Saturday, October 4, 2008

Farewell to an Icon

When Jamie Foxx appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in October of 2004, he recalled his experience shooting Collateral earlier that year. Though Foxx had worked with big name stars like Will Smith and Al Pacino before, working alongside Tom Cruise was no less daunting. While filming a particularly difficult scene, Cruise sensed that Foxx was getting down on himself and took him aside. "Don't worry about getting it right the first time," he said. "If you feel an instinct, follow through on it. If it works, we'll keep it. If not, try again. Just trust yourself and go for it." As soon as he heard those words, Jamie's tension left him and he found what Dustin Hoffman calls the rhythm of the character. Hit by a thunderbolt of inspiration, Foxx got out of his own way and amazed everyone else on the set with the dynamics he brought to every take.

At the end of this breakthrough shooting day, Foxx approached Cruise and thanked him for the advice. Curious, he asked Cruise why he thought to extend him such consideration. Smiling fondly, Cruise replied, "About 20 years ago, Paul Newman told me the same thing while we were making The Color of Money. One day, you're going to work with an actor who needs a little help. When you do, remember to pass it on."

It is a testament to Paul Newman's generosity that the tradition has stuck. Newman died at the age of 83 on September 26th at his home in Westport, Connecticut, after a valiant battle with lung cancer. He leaves a legacy of more than 50 films and paramount contributions to the theater, politics, and charity.

After Navy service in World War II, he studied economics at Kenyon College before switching his academic emphasis to speech. Summer stock performances followed, and after completing drama studies at Yale, he auditioned for and was accepted to the training ground for the finest acting talent of his generation, the Actors Studio. Success on Broadway followed, and it wasn't long before he pointed his career west to Hollywood.

His film debut came with 1954's The Silver Chalice, a poorly received costume drama based on Thomas B. Costain's novel. Ashamed of his performance, Newman would go on to call the film "the worst motion picture produced during the 1950s". (He later took out a full-page ad in The Los Angeles Times apologizing for appearing in the film when it was broadcast on television in 1966.) He quickly established himself as a formidable leading man, however, in Somebody Up There Likes Me, a biopic based on the life of middleweight boxing champion Rocky Graziano.

In 1958, he earned his first of nine competitive acting Oscar nominations for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Cast opposite a radiant Elizabeth Taylor in a solid production of Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Newman brought a brooding intensity, smoldering sexuality, and emotional electricity to his role as the alcoholic former football star Brick Pollitt. Though the screenwriters were forced to tone down some of the controversial elements of Williams' play -- mainly, Brick's homosexuality -- Newman etched a portrayal that stands alongside Brando's best work as Method acting at its finest.

A second Oscar nomination came in 1961 for his fine-tuned work as the scheming pool shark Eddie Felson in The Hustler. On a hot streak, Newman became one of the most in-demand actors of the day, appearing in such hits as Exodus, Paris Blues, and Sweet Bird of Youth. The success continued with his most critically praised performance up to that time in Hud. The story of a callous, womanizing son of a Texas cattle rancher adapted from Larry McMurtry's novel Horseman, Pass By brought him his third Oscar nomination in five years.

Then in 1967, Newman gave what many consider the finest performance of his career in Cool Hand Luke. Portraying a World War II veteran sentenced to hard labor on a chain gang, he solidified his screen persona as the consummate antihero and won a new generation of fans with the classic line of dialogue, "What we've got here is a failure to communicate." It was that most inspired class of acting, that which sees the actor completely vanishing within the character. The role would bring him a fourth Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

1968 found Newman venturing behind the camera for the first of five time with Rachel, Rachel. Working from an adaptation of Margaret Laurence's novel -- and with wife Joanne Woodward in the lead role -- Newman lovingly brought the story of a 35-year-old schoolteacher living with her mother to the screen. Critics were unanimous in their praise of Newman's first outing behind the camera. Though he was honored by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association with a Golden Globe for Best Director, he fell short of a directing nomination with the Academy but did snag a nod for producing. Woodward was also nominated for Best Actress, but neither won.

After appearing in Hombre, Winning (the film responsible for his love of auto racing), and The Secret of Harry Frigg, Newman found his biggest commercial success -- along with the beginning of a fruitful collaboration and treasured friendship with Robert Redford -- in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969. Like Bonnie and Clyde before it, the picture painted a sympathetic portrait of two legendary outlaws as a timely statement against the establishment. Due to the beautiful location photography, the catchy contemporary music, and the unbeatable chemistry between the two leads, the film went on to gross over $100 million worldwide and earned nine Academy Award nominations, four of which resulted in wins. Though Newman was overlooked, his performance as the idealistic Butch Cassidy remains a quintessential entry in his canon.

The 1970s saw Newman on a commercial hot streak with him taking roles in such box office hits as The Towering Inferno, The Drowning Pool (a reprise of his private eye role in Harper), Slap Shot, and The Sting, his second and final collaboration with Redford. The hugely popular story of two con artists caught up in a high-stakes card game in Depression era Chicago won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture of 1973. Though Newman again found himself omitted from the Best Actor shortlist, his status as a major star continued to grow.

After earning a fifth Academy Award nomination for playing a wrongly investigated liquor distributor in Absence of Malice, Newman found the perfect career transitional role in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict. Playing an alcoholic Boston attorney whose best years are behind him, Newman gave what many critics consider the finest performance of his career in a riveting story of personal and professional redemption. Come awards season, he found himself in the running for the Best Actor prize for the sixth time, but lost to Ben Kingsley for Gandhi.

Then in 1986, 25 years after he first played Eddie Felson, Newman returned to the screen as the fast-talking pool pro in The Color of Money. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film dovetailed seamlessly with The Hustler, thanks to a streetwise screenplay by Richard Price and the wise casting of Tom Cruise as a rising star on the billiards circuit. Though critical reception to the film was mixed, Newman's performance was singled out as the shining centerpiece of a mediocre production. The Academy agreed, and after receiving a lucky seventh nomination for Best Actor, Paul finally won his overdue trophy. He later admitted that he'd stopped caring about winning an Oscar, comparing the effort to spending years pursuing a beautiful woman. Joking to the press, he quipped, "Finally, she relents and you say, 'I'm terribly sorry. I'm tired.'"

Performances in Fat Man and Little Boy and Blaze (both 1989) followed, as well as a surprisingly out-of-canvas turn as the starchy patriarch in Merchant and Ivory's adaptation of Mr. & Mrs. Bridge. Though overshadowed by wife and costar Woodward, he brought a stern restraint to his work that was unlike anything he had ever revealed before. Four years later, he teamed with Robert Benton for Nobody's Fool, a masterfully drawn character study about a man who has made a lifetime of bad decisions. In the leading role of Sully Sullivan, Newman rendered a textbook definition of acting subtlety and earned his ninth Academy Award nomination in the process.

Maintaining a steady work load in his seventies, he turned in solid work in the mediocre vehicles Twilight, Message in a Bottle, and Where the Money Is before snagging a plum supporting role opposite Tom Hanks in 2002's Road to Perdition. As elderly Depression era crime boss John Rooney, Newman blended the fiery passion of his early work with the restraint of age for a consummate final screen appearance. For his efforts, he received his tenth Oscar nomination.

With his last film behind him, Newman brought his career to a dignified close with television work: playing the stage manager in Our Town for Showtime in 2003 and portraying Ed Harris' cantankerous father in Empire Falls for HBO in 2005, winning the Emmy for the latter. The following year, he provided the voice of Doc Hudson in the Disney Pixar animated feature Cars.

When visited from beginning to end, Paul Newman's career resembles a museum of classic paintings. His approach was refined and artful. Though he never made staggering physical transformations like Robert De Niro's in Raging Bull, the way he embodied his characters is unquestionable. When sitting for his 1994 chat with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, Newman said, "For me, acting is like drudging through a river." Like a master in any arena, he never let the effort show.

In spite of his love of acting, Newman made his proudest accomplishment not for celebrity but for charity. In 1982, he launched Newman's Own, a food company that has raised over $250,000,000 for humanitarian causes. The endeavor began when a friend complimented him on his homemade salad dressing being good enough to sell. (As an aside, the best-kept secret of Italian-American households is that Newman's Own spaghetti sauce finds a home in every pantry. Under any other cirumstances, stocking pasta products bearing a non-Italian's name would be a sin, but in the case of an honorary paisan like Paul Newman, an exception must be made. Who can resist that smiling face on the label?) In a 2005 interview with AARP magazine, Newman expressed more pride in his charity work than in his acting. "I hope the [Hole in the Wall Gang] camps last longer than the films."

In his personal life, Newman enjoyed a 50-year marriage to Joanne Woodward. The couple had three daughters, Lissy, Nell, and Clea. He also had two daughters, Stephanie and Susan, from his first marriage to Jackie Witte. His son, Scott, died of a drug overdose in 1978. In keeping with his resilient manner, he converted his grief into giving by starting a drug center in his name.

Paul Newman was much more than an actor. A contributor in every respect, he dedicated his life to being the best in every field he explored. He made his mark and the world is a better place because of it. To honor Newman's wishes, keep his dream alive by making a donation to The Hole in the Wall Gang today.

There is no choice of words, no matter how carefully assembled, that could justly summate the greatness of Paul Newman's career. Instead, here is a moment from the film responsible for what I consider his best performance. This scene gets me every time I watch it.