Somehow he’d learned how to make the raucousness and clowning, the superannuated-adolescent bravado and sexual energy — the characteristics that had always made him so much fun to watch — part of the character. And once he had accomplished that essential Stanislavskian trick of fishing the role out of himself, he sprung the Stanislavskian paradox: instead of narrowing, his acting range expanded. Through the mid ’90s, Newman gave one sensational performance after another — in Fort Apache, the Bronx, Absence of Malice, The Verdict, The Color of Money, Blaze, Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, Nobody’s Fool — with only a handful of forgettable ones in between, always in movies that weren’t worthy of him. In The Verdict and The Color of Money (Martin Scorsese’s sequel to The Hustler, which finally won Newman his Oscar) he plays resurrected has-beens. Nobody’s Fool is a pleasantly dawdling small-town comedy drama, but Newman’s character is constructed as a series of lessons; with an effortless combo of charm and emotional authenticity, the actor transcends the movie. You might not have imagined him as Louisiana governor Earl Long in Ron Shelton’s Blaze, but somewhere in the middle real feeling comes through the showmanship and you realize he’s made the role his. It’s a much farther stretch for him to reach the repressed upper-middle-class Midwestern hero of Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, but he’s amazing in it — and he and Joanne Woodward are marvelously funny together, just as (but different from what) they were years earlier in The Long Hot Summer.
Asked to choose his finest work, however, I’d go for Fort Apache, the Bronx and Absence of Malice, both from 1981. In the latter he plays Michael Gallagher, a decent liquor wholesaler implicated by a newspaper story as the killer of a union leader; in the former he’s Murphy, a good cop in an embattled precinct who witnesses a racist murder by a fellow officer. There’s no room here to do justice to either of these performances, so let me focus on one scene in each — the best scenes of Newman’s career. In Absence of Malice the reporter (Sally Field) who misrepresented Gallagher attempts to redress the balance by securing an alibi for him from his childhood friend (Melinda Dillon), but the follow-up story publicly humiliates the friend and drives her to suicide. Newman brings all his masculine power to bear on Gallagher’s angry encounter with the reporter, whose behavior he finds unfathomably cruel. In Fort Apache his Murphy romances a heroin-addicted nurse (Rachel Ticotin); her dealer sells her a hot shot and Murphy struggles hopelessly to bring her back to life. It’s a scene of pure anguish — the equal of Brando’s most cataclysmic moments.
By the time he made Twilight for Robert Benton in 1998, Newman’s voice had begun to shrivel, and he was no longer able to be as expressive as he had been just four years earlier for the same filmmaker in Nobody’s Fool. He couldn’t rise to the occasion his last time out, when Fred Schepisi directed him in an HBO version of Richard Russo’s novel Empire Falls (and it was a lousy movie anyway). He did, though, when he played the Stage Manager in a revival of Our Town six years ago — first at the Westport Playhouse (run by Woodward) in Connecticut, then on Broadway and on TV. He wasn’t the best Stage Manager I’ve ever seen; it was a bit of a star turn, and the production, directed by James Naughton, was mediocre. But his presence was wondrous, his wit was intact, and his line readings were often beautiful. I felt fortunate to see him in person, and his returning to the stage after an astonishing Hollywood career was, to my mind, a very big deal. Pauline Kael once called Robert Ryan, who ended his career playing O’Neill and Shakespeare, a most honorable actor. That’s how I think about Paul Newman.