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Paul Newman, actor

The Hustler (1961): The final game of pool

by Dave Riley

The passing of Paul Newman will surely be met by many orbits and retrospectives. And we'll hear a lot about his political commitments and generosity. But for my way of it, I suggest you go read Gore Vidal on his long time friend, Newman. His memoir, Palimpsest will give you some substance to weigh up against the chorus of fluff.

Unlike Vidal, Paul Newman did not aspire to political critiques and sharp polemic. But the guy could act -- and act in a way that I think is not very well appreciated.

It's almost de rigueur to lionize the rebellious acting style and personas of Marlon Brando and James Dean. Supposedly their approach to acting attained a level of art and emotional intensity that was Hollywood's marker of meaning. But to me these quintessential "method school actors" were so many twitches and poses as though every syllable thought had to be accompanied by meaningful phrasing and body posture.It's as though these films were setups so that actors could indulge themselves (and their egoes) selfishly.

And their films -- especially On the Waterfront and Rebel Without A Cause supposedly pass muster as highly potent social documents.

Perhaps they are -- but frame by frame, for me, they cannot match the depth of meaning and emotion wrought out of just two of Newman's films: The Hustler (1961) and Cool Hand Luke (1967). I could watch these films every year time and time again because they are so powerfully succesful in what they set out to do.

These others -- by Brando and Dean -- to me seem like high quality but indulgent melodramas.

There's this rather standard reading of The Hustler which seeks to celebrate the fight back guts of Newman's character "Fast Eddie" Felson. But the heart of the film and the source of Eddie's redemption is not the game of pool but his relationship with Sarah Packard (played by Piper Laurie ).

Go watch this movie again, now that we are being asked to celebrate Newman's life. Marvel at Piper Laurie's extraordinary performance -- but equally consider how deft is Newman's marriage with the despondency that is drowning Sarah in alcohol and the need he has for her. I don't know of any other relationship on film that has attained the rawness and stark dependencies that Laurie and Newman explore in this brutal love story.*

In the late fifties and early sixties there was a moment in cinema , mainly in England but less so in the Hollywood, where films were allowed to tell it like it is -- or , at least, was -- then.

It's not nice. It may be depressing. But that's what's on offer if you want to survive in this world. In the US -- I think The Hustler is Newman's moment in real life -- without an ounce of smultz to be had anywhere.

Move ahead a few years to 1967 as the mental depression lifted from the collective psyche and protest became possible again -- Cool Hand Luke marks that break out with verve and optimism. This time, it's not the crippled Sarah who is to be the victim, but the story of a man who refuses to be victimized -- despite what may be deployed against him to break him.

In Rebel Without A Cause and On the Waterfront there's very little to hang onto. They are staccato outbursts of anger. Dummy splits. But Newman's two films both carry the promise that it's about never giving up, not surrendering despite the consequences...especially to yourself.

So Newman gave us characters that could always redeem themselves by standing up for what they believed in or at least who'd grab at beliefs when they were within reach. And Luke, Newman's character in Cool Hand Luke , simply had no choice in the matter. That was the essence of all of him.

The irony is that what killed Sarah in The Hustler -- and turned her into a victim while enriching her moral stature -- is confronted head on in Cool Hand Luke but this time, the protagonist refuses to break -- even though in the end it destroys him too. But this time it is the minions of the state who foster the killing -- in the final instance, what oppresses us all is a body of armed men. Our spirit is always ruled by violence or the threat of it.

Go view these films again and watch how comfortably Paul Newman plays the role of a sort of Everyman with guts. He may be a simply gorgeous Everyman -- but that's a big part of the attraction and is partly why we don't notice how beautifully pitched his playing off other actors is orchestrated -- Piper Laurie and Jackie Gleason in The Hustler; George Kennedy in Cool Hand Luke. They are remarkably generous performances on his part. All these others never did better work.

And Newman's like this cement that holds these films together as he is like a empty vessel that carries their spirit forward: so very very human and in the end as strong or as weak as you or I could be. And what invigorates these characters or gave them an edge that inspires or challenges the power and authority of others was a potential that slumbers in all of us.

Thanks Paul.


* There is one however: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's performance in Edward Albee's Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf?



Cool hand Luke (1967): montage


Plastic Jesus from Cool Hand Luke.

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