“You do your work and hope it comes out good” – Paul Newman
We can all agree that birthdays should, in theory, be cheerful days. This year, on 25 May, instead of enjoying my celebratory cake and ice cream, I was feeling Ingmar Bergman-level melancholy. Paul Newman, arguably one of the most deserving Hollywood actors to actually deserve the title of “legend”, announced that he would retire from acting, stating that he no longer could maintain the level of quality he once achieved. The press statement issued by 82-year-old Newman said:
“You start to lose your memory, you start to lose your confidence, you start to lose your invention. So I think that’s pretty much a closed book for me.”
With a career spanning near 60 years, it’s hard to pinpoint the true highlights. Fortunately, though, there are two recently-released special edition DVDs, The Hustler (1961) and The Verdict (1982) that manage to weigh in as two of the master’s most unique, accomplished performances. With 20 years between them, these films are able to show off Newman’s maturity as an artist as well as his personal growth; we see Newman over the course of these discs mature from a cocksure young man into middle-age. At times, it’s hard to remember that it’s the same man playing these two very different characters.
The elder Newman is not afraid to be wholly unsympathetic: He explored the very real and very dark corners of society’s underbelly in his later career in such diverse films as Martin Scorsese’s 1986 sequel to The Hustler and The Color of Money in the role of an uber-grouchy patriarch in Merchant Ivory’s Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990), and again in Sam Mendes’ gangster graphic novel interpretation, The Road to Perdition (2002), where he played a dastardly Irish mob boss.
Newman’s willingness to experiment has always been something worn teasingly on his sleeve. When choosing roles, he had a penchant not only for choosing crowd-pleasers, but also for remaining true to his roots and working with theater-trained playwrights and directors much like his collaborators on The Verdict, David Mamet and Sidney Lumet.
Mamet, of course, is one of the most important American playwrights of our time, while Lumet is the ageless directorial institution who helmed critically successful film adaptations of plays such as
This enthusiasm for and dedication to the traditions of the theater comes across clearly in Newman’s portrayal of alcoholic, broken lawyer Frank Galvin. Despite the many accolades he won for morally ambiguous characterizations in his later career, it was in Lumet’s film adaptation of Barry Reid’s novel The Verdict (1982) that he was given the best chance to flex his Strasberg-toned muscles. The resulting performance stands among his all-time finest.
A sad sack ambulance-chasing lawyer who is not above dropping by the local funeral parlor to pick over the carcasses, Frank is a man caught in the tail-end of a downward spiral, nearing rock bottom. Enjoying a doughnut and a shot of hard liquor as he combs the obituaries (presumably searching for his next quick buck), his hands shake uncontrollably. Instead of picking up his drink, Frank puts his lips around the rim of the glass and knocks it back using only his mouth – his alcoholic tremors are so bad that they render his hands useless until that morning shot of whiskey goes down. This loner is in bad shape, physically and mentally.
His only friend, partner Mickey Morrissey (the late Jack Warden), arranges one last big “money” job for the deteriorating legal eagle, a case that will “set him up” for retirement: the family of a pregnant young woman who was left a vegetable during childbirth (she was given the wrong anesthetic) wants closure. The Catholic Church runs the hospital where the woman was left after the incident of malpractice, and they want an easy transaction with the family, as well.
The hospital and their staff were directly responsible for all of these problems, making them culpable in the eyes of the law. Run like a corporation, the Church isn’t above a little dirty business in order to keep everything quiet: they’ve relocated witnesses and paid hush money to those who might come forward. Like most corporations, though, the Church wants to keep everything as quiet and, cheap as possible, despite being responsible for the egregious injury to the woman and the death of her baby. It would look very bad for the Church if the truth should find its way out to the court of public opinion.
As is the case with most of Lumet’s oeuvre, viewers are treated to generally the same milieu: a sleazy, corrupt big city (this time Boston), an underdog anti-hero that you find yourself unabashedly rooting for as he tangles with the evil bureaucrats and judges on the take. There are many of these clichés scattered throughout the film. It’s a big, old-fashioned genre picture, a paranoid crime thriller, and a buoyant courtroom drama all rolled into one.
What sets the autumnal-hued Verdict apart from a thousand other films like it is not only the blistering central performance of its star, but also a sprawling supporting cast that includes stalwarts like Warden, James Mason (brilliant and predatory as opposing council for the Church), Charlotte Rampling, Milo O’Shea, and Lindsay Crouse. These actors are obviously dedicated to the material, and also dedicated to making the aforementioned genre clichés disappear by endowing each look, each word with gravitas and ambiguity. Lumet is a generous director (as usual), capturing each of his character’s shadings with the expertise he brought to the table with such classic, character-driven films such as Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), and Prince of the City (1981). Each film possessed a larger social issue at the heart, primarily dealing with the battle of the “everyman” against the bureaucracy, and against other corrupt figures in power.
Church officials get wind that Frank had once been accused of tampering with a jury and they begin to bargain with him relentlessly; betting that they can force him into settling for much less than he had anticipated. Frank unexpectedly connects to this family, in particular the comatose woman left to languish on an impersonal hospital bed. The proposition of tackling a meaningful (and profitable) case awakens Frank’s intellect and his sense of competitiveness, and once he realizes that the Church has perpetrated a gargantuan cover-up, Frank decides to go for the jugular.
It is his last case, and he wants to come out with not only money for himself, but also justice for the family and the woman. Frank wants the Church to pay for and acknowledge what they have done. He wants to do it right, with dignity and grace; as if he is trying to gain absolution for wasting his own life. Newman, whose son died of a drug overdose only years prior to this role, plays haunted achingly well. In a scene where the duplicitous Laura (Rampling) attempts to shake his coolness on the night before court, she ends up sending Frank into a fit of panic attacks while he is trying to stay on the wagon. Laura begins to mercilessly drill him on his past, his work, and his mistakes. She cuts to his core after sneaking into his life and his bed, to aid the opposition. This is prime material for any capable performer to play, but the seasoned Newman nails both the character’s icy veneer and his frightened core – in a scene that lasts only two minutes.
While he would go on to receive an honorary Oscar three years after his performance in The Verdict (and he would win the competitive award for Best Actor one year after that), it is his role as Frank Galvin that defines Newman’s middle-aged transition into his senior years. Still sharply handsome in the ’80s, Newman bravely began to show his age around this time. With Frank, he was offered a perfect showcase to display his skill as an actor and bury his often larger-than-life persona and his innate charm and likeability. As Frank, he lives on the edge as a great sort of con man and liar who, against all odds, finds redemption. The performance is both bittersweet and triumphant. And as different from the character as you would imagine Newman to be, the unshakable feeling that this might actually be the closest to Newman’s own personality that cinema has ever gotten permeates.
Even though the menu of the extras disc is dated and cheesy with its silly gavel and scales of justice graphics and an altar boy’s soprano cooing unremittingly in the background, the content is illuminating and comprehensive. There is a bevy of fact-packed, behind-the-scenes documentaries that feature interviews with Newman, producer Richard D. Zanuck (who called this film his “best”), the novel’s author, Reed, and, amazingly, the long-dead Warden and Mason, who were captured during the original film’s shoot.
In one of the bonus features, Paul Newman on the Craft of Acting (shot in 2006), Newman astutely comments that this film is not a “court thing, an attack on the Catholic Church, or hospitals. It’s really the redemption of a human being.” While it is wonderful to get such first-hand knowledge from the actor, one can’t help but feel that this great is giving up all of his mystery in the interest of the future generation’s greater understanding of film acting and technique. It’s great to get to hear Newman’s voice as more of a teacher, an educator, but the lingering sadness that he will never again act remains in the forefront of these interviews with the octogenarian.
Paul Newman and Joe Seneca in The Verdict
He gets into the importance of rehearsal on set: “it sure as hell builds up your confidence. It saves a lot of time and a lot of money. I don’t know why that hasn’t caught on. It’s the only way to shoot a film.” When talking about building performances, Newman insists “I never know where it comes from.” He goes on to say that you can never really credit any single person working on a film with crafting a successful performance; not even the actor. Pieces can come from the actor’s personal experience, the director’s instruction or something completely unrelated. As far as lectures on method go, there are few actors who can explain the intricacies of giving a performance as eloquently as Newman can, and in a small way, he helps debunk many of the myths about acting. Newman reveals the two basic but vital elements of any performance: rehearsal and improvisation.
On another bonus vignette Sidney Lumet on the Craft of Directing, the great director echoes his star’s sentiments:
Characters are paramount. I don’t know how I can analyze how I work with actors. It’s such a complicated, private process between what they are willing to reveal and what I go for. I never will exploit an actor.
Eschewing the auteur theory for pure collaborations, Lumet brings a clear fondness for rehearsal, much like Newman. Reaching “emotional agreements” between cast and director is high on his list of priorities because of his background in the theater and television. Lumet says wistfully that he loved the exploration.
This kind of five-star treatment should be standard with every repackaged DVD. The material is all succinct, packed with information from most of the principles during the making of the film, and a reflection from most of these principles nearly 25 years later. This is all in addition to a brand new transfer and an informative commentary track by Lumet and Newman.
Milestones in Cinema History explores the inspiring pairing of Newman and Mamet. The playwright’s ex-wife Lindsay Crouse recounts the overwhelming sense of importance her husband felt while writing his first screenplay. As a celebrated old hand in the world of the theater, but a tyro in this other medium, the sensitive Mamet shrewdly knew that there would be many knives out regarding his work. He knew that he could make many statements with the film, but many of the people who are interviewed talk about him (though lovingly) as a sort of tyrannical artiste without any sympathy towards a need for the typical Hollywood ending. Zanuck tells a hysterical story about the author giving him the finger and storming out after being teased about the script.
Producer David Brown lists the actors who wanted to play the part, and it reads like a who’s who of Hollywood’s greatest stars: Cary Grant, Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Frank Sinatra, and Robert Redford were all begging for a chance to play Frank, but it was Newman who was everyone’s first choice.
In yet another fulfilling featurette, Hollywood Backstories, the producers talk about another interesting aspect of Newman’s career, (and one that is usually more reserved for women in his profession — in true sexist Hollywood style), his youthful good looks and how he aged onscreen. In “Casting vs. Characterization”, the filmmakers look at Newman’s career in the ’70s, and how his good looks lost him the serious acting jobs he craved and forced him into more popular, crowd-pleasers during this era.
The ’80s proved to be a fertile artistic period for Newman — Absence of Malice (1981) and The Verdict scored him two more Oscar nominations, while the honorary award and then the acting Oscar came to him soon after. His collaboration with Scorsese can be seen as another turning point; where a newfound respect for Newman the actor, rather than Newman the personality, seemed universal. This ’80s renaissance paved the way for a host of interesting ’90s work like broad comedy of The Coen Brother’s The Hudsucker Proxy, and the insular drama of Robert Benton’s Nobody’s Fool; a double whammy in 1994.
No matter how strong the actor’s performances in his middle age and senior years were, this period somehow still pales in comparison to his red-hot streak of critical and artistic achievements in the ’60s. Working back from 1969, it is easy to point out these earlier career highlights: the Best Picture winner Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (his first pairing with co-star Redford); 1968 saw Newman nominated for another Oscar, this time for producing Best Picture nominee Rachel, Rachel — which led his real-life wife Joanne Woodward to a Best Actress nomination, but failed to earn first time director Newman a nod from his peers in that branch. The following years brought such iconic films such as Cool Hand Luke (1967), Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966), Hud (1963), and a reunion with Tennessee Williams opposite Geraldine Page in the film version of the play Sweet Bird of Youth (1962).
It was at the dawn of the decade, in 61’s The Hustler, that Newman first strutted his stuff as cocky, macho alcoholic drifter Fast Eddie Felson – the same character that he would revisit and re-invent, 25 years later in Scorsese’s sequel, The Color of Money.
Returning to the familiar themes of the lonesome loser finding redemption and absolution that saturates his cannon of performances, Newman explores another kind of con man: the pool hustler. With a pearly white, cutting smile, and a lethal charm and confidence, Eddie is a consummate pro with a proclivity for being a bit of a showboat – which is not a good quality to have as a hustler. The pool hall is Eddie’s (and Newman’s) theater, where he gets to “perform” for onlookers.
Judging by the loungey, lite-FM saxophone that pipes through the opening credits (the simple, no-frills kind that they just don’t make anymore); you might get the idea that you’re in for some sort of light-hearted romp through barrooms and the gutter. You would be wrong. The comedy in the piece is certainly there in spots (though it is pitch black), but this is fundamentally a story about losers, a character study about aimless drifters.
Television legend Jackie Gleason gives a remarkably assured, cool performance as Eddie’s nemesis/father figure Minnesota Fats, a seasoned pool shark who exists as a mythical beast in Eddie’s imagination who must be slain in order to move forward. When paired with Gleason, Newman’s character’s childish hubris and cockiness are on full display during a sequence where Eddie and Fats play a liquor-fueled 25-hour marathon tournament. The way Newman breaks the character down is believable and shocking. By the end of the sequence, it is almost painful to watch the broken, wasted Eddie being led out of the hall.
During one of his drunken late nights he encounters the ill-fated Sarah (an excellent Piper Laurie, who also appears in the extras), a disabled alcoholic woman with whom he shares one of his few human moments. Though their relationship is tragic, and doomed from the very beginning, the pair manages to have some great moments of romantic chemistry and even greater moments of misfortune and humanness in their interactions.
The romance between the two characters provides the film with an anchor for these drifters: you get the sense that neither has had a meaningful relationship before and for a fleeting second, there is a distinct feeling of hope that there could be a happy ending for them. Directed boldly by Robert Rossen, the film is starkly original and invokes the gutter and its denizens with a realism that is rarely seen in Hollywood films from this era. The Hustler gave Newman the chance to really show off (it was perfect that Eddie was a complete showboat). This is the role that the actor would often come to be often identified with throughout the rest of his career; one of his most powerful character pieces that was regarded by fans and critics as being one of his strongest.
In an era of relatively reserved American cinema when most actors would be concerned with their images as leading men, Newman was not afraid to experiment and go with his artistic impulses. He felt a kinship with these hard-scrabble men, and even won an Emmy playing another version of a drifter in 2005’s Empire Falls — his last appearance onscreen. Newman gave these seemingly aimless men a relatable voice in a time where this kind of unsympathetic work might have meant the end of a career. He set that bar for himself early on, and consistently raised it throughout his lifetime.
It is this kind of crackling, bold energy that seems present in unfortunately very few leading men of the current cinematic era, and this is why I find Newman’s decision to formally retire from acting bittersweet. He has more than earned some time off after so many daring transformations, but there isn’t really anyone to fill the void he has left in the craft of screen acting.