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Jewish World Review
Oct. 3, 2008
/ 4 Tishrei 5769
The image and reality meshed
He was the idol of women, the model for men. As public a figure as could be he was a movie star, after all he nevertheless retained his privacy, even his dignity. Talented actor, subtle director, successful producer, he also proved a first-rate businessman, innovative philanthropist, and, oh yes, racecar driver. (Fifth place at Daytona, 1977; second place, Le Mans, 1979.)
He was a political activist, too, but one that label scarcely fits, for he was neither Barbra Streisand shrill nor Barney Frank cute. He had too much innate dignity, and just sense, for that kind of role. As an actor, he'd learned to pick only ones that suited him.
Ladies' man on the screen, he maintained a beautiful, 50-year marriage and partnership with a lady of sense and sensibility. His eloquent if colloquial comment on the joys of marital fidelity, made in an interview with Playboy of all periodicals, has earned a place in the world's wisdom literature: "I have steak at home; why go out for hamburger?" An observation that, Lord forgive me, is a lot more convincing than the Seventh Commandment.
He's even got his picture on my favorite salad dressing, a simple but unmatchable oil-and-vinegar-plus called Newman's Own. At last report, his company (all profits go to charity) had distributed $250 million to good causes.
His striking features and lithe form were enough to assure him good roles early in his career, but they might also obscure his talent; those Windex-blue eyes outshone everything else about him. He once imagined his own epitaph: "Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown."
Was there nothing Paul Newman couldn't do, and do well? And he did it, most impressive of all, without exciting the least twinge of envy. For he was that rarity: the image and the reality meshed. A character actor with character. As the ever quotable film critic Pauline Kael once wrote, "no one should ever be asked not to like Paul Newman."
In this age, the movies have become what novels used to be a guide to style, a model to follow and Paul Newman made the perfect anti-hero. That holds whether your favorite performance of his, depending on your age or taste or just whimsy, turns out to be in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "The Hustler," "Cool Hand Luke" or "The Sting." I have a friend of adventuresome bent who quotes lines from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" with a reverence and joy others devote to Scripture.
If I had to choose a favorite, it would be "Hud," maybe because Newman was so touchingly young and animal and, yes, beautiful. (It wouldn't do to call the young Newman just handsome.) And because in it he's together with other rare talents like Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas. But mainly because the movie is an elegy for an old Texas that had just about ceased to exist by the time it was made.
Paul Newman was perhaps best acting in worlds that had passed and could never be again. "Hud" wouldn't have been the same movie in color. "The Last Picture Show" has the same painfully beautiful black-and-white effect, only more so. I can't bear to watch it any more.
A close runner-up on my list of favorites is his portrayal of the washed-up shyster in "The Verdict." And "Absence of Malice" should be required viewing in journalism courses as a cautionary tale. He would prove even more mesmerizing as an old man than a young one. In whatever scene, he appeared, it was hard impossible to take your eyes off him.
He was fascinating most of all in interviews, when he played himself. You waited on every word, and even more so on the silences between. That's when he was playing, shaping, deliberating his self, and what it would be.
By the end of a graceful life after an uneven start, overcome by cancer at 83, he was far beyond any honors his craft could heap upon him. By then it was he who honored the awards. Besides, he'd already gotten an award better than any gimcrack Oscar; he'd made Richard Nixon's enemies' list by supporting Clean Gene McCarthy's starry-eyed presidential campaign. Which was just like him.
Long after the literary critic Lionel Trilling supposedly demonstrated the limits and pitfalls of "The Liberal Imagination," Paul Newman redeemed it, not just on the screen but in life.
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