Monday, September 29, 2008

A Fond Farewell to an Ingratiating Hero and Legend

I gained my first exposure to the man who would become my favorite male movie star early in my film-going years. Disaster movies were the rage in the early 1970’s, and The Towering Inferno was the biggest hit of them all, and therefore a must-see Christmas attraction for my family. There wasn’t much of a chance for the performers to upstage the blazing skyscraper, although I took note of the handsome, charismatic man who shared a tryst with Faye Dunaway before heroically trying to save Jennifer Jones, Bobby Brady, and the rest of the star-studded cast trapped in that high-rise fire. Over the next thirty-odd years, I had the pleasure of following Paul Newman’s endearing, enduring career, both as a modern movie star and as one of the best actors during a Golden Era for movies, from 1955-1970. When I heard of his death this weekend, I reflected on his remarkably rewarding life and career, and felt a bigger loss than I ever have upon learning of a movie star’s passing.

It was easy to relate to Newman. Although he was one of the best-looking men ever to grace a silver screen or anyplace else, and his movie-star glamour definitely added appeal to all the memorable heros and anti-heroes Newman portrayed, one always sensed the decent, regular guy from Shaker Heights who existed beneath the Greek God exterior. Newman lived a life that was anything but ordinary, but he remained a normal and down-to-earth person throughout the phenomenal string of successes he obtained, both on screen and off. His talent and durable connection with audiences allowed Newman to remain a powerful force in the movie industry for nearly fifty years, and this incredible staying power with the public is unmatched by any other actor I can think of.

Newman served his acting apprenticeship during the early-to-mid 1950’s doing live television, before he gained his big break costarring on Broadway in Picnic. While working on Picnic, he met and fell in love with the young Joanne Woodward, which led to a satisfying professional collaboration (The Long, Hot Summer, Rachel, Rachel, Mr. And Mrs. Bridge) and an amazing fifty-year marriage. His success in the William Inge hit also help garnered him a major role in The Silver Chalice, a film so despised by Newman that he once famously took out an ad before a television showing of the film apologizing for his involvement in the picture. During his first years as a star he was frequently labeled in looks and manner as a second-string Marlon Brando. However, viewing Newman’s work alongside formidable costars Frank Sinatra and Eva Marie Saint in the 1955 Producer’s Showcase televised musical production of Our Town reveals the sensitive nature and thoughtful acting unique to Newman’s persona was there from the beginning. Newman had another big success on television as “The Battler,” then broke through on the big screen with his warm, funny, and moving portrayal of boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me. It was all gravy (and salad dressing) after that for Newman as he built an astounding list of major film credits, in the process becoming the movie’s #1 Box-Office draw by the end of the 1960’s, after scoring in Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Certainly no other classic movie star whose career I obsessively reviewed on video once VCRs came into play in the 1980’s was also enjoying current success in the manner of Newman. At about the same time I wanted to throw a brick through the T.V. when Newman lost the 1982 Best Actor Oscar, I was discovering his Brick for the first time via an iconic, Oscar-nominated teaming with Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I could enjoy possibly Newman’s finest work in The Hustler, then be overjoyed a year or two later after a reprise of Fast Eddie Felson finally put a competitive Academy Award on his mantle (the Academy honored Newman with a Lifetime Achievement prize a year prior to his win for Best Actor). On the “classic” front, I completed screenings of Newman’s top-tier performances as Ben Quick, Hud Bannon and Luke Jackson, then moved on to viewing some enjoyable secondary titles in his catalog (Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!, The Young Philadelphians, and From the Terrace among them), while Newman was concurrently racking up new hits and awards as Nobody’s Fool, The Road to Perdition, and Cars marked an impressive twilight to a legendary career.

It has been a pleasure over the years to spend so much of my time as an avid movie buff watching the imposing gallery of portraits Paul Newman created onscreen. His fine work in a slew of entertaining films has left such an impression on me that, although I never met Mr. Newman (the closest I came was obtaining an autographed photo after sending a fan letter to him) I, along with millions of others, feel I’ve just lost someone very close to me. However, I’m grateful that due to the timelessness of film, I can still pass many hours transfixed by the work of a true class act and actor, Mr. Paul Newman. Rest in peace, dear, kind sir.


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