While many celebrities seem to believe that even bad publicity is a good thing, clamoring at all moments for the narcissistic illumination of the spotlight, Paul Newman often preferred to keep to the shadows, emerging only to talk up a project he was supporting or, just as often, diverting that light to his philanthropic activities.
And while the combination of famous people and charitable impulses can be disastrous — remember Paris Hilton’s efforts to go to Darfur? — Newman quietly raised over $200 million with his successful line of salad dressings, lemonades, cookies and other foodstuffs.
From his Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for gravely ill children to the Scott Newman Foundation for the prevention of drug abuse (named for his son, who died of an overdose) to his public stance against nuclear weapons to his support of liberal politicians from Eugene McCarthy to Ned Lamont, Paul Newman cannily used his fame to support the causes that were important to him.
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He was also, it bears noting, one hell of an actor.
While the 1950s are thought of as the decade of Marlon Brando and James Dean, Newman was just as much a product of the Actor’s Studio and its Stanislavsky-influenced Method acting style. Despite his matinee-idol looks, Newman was drawn to conflicted characters in screen adaptations of Tennessee Williams (“Sweet Bird of Youth” as well as “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” where he had to help the audience make sense of Brick despite the censor’s removal of all references to the character’s homosexuality), William Faulkner (“The Long, Hot Summer”) and Larry McMurtry (“Hud”).
Granted, as Newman was often the first to admit, his promising screen career was nearly nipped in the bud with the infamously awful 1954 Bible epic “The Silver Chalice,” about which he famously noted, “I used to put the picture down, but to have the honor of being in the worst picture of the ’50s and surviving is no mean feat.”
A career of infinite variety
Surviving can be counted as one of Newman’s many talents — in a business so often cruel to actors, particularly ones whose good looks send moviegoers into a frenzy, he remained a strong screen presence over the course of six decades, capping off a brilliant career with 2002’s “The Road to Perdition,” the 2005 HBO movie “Empire Falls” and a vocal turn as a wise old Hudson Hornet in the animated “Cars.” Until Newman actually announced his retirement from the screen in 2007 at the age of 82, most of his fans probably assumed his career would never end.
It was a career that offered infinite variety. How many actors could survive two Irwin Allen disaster epics (“The Towering Inferno” and “When Time Ran Out”) and then proceed to one of David Mamet’s greatest screenplays (“The Verdict”)?
What other screen career encompassed collaborations with Otto Preminger (“Exodus”), Robert Altman (“Buffalo Bill and the Indians”) and the Coen brothers (“The Hudsucker Proxy”)? Who else got to pitch woo with Elizabeth Taylor (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”), Shirley MacLaine (“What a Way to Go!”), Julie Andrews (“Torn Curtain”), Sally Field (“Absence of Malice”) and, of course, his frequent collaborator and second wife Joanne Woodward? (The two starred opposite each other in a dozen movies and telefilms, and he directed her indelible performance as Amanda Wingfield in an underrated 1987 screen version of “The Glass Menagerie.”)
What was the secret to Newman’s longevity? The fact that he always took the work seriously without ever doing the same to himself probably helped. A quick scan of his notable quotes at Wikipedia reveals one hilariously self-deprecating proclamation after another, such as “I wasn’t driven to acting by any inner compulsion. I was running away from the sporting goods business,” and “The embarrassing thing is that my salad dressing is out-grossing my films.”
Perhaps his side interests in directing theater and racing cars made him seem all the more like a screen legend — it’s the ones who could leave the business at any time who seem to get the most respect.
‘Like chasing a beautiful woman’
If any adulation that was due him seemed to come late, it was the elusive Academy Award; Newman was nominated for best actor six times (for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Hustler,” “Hud,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Absence of Malice” and “The Verdict”) without winning, although he did receive an honorary Oscar in 1986. One year later, he finally won the prize for reprising his “Fast Eddie” Felson character from “The Hustler” in 1987’s Martin Scorsese–directed “The Color of Money.” (In his acceptance speech, Newman said, “It’s like chasing a beautiful woman for 80 years. Finally, she relents, and you say, ‘I am terribly sorry. I’m tired.’”) He would go on to snag one more best supporting actor nomination (for “Road to Perdition”) along with a thoroughly-deserved Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his philanthropy.
Looking over the career of Paul Newman is like watching a microcosm of American life and American cinema, from the post-World War II Freudian underpinnings of “The Left-Handed Gun” (where he played probably the screen’s most psychologically tortured Billy the Kid) to the legend-busting irony of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” to the post-Vietnam historical cynicism of “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” to the then-shocking profanity of “Slap Shot.”
While some of his less successful films — “WUSA,” “Fat Man and Little Boy” — attempted to overtly tackle political issues, it was in quieter works like “Nobody’s Fool” (where Newman gives one of his greatest performances as an irascible old man seeking to repair his dysfunctional relationship with his son and grandson) where the actor most successfully connected with his generation’s triumphs and losses.
Both in terms of his extraordinary talents and his reticence to use his fame for anything but the good of others, they just don’t make them like Paul Newman anymore.