Tuesday, September 30, 2008


I never met Paul Newman. Never read a bio or followed any of his off-screen adventures. To be honest, I've probably only seen about half of his movies. And yet his passing this week brought back a flood of memories and a deep sense of loss.

Of course, I wasn't alone in that. Front page obits were everywhere, including apparently the state newspapers in Iran and North Korea -- places that don't have time for much that's American, let alone something as out of step in those societies as a Hollywood star.

That got me wondering just what it is that connects us with someone we've never known who's usually pretending to be someone who doesn't exist.

I have snippets of memory that recall Paul Newman's first movie, "The Silver Chalice", but I was too young way back then to know who its stars were and most likely saw it at a drive-in dressed in my Roy Rogers PJ's and was asleep in the back seat of my parents' car long before the final credits rolled.

He was on the periphery of my awareness through the early 60's, starring in movies like "Hud" and "The Hustler" that I couldn't see back then because they were restricted and wouldn't see in an uncut form until VHS tape arrived.

I probably saw "Left Handed Gun" and thought it was a too-talky western. "Exodus" might have registered, but my Mom was reading the book when the movie came out and it looked long and important. "Paris Blues", "A New Kind of Love", "What A Way To Go" -- has ANYBODY seen those?

I liked "Harper" but mostly because I was into detective stories. Although the opening scene of down-at-the-heels Private Eye Lew Harper making morning coffee with yesterday's grounds still resonates every time I need to figure out how to establish a character immediately and wordlessly.

My high school steady and I broke up waiting in the line to see "Cool Hand Luke". I'd already bought the tickets and her brother was coming to pick us up after, so we decided to see the movie anyway. By any measure of Teen angst and alienation, the pain of that night should be the stronger memory. But it isn't.

Any number of film critics have reasoned theories on what made Paul Newman a star, from his looks to his talent, grace and intelligence. I really don't know anything about all that. But I do know seeing "Cool Hand Luke" had a profound effect on me.

Newman's "Lucas Jackson" taught me that no matter how much you beat a man up, it's up to him whether he's also beaten down. And while most people remember the line, "What we got here is failure to communicate." the one that stayed with me was "Callin' it your job don't make it right."

When you're 17 and searching for both a path and a mentor, lessons like those stick and you start looking for whatever else the guy has to say. But having an actor for a sensei is tough. He's got to make a living doing less significant things and writers like "Cool Hand Luke" scribes Don Pearce and Frank Pierson don't get to pick their leading men the next time they hit creative paydirt.

So I suffered through "The Secret War of Harry Frigg" and "Winning" before William Goldman's inspired muse melded with Newman in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid". And once again the message was "Never Quit" and "Listen to your Heart". Does that get any clearer than, "I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals"?

Oh yeah -- and remember, while kicking against the pricks, that there's always time to laugh and laughing in the face of death is the best laugh of them all.

Maybe it's unkind to speak ill of him right now, but Paul Newman made a lot of really crappy movies. "WUSA", "Sometimes a Great Notion", "The MacKintosh Man". But then along would come "The Sting", "The Drowning Pool" or "The Verdict" to remind you of his overarching message, "Never Give Up. Never Give In."

Much as he deserved the ultimate acknowledgement of his talent many times over, winning the Oscar for "The Color of Money" still feels like a cheesy Hollywood make-up move to me, almost on a par with Al Pacino's sorry-we've-kept-fucking-with-you win for "The Scent of A Woman".

Those Academy guys. How come so many people who are supposedly in the business of knowing creativity so seldom recognize it? How hard is it to see what audiences have so clearly embraced with their hearts as well as their wallets?

And don't even get me started on the most perfect portrayal of a hockey player ever captured on film. If you are a Canadian male, every quip, wicked gesture and warped plan of Reggie Dunlop in "Slap Shot" is indelibly engraved.

The outpouring of affection for Paul Newman isn't just out of respect for a great actor and philanthropist. It's for someone who, through his work and the artists he associated with, kept reminding us all that the things you hope for can be achieved simply by not letting the powers arraigned against you succeed.

Next to Lucas Jackson, Newman's most powerful performance was as lawyer Frank Galvin in Sidney Lumet's "The Verdict" particularly in this segment of David Mamet's script as he sums up an almost unwinnable case to a jury:

"You know, so much of the time we're just lost. We say, "Please, God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true." And there is no justice: the rich win, the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time, we become dead... a little dead. We think of ourselves as victims... and we become victims. We become... we become weak. We doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs. We doubt our institutions. And we doubt the law. But today you are the law. You ARE the law. Not some book... not the lawyers... not a marble statue... or the trappings of the court. See those are just symbols of our desire to be just. They are... they are, in fact, a prayer: a fervent and a frightened prayer. In my religion, they say, "Act as if ye had faith... and faith will be given to you." IF... if we are to have faith in justice, we need only to believe in ourselves. And ACT with justice. See, I believe there is justice in our hearts..."

It's moments like that which forever make a place for a guy like Paul Newman in your heart; no matter if you're from Iran or North Korea or just some kid from Saskatchewan.

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