Paul Newman, who died last weekend at the age of 83, was that rarest of creatures, a movie star who turned himself into a great actor. He emerged in the early ’50s, a time when young hopefuls were intoxicated by the Method approach to acting and live television had just begun to provide an exciting new venue for performers who were already scurrying between movies and the stage. Newman worked in all three. He played the rich boy who loses the girl in the original Broadway production of Picnic. On TV he was George opposite Eva Marie Saint in a musical adaptation of Our Town and Hemingway’s punch-drunk boxer Ad Francis in “The Battler.” His early performances were undeniably Methody — they were eager, searching, still unformed, and you could see the influence of Brando and James Dean like footprints on wet clay. It’s that youthful tentativeness and self-consciousness that make his Billy the Kid in Arthur Penn’s 1958 The Left Handed Gun so affecting — and so much an artifact of its era.
But it wasn’t Newman’s bid to be a genuine actor that made him a movie star. It was a mix of other qualities: the improbable handsome face and form; the immense, breakaway smile that promised sexual availability and freedom; the insouciance; the always surprising vulnerability — the way his face could melt under the effect of betrayal or heartbreak. Audiences went crazy for him in movies like The Long Hot Summer (where he played sexy-funny love scenes with his real-life wife, Joanne Woodward) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (where it took two hours for Elizabeth Taylor to get him into bed), humid Southern melodramas out of Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. And not because his acting was skillful or profound but because he was an all-American dreamboat who took the camera by force like Clark Gable. Even in the best of the movies he made in his first decade of stardom, The Hustler (for Robert Rossen) and Hud (for The Long Hot Summer’s director, Martin Ritt), both superb early-’60s showcases for his incomparable appeal, his acting takes second place to other elements — freshness and ebullience and sexy humor, and of course those looks. The difference between the two performances, shot merely two years apart, is that by Hud he isn’t working as hard: as the womanizing Texas bad boy in the pink Cadillac whose worshipful nephew (Brandon de Wilde) can grow up only by learning not to follow in his footsteps, Newman never breaks a sweat.
Except for the comic early scenes in the 1967 prison picture Cool Hand Luke, Newman seemed to adopt Hud’s carelessness as a work ethic for the remainder of the decade. His movies, mostly comedies, were terrible and he didn’t do much in them. He widened his fan base when he co-starred with Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but for all the fondness many people have for it, it’s a thin-blooded hip-nihilistic Western and Newman doesn’t do any acting in it. (Their bookend movie, The Sting, which reunited them with director George Roy Hill four years later, was even worse.) Except for his offbeat work for John Huston in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and for Robert Altman in Buffalo Bill and the Indians — experiments that didn’t quite come off but showed sides of Newman no one had glimpsed before — he didn’t appear to take his acting seriously until in another male-bonding comedy for Hill, Slap Shot, he gave his first completely lived-in performance as hockey player/coach Reggie Dunlap. It was Newman’s breakthrough — at 52 years of age.
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.