Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dried Tomato Dressing (1925-2008)

Lots of movie stars come to feel like pals to us, after years of seeing them on the big and/or little screen. In a strange way, they become part of our own lives—part of a large mix that also includes our family and friends and acquaintances. That is a side effect of someone having their mug and their emoting thrown up on screens all over the world. But I have to say that Paul Newman is in yet another category. After all, for years I have seen his face almost every day. At least most days that I open my fridge. Yes, Newman’s Own salad dressings can be bought even in the west of Ireland.

If Newman seemed like he had been around forever, those salad dressings also have been around for an awful long time—and he didn’t start that enterprise until he had already had a long and full career as an actor. I have a vivid memory of a Saturday Night Live Weekend Update sketch with Bill Murray (yes, that far back) as the precious film critic character handicapping the upcoming Oscars, predicting that Newman would pick up a statuette “on the strength of his pesto.” The Newman’s Own business says a lot about the man. It grew out of his own passion for making his own salad dressing (he was known to eschew the dressings of restaurants like Chasens and bring the ingredients to make his own at the table), began as a lark and wound up making tons of money for charity—all with Newman doing his best to duck fawning media attention over his good works. His philanthropy reached around the world. There is even one of his Hole in the Wall Gang camps for sick children here in Ireland.

It also says something about him that he took up the sport of race car driving at the age of 47. Such an undertaking had all the potential signs of a Hollywood poseur and/or a midlife crisis. But he took the sport seriously and avoided being a celebrity dilettante, winning the respect of his fellow professionals.

In short, what we saw of Paul Newman in his acting roles and in glimpses of his real life we liked. He was a likeable guy, who had the life we would all like to have. He was accomplished in several areas, was successful, did good works and had a number of passions. He was the quintessential Hollywood liberal, but he wasn’t obnoxious about it. He supported causes that he believed in (he supported The Nation magazine and took pride in being No. 19 on Richard Nixon’s famous enemies list), but it never seemed to be about his own ego, as is so often the case with his younger brethren. He seemed to be the kind of man any guy would want to hang out with and, apparently, any woman would want to be with.

Like everyone else who isn’t completely as old as dirt yet, I have known who Paul Newman is my entire life. But he first really entered my consciousness with George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I don’t know exactly why that movie resonated so strongly with me and with so many people that I knew, but I can make some educated guesses. For one thing, released in 1969, the tale of sympathetic outlaws caught the anti-authority spirit that infused young people at the time. Young people could also identify with the love triangle that was at the center of the story (many of us guys could easily identify with Robert Redford’s longing glances as Katharine Ross rode that bicycle with Newman) and with the coincident tale of male friendship. Indeed, after this movie the very names Butch and Sundance became a resonant and enduring shorthand for male bonding. None of this would have worked so well if Newman and Redford had not been so darned likeable and attractive.

The magic was more or less recreated four years later when the director and two stars reunited for The Sting. But where the earlier film was a sentimental and romantic elegy for a dying age, The Sting was a pure feel-good entertainment, which picked up seven Oscars, including Best Picture. I happened to see it with fellow students at a cinema on the Champs Elysées in Paris and life imitated art when two of my friends found their wallet and camera had literally been stolen out from under them during the movie.

The hard part about discussing Newman’s film career is knowing where to begin, since he had scores of memorable roles over the better part of six decades. He was embarrassed by his big screen debut, The Silver Chalice, a klunky religious drama that mainly required the 29-year-old Newman to look good in a toga—which he did. (The memory of his obvious discomfort in that toga awakens every time I see his mischievous laurel-wearing mug on the bottle of creamy Caesar dressing.) His last movie role did not depend on his appearance at all. Only his voice was required for crusty old Doc Hudson in the computer-animated Cars. It was not necessarily the best swan song for the celebrated actor, but he did give the movie a much-needed dose of warmth and humanity. And, given the car racing theme, it wasn’t the worst way for him to go out either.

In between those two flicks, there were a whole bunch of movies in every genre. He didn’t do a lot of biopics, but he starred in one memorable one (unless you count his turn as Billy the Kid in The Left-Handed Gun), as Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Many of his other movies fall into fairly distinct categories. There was the Tennessee Williams Paul Newman: The Long Hot Summer, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth. There was the blockbuster Paul Newman: Exodus, The Towering Inferno. There was the wise-cracking, twinkle-in-the-eye Paul Newman: Hud, Harper, Cool Hand Luke, The Drowning Pool. There was also the sports movie Paul Newman: Winning, Slap Shot. And there was the silver fox Paul Newman: The Verdict, Nobody’s Fool, Twilight, Where the Money Is. Along the way, he worked with a wide variety of well-known directors, including Alfred Hitchcock (Torn Curtain), Robert Altman (Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson), the Coen Brothers (The Hudsucker Proxy) and Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition).

Somewhat overlooked in all the attention being showered on his life and his acting work is the fact that Newman was also a filmmaker. He made five movies for the big screen. Three of them were showcases for his wife, Joanne Woodward: Rachel, Rachel, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and The Glass Menagerie. And in two of them, he himself starred: Sometimes a Great Notion, based on Ken Kesey’s novel and co-starring Henry Fonda and Lee Remick, and Harry & Son, in which Robby Benson played his son and Woodward had a supporting role. It takes nothing away from Newman to observe that he will always be remembering more for his acting than his directing. Newman and Woodward shared the screen in a number of movies over the years, in films like The Long Hot Summer, Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys!, From the Terrace, Paris Blues, A New Kind of Love, Winning and WUSA. They also both appeared in the 2005 TV miniseries Empire Falls. But their acting collaboration that will always stand out in everyone’s memory will be the 1990 Merchant-Ivory film Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, which examined a marriage and a family in changing times.

There are great actors who have never won an Oscar, and we scratch our head over it. In Paul Newman’s case, we look back on his work and wonder why he won only one for acting. (He also received an honorary award in 1986 and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1994.) He was nominated eight times for Best Actor (first in 1959 for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, last in 1995 for Nobody’s Fool), once for Best Supporting Actor (in 2003 for Road to Perdition) and once as a producer for Best Movie (in 1969 for Rachel, Rachel). His one acting win was for playing Fast Eddie Felson, the pool shark he played opposite Jackie Gleason’s old-timer in The Hustler. But he didn’t win for The Hustler. He won for playing the character again in The Color of Money 25 years later. (And three years after Gleason, in one of those strange twists, took over Newman’s role in the inevitable Sting sequel, opposite Mac Davis in the Redford part.) This time Newman was the old-timer and the hot young punk was Tom Cruise.

It was like a passing of the guard from one Hollywood generation to another. But, quite frankly, it’s a very open question whether any succeeding Hollywood generation will ever see the likes of Paul Newman again.

-S.L., 2 October 2008

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