: END DIGRESSION]. This film accomplishes a similar feat as The Hustler, in that it utilizes silence towards great positive effects. Unlike The Hustler, however, more of this silence depends on Newman’s intepretation only – since Hombre takes place out-of-doors, and not in shadowy pool halls. It’s also fun to watch Newman play a less amiable “cowboy” than he did as Butch.
  12. The Hudsucker Proxy. This film means well, and is enjoyable, but overall it just didn’t grab me. Possibly, it’s just not my type of film. To tell you the truth, I can’t remember much about Newman’s performance.

4 Responses to “The Rest of the World Wears Bifocals”

  1. dailysalad Says:

    wow, what a long and heartfelt post. score one for the eyebiter.

  2. i liked this post, sir. I think his performace in Empire Falls also may fall (HAHA) in his top 5 performances, though he is not the star, so it’s hard to call it a Paul Newma movie (even though it is very much his film).

  3. Paul Newman is the star in every film he’s been in, it’s only whether he was the leading man or not that changes.

  4. For me Paul Newman never put in a bad performance and I have to say The Verdict should have been his Oscar winner and instead he got it for The Colour of Money – where Newman’s performance although good was not one of his best and the whole film was dragged down to mediocrity by Cruise’s over-the-top theatricals. His performances in Hud and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were pure testosterone fuelled brilliance. For me Absence of Malice is another great Newman performance, with one of my all time favourite finales. But for me Nobody’s Fool is my favourite, it says all that we need to know about what it means to be decent human beings.

    Get well soon Paul.

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