Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Newman Crush

I couldn't help but love Paul Newman. I loved his politics and humanitarianism, never cared much for his salad dressing or tomato sauce, but as an actor he was almost beyond reproach. He was one of the most compelling screen personalities of his generation, the type of presence that would captivate you from the moment his character was introduced in the dozens of films he made. On screen he was the type of man you wanted to be - seductive and cool, smart and worldly. In movies like "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", "Cool Hand Luke" and "Hud", he personified the anti-hero, long before it became a cinematic cliche. Whether playing a criminal, washed up hockey player, drunk lawyer, pool hustler, or cowboy, you sensed he was right - the world was corrupt and oppressive and his existential dilemna was an unwillingness to comply with the dishonesty and corruption around him. You respected his cynicism as the product of the rugged individualist, not that of a crusty underachiever. He was part of the generation of American actors who perfected a new,natural style that could reflect insecurity and volatility, tenderness and ambivalence.

Paul Newman was born in 1925, more than a generation before my friends and I. Despite the gap in age he was a role model - the kind of person we wanted to emulate during invented battles on the playground, and the man we hoped to become when we stumbled into puberty and its pleasurable and playful offshoot-dating. I loved his portrayal of a man struggling with his sexuality and failure to live up to his potential in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof". Despite the sexual chemistry between his character and Elizabeth Taylor's it was clear he was confused - and portraying "confused" in 1957 Hollywood and anesthetized America was not easy. Fifty years later it is also hard to say goodbye - recent photos of him looking ill in public were difficult for his fans to reconcile with. We wanted his blue eyes and sly grin to endure forever, luring criminals into jail and beautiful women into bed. Hopefully, despite the instantaneous and disposable celebrity of contemporary popular culture, it will.

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