A Paul Newman appreciation 

Last year my wife was teaching an acting class to teenagers at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. During one class, she mentioned Paul Newman and one student asked, “Who’s Paul Newman?”

After she rattled off some film titles with no response, it was agreed upon by the student body that Newman was the voice of Doc in “Cars” and “the salad dressing guy.” Another moment where one ages instantly.

Paul Newman died Sept. 26, 2008, at the age of 83. There’s so much that can be said about his marriage to Joanne Woodward, his activism, auto racing, charity work and, yes, the salad dressing.

Here’s a breakdown on some of his films. Most of which, I highly recommend.

“The Silver Chalice” (1954) — His first and only biblical epic with Jack Palance. A Golden Turkey Award winner. Newman put out an ad in “Variety” apologizing for the film. Get-drunk-and-watch bad.

“Left Handed Gun” (1958) & “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956) — The former with Newman as Billy the Kid, the latter with Newman as Rocky Graziano. Both signs of an up and coming talent.

“The Long Hot Summer” (1958) — His first film with future wife Joanne Woodward. Sweaty, sly and his baby blue eyes launched a million women.

“Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” (1958) — His coolness as Brick is almost washed over by the constant yammering of Maggie, the overbearing Big Daddy and the evil Sister Woman. This and his film “Sweet Bird of Youth” (1962, with Geraldine Page) make for a fine Tennessee Williams double feature.

“The Hustler” (1961) — A pool hustler who makes a deal with a gambling devil (George C. Scott) while challenging Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Cocky, charming and his best performance to date. Until …

“Hud” (1963) — Rebellious, hell raising cowboy with father issues (Melvyn Douglas) and a taste for Patricia Neal. Good looking, aloof and a cowboy. Later inspiration for Joe Buck in “Midnight Cowboy.”

“Cool Hand Luke” (1967) — Goes to prison for taking the heads off of parking meters. Becomes a symbol of hope long before Shawshank. Eats 50 eggs in an hour, becomes a Christ figure and gets under the skin of Strother Martin (”What we have here is a failure to communicate.”).

“Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid” (1969) and “The Sting” (1973) — His two films co-starring Robert Redford. Both are worth watching anytime, still fun and still the best looking tag team in cinema (sorry, George and Brad).

“Winning” (1969) — Newman’s racing film, partially shot in Indianapolis. Slightly better than “Grand Prix” and far better than Steve McQueen’s “Le Mans.”

“Rachel Rachel” (1968)/”Sometimes A Great Notion” (1971)/”The Effect Of Gamma Rays On Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds” (1972)/”The Shadow Box” (1980)/”Harry & Son” (1984)/”The Glass Menagerie” (1986) — All directed by Paul Newman. The man could actually direct a film. It’s common nowadays for actors to get behind the camera (and so many have no business doing so), but Newman made six intimate films.

“The Towering Inferno” (1974) — Newman and Steve McQueen battle for screen time and paychecks in this bloated disaster film (which was nominated for Best Picture. Huh?). Still a hundred times better than Newman’s other disaster movie (“When Time Runs Out”).

“Buffalo Bill and the Indians” (1976) — His first collaboration with director Robert Altman. Flawed, but still amusing and a hundred times better than their second effort “Quintet” (arguably Altman’s worst film).

“Slap Shot” (1977) — The best hockey film, period. For me, Newman’s most enjoyable performance (almost his best —more on that later) as a player-coach of a bad minor league hockey team. Over thirty years later, the film’s statement about violence in sports is more relevant today. Plus Paul has some snazzy ’70s outfits.

“Absence of Malice” (1981) — Newman was nominated once again as a businessman whose image is abused by an upstart reporter (Sally Field). A must-see for all young journalism students on what not-to-do. Plus the wrath of Newman is pretty frightening.

“The Verdict” (1982) — My favorite Newman performance. A drunken lawyer with one last shot at a big case. Written by David Mamet and directed by Sidney Lumet. In the past, Newman played cocky guys who eventually show their vulnerability (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Hustler,” “Cool Hand Luke”). Frank Galvin was in reverse. Should have won Best Actor, but Ben Kingsley (“Gandhi”) got in the way.

“The Color Of Money” (1986) — Newman finally won Best Actor a year after receiving a career achievement award (which he accepted on the set of this film). Yes, he should have won it sooner. Yes, it’s his weakest of the Oscar nominated roles. Yes, he bested Bob Hoskins (“Mona Lisa”) and Dexter Gordon (“Round Midnight”). This is still a fun film to watch with a good supporting role from a pre-batshit crazy Tom Cruise and snappy directing by Martin Scorsese.

“Blaze” (1989) — Where Newman actually started to look his age. He still scores with Lolita Davidovich. We should all age so gracefully.

“Mr. & Mrs. Bridge” (1990) — Underrated Merchant/Ivory period piece about a conservative WASP family, co-starring Woodward (who was nominated). This film has a special place in my heart because it reminds me of my college roommate’s parents. In the film, the Bridges go to Paris on vacation. One afternoon, they watch a painter on the street. She’s smitten by his work. He asks, “Why don’t these people get jobs? Then they could paint on the weekends.”

“The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994) — I don’t care what anyone says, I like this film. It’s interesting to see Newman play this broad without going over the top.

“Nobody’s Fool” (1994) — Nominated this time as a small town old coot set in his ways. He insults Bruce Willis, punches out Phillip Seymour Hoffman, makes play for Melanie Griffith and Jessica Tandy.
Road To Perdition (2002) – His last live action film, as the evil father of hitman (Tom Hanks) who he eventually puts out a contract on. Also his last nomination — well deserved.

“Cars” (2006) — My daughter’s first introduction to Paul Newman and his last film. Also, apparently, Paul Newman 101 for my wife’s acting students.

I know I failed to mention “Pocket Money,” “Fort Apache The Bronx,” “The Mackintosh Man,” “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean,” “Empire Falls,” “The Torn Curtain,” “Hombre” and “Twilight,” among others.

That (cinematically) is who Paul Newman was, teenage drama students. Now get to the library, video store and find some cable movie channels. You’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

P.S.: He was also 19th on Nixon’s Enemies List. Don’t ask about Nixon.

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