Great movie actors have an elusive, hard to define quality called screen presence. It is not just a matter of beauty, although beauty helps. Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn and the mature Joan Crawford, none of them great beauties, had screen presence. Hedy Lamarr, called by some the most beautiful woman of the last century, wasn't much of a screen presence. (These actresses flourished back when Hollywood made movies for adults. Today Hollywood is a factory for making comic book movies, and actresses too old to play the action hero's sex kitten struggle to find work.)
Paul Newman had screen presence as much as anyone ever has. He was the ultimate movie star, although he had contempt for Hollywood and chose to live back east. I remember him reading a letter from a fan of his food products that said toward the end, "My wife tells me you are also an actor." The writer went on to wish him luck in his acting career. Newman carried the letter in his wallet to keep his Hollywood fame in perspective. He was not one to believe his press agent's PR.
Newman also said once that every audition he went to in the '50s, he would see James Dean coming out the door with the part. (How would like to be a mere mortal actor back then competing against Paul Newman and James Dean?)
I'm conflicted about Paul Newman because, though he a brilliant actor, he represents the rise of naturalism in Hollywood in the '60s. I'll never forget how startling and original Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was in 1969. Early in the movie there's a scene in which Butch (played by Newman) is arguing with this big guy in his gang. It looks like the scene is heading toward a fist fight -- standard stuff in westerns. Then Newman kicks the big guy in the balls. The fight is over before it begins. My 12-year old self could not believe what I was seeing. He kicked him in the balls!
If the kick in the balls seems like a cliche now, it is only because William Goldman's screenplay is one of the most influential scripts of all time. Before this movie, good guys did not kick their enemy in the balls. Cowboys were heroic and noble; they had a code of ethics.
This brash, rule-breaking naturalism was fresh and unexpected in 1969. However, I do not think it has been good for American culture since then. Naturalism works like a literary Gresham's Law: bad heroes drive good heroes out of the culture. Just as in our value-deprived culture there are young people today who have no idea of what a beautiful melody in popular music would sound like (because they don't listen to Radio Dismuke), so the young have never seen a hero who is good, noble, moral and intelligent. Instead, they get psychotic Dark Knights and mystics with lightsabers.
The essence of Newman's career is described:
Newman gave strong performances and appeared in important movies in each of the decades he worked. Still, it's the two indelible title roles from the early 1960s -- paradigms of what came to be called "antiheroes" -- that throw the longest shadows. In "The Hustler" he played "Fast Eddie" Felson, a cocksure pool player come from the West Coast to New York City to challenge the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Eddie has talent to burn but not yet the "character" to avoid snatching defeat from victory. The drama -- which takes on Faustian overtones via an enigmatic gambler (George C. Scott) who diagnoses Eddie as a "born loser"-- ends on a note of bleak triumph, but only after exacting a terrible cost from Eddie and those who loved him.
No matter how brash, rash, or sulky Eddie Felson became, he still compelled sympathy. "Hud" is a portrait of "an unprincipled man," a "cold-blooded bastard" who "doesn't give a damn" about anybody or anything. Up to a point, this was not an unheard-of challenge for an avowedly serious actor, especially one with cred from Yale School of Drama, the Actors Studio, and performing in original Broadway productions of plays by Tennessee Williams and William Inge. But "Hud," and Hud, went beyond. Surely there'd be a turning, some piercing blow or epiphany to show Homer Bannon's unloved second son the way to "character"? No. Nothing reformed Hud. His character was what it was. And he remained true to it even as he casually slammed the ranchhouse door in our collective face. The End.
So Hud compelled scant sympathy. But he could charm the dew off the grass, and certainly the audience. And despite the film's firm denunciations of Hud and his heartlessness and materialism, that was at bottom OK. Because as the tagline on billboards assured us: "Paul Newman IS Hud."
He could play antiheroes because he was so damned likable on screen. You couldn't believe a face that noble was really bad inside. With Hoffman, Pacino, De Niro, Malkovich and the rest you can believe it because there is nothing heroic in these faces.
Paul Newman can hardly be blamed for acting in the movies of his time. He brought glamour to movies like the overrated Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler and Cool Hand Luke and the more tightly plotted The Sting. It would have been nice to see him as Don Carlos or Hernani or Jean Valjean or Cyrano. Could he have played a hero of great moral stature? I think he might have risen to the occasion. Maybe not: he might have dragged these heroes down to his level of comfort because, after a lifetime of acting flawed antiheroes, he was no longer capable of playing a moral giant.