Top 10 Paul Newman films
For all intents & purposes Paul Newman was a character actor trapped inside a matinee idol’s good looks. He was a craftsman who worked very hard to make his performances appear effortless, preferring rehearsal time to the actual shooting of scenes. He was a Broadway, then TV star before making it in films & his career was almost sidetracked by several weak scripts early in a contract with Warner Bros. Newman was also a WWII veteran who returned to college on the GI bill & didn’t even begin focusing on acting until his mid-twenties. After a year at Yale’s School of Drama he moved to New York & dedicated himself to perfecting his craft, joining the Actor’s Studio (only after attending an audition with a friend), then over the course of the next 6 years was in the original Broadway productions of Picnic (William Inge), The Desperate Hours (Joseph Hayes) & Sweet Bird of Youth (Tennessee Williams). In 1954 he made his film debut in a sword & sandal dud called The Silver Chalice, a film so bad Newman once paid a local station not to air it. 2 Years later, in Somebody Up There Likes Me (’56), Newman made a splash playing world boxing champion Rocky Graziano. It wasn’t until 4 years after that, with the release of The Long, Hot Summer (’58), however, that the Newman personae & film presence began to take hold. Acting alongside future second wife Joanne Woodward, Newman’s cocky, manipulative & very sexy Ben Quick set the stage for the better part of the next decade of Newman’s career. It was the sparkle in those magic blue eyes that sometimes shone brightly & sometimes grew dark that grounded his performances in an emotional depth that would continue to grow deeper over the course of his 50+ year career.
Newman was nominated for 10 acting Oscars, but won only once, for The Color of Money (’87), in what some say was payback for being passed over for the award playing the same character, Eddie Felson, in Newman’s best film, The Hustler (’62).
The Hustler, released in 1961 through 20th Century Fox, tells the story of a cocky up & coming pool shark out to prove he’s the best, no matter what the cost. Starring Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason & Piper Laurie, The Hustler was originally set up as an independent production by writer/director Robert Rossen. To lure Newman, who was coming off the 1960 box office hit Exodus (#4), Rossen promised him 10% of the profits from the film. Newman’s involvement, however, guaranteed the film’s financing & Fox came aboard, at no small cost to Rossen.
Having directed the classic boxing film Body & Soul (1947) & the political corruption yarn All the King’s Men in 1949, Rossen was no stranger to society’s unseemly underbelly, which made him the perfect director to bring novelist Walter Tevis’ characters to life. Rossen favored shooting his films is black & white & shot most of The Hustler on location in New York pool halls, with both combining to give the film its gritty, seedy feel. To help in editing the pool scenes, black & white Polaroids were taken of the pool balls to help match them from cut to cut. During shooting, producers thought the title would invite confusion in customers, however, thinking the movie might be about prostitution, so they considered changing the title to “Stroke of Luck” or “Sin of Angels” before going back to the novel’s title.
World champion pool player Willie Mosconi was not only the technical advisor on the film, but his hands are often seen in close-ups of Newman’s more difficult shots & appears as Willie the guy who holds the stakes for Eddie’s & Fat’s games. As he was involved on the picture before Newman came onboard, Mosconi had suggested Frank Sinatra for Fast Eddie, but Rossen was already enamored of Newman. Newman admitted that he had never really picked up a pool que before, so Mosconi worked intently with him & Newman was a quick learner, going so far as to move a pool table into he & wife Joanne Woodward’s New York apartment. Gleason was a semi-pro player himself, so his shots in the film are his own.
Gleason was a bit of a shark & a bit of a hustler too & during shooting he challenged Newman to a series of games for $1 each, which Newman proceeded to win. Gleason upped the anty to $100 & cleaned Newman’s clock. Newman paid the bet in pennies. According to Newman’s biographer, several years later Newman was playing pool at a private club in Beverly Hills when a fan approached him & said “I’ve seen The Hustler 3 times & it’s one hell of a movie. I watched you play pool tonight & it’s one of the greatest disappointments of my life.” While apparently not good enough for that fan, Newman was in fact a pretty good player & most of the wide-angle shots were done in limited takes.
Rossen & Newman were both very serious about their work, which led to a tense set. Piper Laurie, who plays Fast Eddie’s love interest Sarah Packard was so intimidated by Newman’s good looks that she could scarcely look him in the eye the first few days on set. She later admitted that once you got over “the movie star” Newman was a hard working & supportive acting partner. George C. Scott, who plays the malevolent Bert Gordon, & acting in only his third film, had already developed a reputation as a difficult actor & Laurie avoided him throughout the shoot, with Scott keeping his distance from the rest of the cast to maintain the icy relations necessary for the part. Gleason, however, couldn’t avoid a bit of a sight gag, so look for the carnation on his overcoat, with another one on his suit jacket just beneath it. When questioned about the visual, he joked that he also had a carnation stapled to his chest.
In 1961 20th Century Fox was going through a creative drought & Cleopatra, not released for another 2 years, was already sucking the financial life out of the studio. With finances constrained, the release of The Hustler was presented in an understated manner, with the premiere in Washington, DC. Newsreel coverage of the event, clearly not understanding the story of the film, focused on the corruption focused congressmen who attended the screening for potential educational opportunities. While reviews were generally strong, it took Richard Burton throwing a screening for the casts of Broadway plays to give the film the positive word of mouth it so badly needed. The Hustler ended 1961 as the 20th highest grossing picture overall & #1 for Fox. When the Academy Award nomination were announced the film garnered 9 total nominations, including Best picture, Best actor for Newman & Best supporting actors for Scott, Gleason & Laurie. Scott famously refused his nomination, calling awards a waste of time. Rossen was nominated for directing & co-screenwriting. The film won just 2 awards, for cinematography & set direction, losing out to 1961’s big winner West Side Story.
Working with Rossen, Newman helped imbue the iconic Fast Eddie Felson with the pathos & confusion of an artist trying to find an expression for his craft. In doing so he introduced one of the most iconic film characters in film history. When Tevis wrote the sequel, The Color of Money in 1984, Newman agreed to recreate the role in his only Academy Award winning performance, with most people believing it was a payback for his original performance. Newman commented at the time that winning the Oscar so late in life “was like chasing a beautiful woman for 80 years, then having her finally relent & you say I’m terribly sorry, but I’m tired.”
Cool Hand Luke was released in 1967 by Warner Bros & stars Paul Newman, Strother Martin & George Kennedy, telling the story of an anti-authoritarian’s struggles on a prison chain gang. The film was originally set up at Columbia Pictures, but they were so dissatisfied with the ending that they dropped out. Warner Bros., who had a tradition dating back to the ‘30’s of having conflicted heroes (Public Enemy (’31) & Little Caesar (’31), to name a couple) stepped in to release the Jalem Productions release. Jack Lemmon, the principal owner of Jalem, had originally considered playing Luke, while also considering Telly Savalas, but Newman asked in, even before the script was written, and was given the part. Director Stuart Rosenberg had discovered Don Pearce’s novel in a .19 book bin & brought it to Jalem. Rosenberg, who had never directed a feature film, and was known for his work in television & Pearce, who had never written a screenplay, made an interesting pair to make a major studio release. Pearce, who had gone from the merchant marines, to safecracking & counterfeiting used some of his real-life experience on a chain gang for the story, but admitted that 1/3 was his life story, 1/3 was invention & 1/3 was pure bullshit.
Production began in Stockton California on a set that had been rendered to look as much like the prison camp Pearce had spent time in as possible. Pearce wasn’t fully sold on Newman as the lead, however, believing the 42-year old was too scrawny to play his hero. Pearce also wasn’t fond of movies folks in general and made a point of starting a fist fight on his last day on the set. The cast was made up of a collection of little-known TV actors & bit players, most of whom would go on to later fame. Harry Dean Stanton, Wayne Rogers & Dennis Hopper all distinguished themselves, but it was really Strother Martin, a TV & western actor & George Kennedy who really stood out. Kennedy famously & successfully campaigned for an Oscar nomination for the part, noting “the moment I won my salary went up 10 times & I didn’t have to play the heavy anymore.” One of the interesting casting choices was the one that didn’t happen. Bette Davis was offered the part of Luke’s mom, but turned it down. The part went to Jo Van Fleet who had also played James Dean’s mother in East of Eden (’55). –(Just one in a string of coincidences that link Dean & Newman).
Newman thoroughly enjoyed his time making the film, particularly the most famous scene in the picture, where he bets that he can eat 50 hard boiled eggs in an hour. According to Newman he never swallowed a single egg. When pressed by an interviewer why he diverged from his method acting roots in authenticity, Newman admitted that realism ends when you have to swallow 50 eggs. He did, however, teach himself to play the banjo in perhaps the most poignant scene in the film. Newman was always bothered by the banjo scene, however, because he repeatedly made the same error in take after take & finally Rosenberg printed & used one of the flawed tunes (Try to find the error, it’s not easy). If the egg scene is the most famous, then the car washing scene is a close second. Filmed out of sequence with the reaction shots that were edited into the scene, Joy Harmon, who played the girl, later claimed that she had no idea of the double entendres throughout the scene. The rest of the cast, however, was able to watch the scene being shot for ‘motivation for their reaction shots.’
Overall, Newman was completely satisfied with the picture, telling a visitor to the set that “there’s a good smell about this” (P.217) & he was right. When the picture was released in November of 1967 it was generally praised by critics, although some thought cinematographer Conrad Hall’s images were to clean & too pretty for the gritty reality of the prison farm. Cool Hand Luke did pretty strong box office, finishing #19 for the year, even though not releasing until November. With such convention shattering films like The Graduate & Bonnie & Clyde released along with social issue films like In the Heat of the Night & Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner all being released in ’67, the Oscars were expected to be tightly contested. Inexplicably, Dr. Doolittle received the 5th Best Picture nomination, instead of Cool Hand Luke. The film did receive 4 total nominations, with Kennedy winning for Supporting Actor, while Newman lost to Rod Stieger’s racist sheriff from In the Heat of the Night. It was Newman’s 4th Best Actor loss without a win.
Without question Luke is one of the 2 or 3 signature rolls that Newman played in his career. His mix is grace, determination, stubbornness, swagger & resiliency resonated with audiences of the late 60’s just as surely as it does today.
Hud (’63) & The Verdict (’82), while released 19 years apart, prove not only Newman’s staying power, but his ability to render morally corrupt characters as somehow sympathetic, with or without a 3rd act redemption. The 2 characters both drink too much, have a general disdain for humanity & a weakness for women that creates issues either personally or professionally, but where the characters diverge is what separated them in my ranking. Newman, at the height of his newly found fame, was willing to inhabit Hud, warts & all, without a shred of irony or a hope of redemption. He is as lonely & hopeless as the conclusion of the film as he was at the beginning. The Verdict’s 3rd act redemption is well played and certainly in line with the character’s backstory, but it’s too clean. Only his treatment of Laura (Charlotte Rampling) gives hope that the man has changed, not just the lawyer. It’s splitting hairs, I know, but for me the commitment to the miserable Hud is greater for all its faults and that elevates the performance & the film just that little bit.
Hud, based on the novel Horseman, Pass By, the first book published by Larry McMurtry (The Last Picture Show ’71) tells the story of the dysfunctional Bannon family as they deal with a years ago tragedy & the existential threat to their Texas cattle farm. It’s yet another example of the common storyline for Newman of a battle for acceptance from a domineering, or in this case a disappointed, father. The simple title itself is a tribute to the power of Newman’s personae, but producers toyed with titles like Wild Desire, Hud Bannon Against the World & Coitus on Horseback (McMurtry’s suggestion), before settling on the single syllable & promotional elements focusing on Newman’s virility. Paramount, the studio that put up more than $2,000,000 for production, were more concerned with the remorseless bastard at the center of the story than the title, asking after an initial script readthrough “when does he get nice?” only to be rebuffed by Newman & director Martin Ritt with a simple & emphatic “Never!” Exteriors were shot in the near desolate town of Claude, Texas, but the real action was at the hotel in Amarillo, Texas, about 30 miles away. Newman created near riotous conditions for local police with women mobbing the hotel day & night. Interiors, shot back on the Paramount lot in LA, were uneventful & far more peaceful. When the film opened, however, in the spring of 1963, critics were effusive in their praise for Newman & co-stars Patricia Neal, Melvyn Douglas & Brandon De Wilde, as well as Cinematographer James Wong Howe’s desolate black & white landscapes. Noted film critic Pauline Kael wrote a long piece for Film Quarterly favorably comparing the film to Casablanca (’42) & On the Waterfront (’54). Newman’s biographer, Shawn Levy, noted that the star, director Ritt & the producers were surprised that their film, which they intended to be an indictment of a certain type of man, turned into a box office hit, drawing people, especially young people, who saw Hud as a role model of individuality. Film fans & critics weren’t the only one who enjoyed Hud. Oscar voters gave the film 7 nominations, including Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor (Douglas), Best Supporting Actress (O’Neil), Best Director & Best Cinematography. Similar to Cool Hand Luke, the film did not receive a Best Picture nomination, but Douglas & O’Neil both won in the supporting categories & Wong Howe won for his camerawork.
A generation & 2 Oscar losses later, Newman created Frank Galvin, an alcoholic attorney down to his last client in The Verdict. Just like Hud, Galvin is not a likeable character, but there is still a soul behind those captivating blue eyes. Newman was nearly 20 years older than when he played Hud & there are miles in the lines on his face & his Frank Galvin appears to be beaten, until a friend drops a case in his lap, a lifeline. Sydney Lumet directed from a script by David Mamet. Lumet & producers Richard Zanuck & David Brown (Driving Miss Daisy ’89 & Jaws ’75) threw out Mamet’s script, however, frustrated that it had no ending…the jury walks out after the closing argument & no verdict is passed down. Frank Sinatra was the first choice for the role, but he turned it down. Robert Redford then circled the project, but he was interested in softening some of Galvin’s rougher edges. A team of writers was brought in to accommodate Redford, but in the end, Lumet insisted he’d only work with Mamet’s script, which was good enough for Newman, who noted “It’s a relief to have an unprotected character to play. The guy’s an open wound. As the curtain rises, he is face down in a urinal. Sensational” (P. 346). Lumet, having had his start in live TV, preferred long rehearsal periods, but as they approached filming Newman & Lumet weren’t on the same page with his performance. When Newman finally was able to get the part finalized he credited all the things he was doing outside of acting (his food company & car racing to name a few) as having given him the passion to evolve as an actor.
Newman’s portrayal of closeted bi-sexual Brick Pollitt, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (’58), was part of a trilogy of Southern Gothic characters that captured his ability to play fragile, yet charismatic underachievers. Along with the earlier Long, Hot Summer (’58) & 1962’s Sweet Bird of Youth, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof showed Newman at his vulnerable best. Crushed by the suicide of his best friend/idol/lover Skipper, Brick has the combined weight of his family’s expectations & the oppressive nature of his wife’s love/desire literally destroying him. Newman’s method acting background is perhaps nowhere better served than in his Oscar nominated performance because the weight of the character’s struggles is evident in every movement, every gesture & every breadth Brick takes. Because Elizabeth Taylor loathed rehearsal, never giving a full performance until the cameras rolled, Newman was forced draw out his character with little reflective response from his co-star. Once the cameras rolled, however, the chemistry between the two was palpable & helped make Cat a box office & critical success, netting 6 Oscar nominations, including both Newman & Taylor.
In all 3 Southern Gothics, however, it is his relationship with a father figure that is at the core of his character’s angst & drives him to either retreat (Cat on Tin Roof) within himself or flail about for acceptance (Long Hot & Sweet Bird). Big Daddy looms large in both physical & emotional stature for Brick, but surrogate fathers, both the fathers of Newman’s love interests, loom just as big in The Long, Hot Summer & Sweet Bird of Youth & echo a great number of Newman characters that are out to prove their worth in the eyes of a paternal character. Ben Quick, In Long, Hot Summer, struggles to overcome his family’s legacy, while wooing the daughter of town scion Will Varner, played by scene chewing Orson Welles. The palpable eagerness & emotional drive drip from Newman as he longs to prove his worth, while at the same time ignorant of how Varner is playing him against his own son. The mix of sure-footed cockiness & needy insecurity is played beautifully be Newman in a scene in Varner’s store with Joanne Woodward, Varner’s daughter. He seduces her with sexual images, figiting with her sweater, while moving ever closer & finally kissing her. “Ok, now you know I’m human,” she stammers. “Oh, you’re human,” he retorts just before she slaps him. The scene is a wonderful mix of verbal jousting & seduction, tied to a awakening physical intimacy that both actors perform to perfection. It’s as the same time casual & erotic & alone marks the film as one of Newman’s best.
Sweet Bird of Youth, on the other hand, wallows in failed dreams, sexual exploitation & a haze of drugs & booze. Newman’s Chance Wayne is a wanna be actor, reduced to a gigolo-like existence, in a last ditch attempt to marry Heavenly Finley (Shirley Knight), the daughter of Boss Findley (Ed Begley). As Newman plays Chance, a role he originated on Broadway, as ¾ desperation & ¼ hope as he schemes & dreams of a life so very different than what he’s reminded of every minute that he shares the hotel suite with Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page), a near washed up movie actress. It’s a performance that is mixed with a manic nature that comes from desperation, but Newman infuses it with a simple hope that is finally dashed with heartbreaking news.
Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (’69) is rousing mash up of western mythology, buddy picture camaraderie & just enough humor to not take itself too seriously. Newman had survived the 60’s with his youthful appeal still intact as an icon for multiple generations, and caps the decade with another wisecracking anti-hero, in the vein of Cool Hand Luke, that solidified his reputation as an all-time great. His partnership with Robert Redford almost never happened, however, because the film was originally to pair Newman with fellow icon Steve McQueen. When a dispute over who’s name would come first, and with Newman playing Sundance, McQueen walked. In fact, screenwriter William Goldman originally wrote the story with Jack Lemmon as Butch opposite Newman as the younger Sundance, but Lemmon never seriously considered the part. Once director George Roy Hill came aboard, he insisted on Redford, then known primarily for a couple of romantic leads (Barefoot in the Park-‘67 & This Property is Condemmed-’66). If not for the approval of 20th Century Fox Studio head Richard Zanuck one of the greatest screen pairings in history may not have come about (Zanuck was ousted as Studio chief a year later). Newman’s performance as Butch is a quiet one, letting the banter between he & Sundance carry the action, never moving very much & always balancing the comedy with the inevitable tragedy of the story.
Zanuck clearly learned from his pairing of Newman & Redford because 4 years later, as an independent producer, he brought them back together, for the last time in The Sting (’73). Newman again plays the more grizzled partner, but this time it’s mixed with a melancholy of a life mis-spent. His Henry Gondorff has a weariness that Newman carries on his shoulders, but the twinkle clearly returns once the caper is on. The Sting is a crowd pleasing classic, but Newman’s performance is secondary & of all the films on this list it’s the one that least impresses me. It’s great in totality, but only as the sum of its parts, not because of any one thing.
I placed From the Terrace (’60) as the last entry on the list, but I could have just as easily included The Young Philadelphians (’59), Harper (’66), Hombre (’67) or The Color of Money (’86). What I liked about From the Terrace is that it has at its roots evidence of Newman’s theatrical beginnings, while at the same time foreshadowing performances that were still to come. It has the Newman staple plot point of trying to impress a disapproving father figure, just as Newman felt he needed to do in his own life (his father died before Newman was famous & always believed Paul was directionless), while also showing the charm, the persistence & the singlemindedness that Newman’s acting reflected. He truly was a character actor trapped in a leading man’s body. That Newman’s David Eaton allowed him to dim those sparkling eyes to show sadness, disappointment & disillusion, traits that all showed the depth of his ability. It’s nowhere near a perfect film & frankly probably not as strong a film as those mentioned above, but it crystalizes in an early performance the greatness of what is to come from Newman. The fact that it also features another opportunity for Newman & Woodward to fall in love on screen adds to its ranking, however.
Paul Newman should to be mentioned in the top half of the top 10 all-time great movie stars, but his body of work truly reflects a workmanlike attention to detail that had its roots in his Actors Theatre training in the Method style. In many films he can be seen grinding away at a character, embodying men like himself and men quite different, but he was always inside them. His Top 10 doesn’t do justice to the totality of his career, but it is reflective of what made him great.
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