Monday, September 29, 2008


Paul Newman has died, and, with him, I think one of the very last of the Sixties rebels of classical Hollywood cinema. Sure, we still have some rebels around (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper and Terence Stamp and Malcolm MacDowell and some others are still kicking, but they're really more of the '70s generation and are generally consistently making shit--check out the trailer for the television version of Crash, starring Hopper, and you'll see what I mean...), but Newman was the last of the truly iconic rebels of film in that period. He was every bit as much to '60s filmmaking what Brando was to the '50s and what Nicholson was to the '70s: and we know all to well what happened to Brando as he aged, and Jack is perfectly content to make crap like The Bucket List, totally complacent with his star persona, leaving us to ask (as his last decent character did), "What if this is as good as it gets?"

Walter Chaw over at Film Freak Central has an excellent appreciation of Newman which isolates what was so great about him as an actor:

Paul Newman’s death is shaking. I was more personally traumatized by the death of Roy Scheider, though, and I think that it has a lot to do with my not understanding Newman until I got a little older and got ahold of Hud and The Hustler and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - all those movies where he played fags and rapists and long-time losers that facilitate their girlfriend’s rape and suicide. Hardly matinee idol stuff, but that was Newman, right? One of the two or three most beautiful people to ever flicker on that luminous scrim and choosing to play assholes and miscreants (Cool Hand Luke, Hombre, and his Lew Archer and on and on and on) – that’s integrity. His films are the tumult and displacement of the sixties; he’s the sixties. Forget about bullshit like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting - Newman was fucking steel, man, the s’truth unfiltered.
Got it nailed for Newman as an actor: I think it even holds for his later work. Even if The Road to Perdition is a little too sanctimonious for its own good, Newman exerts a kind of rakish charm that melds so perfectly with the world-weary cynicism his character embodies.

Great performance, but even greater when we consider that (at least in his public persona) Newman never seemed to succumb to that kind of cynicism himself. As many of his rebellious compatriots of '60s radicalism steadily settled into a compromise with the status quo, we saw as Newman transformed his image as the screen's favorite "assholes and miscreants" into someone who was too world-weary not to try to save the world in some small way (and, seriously, hundreds of millions of dollars donated to charity through his Newman's Own line is not exactly "some small way"). It's the perfect melding of an antiheroic politics of representation with a quietly and casually heroic politics of giving.

Roger Ebert (to whom I'm warming up--I think losing the ability to speak has somehow given him a different and interesting new perspective on how to mourn what the media do in our culture, but that's a different post altogether) writes about Newman as a star persona:

We linger on such moments because movie stars are important to us. They represent an ideal form we are deluded to think exists inside of us. Paul Newman seemed to represent the best of what we could hope for. He was handsome, yes. He had those blue eyes, yes. Helpful in making him a star, but inconsequential to his ultimate achievement. What he expressed above all was grace, and comfort within his own skin. If he had demons, he had faced them and dealt with them. Is this my fantasy? Of course. That's what movie stars represent, our fantasies. His wife, children and grandchildren knew him, and which of us would not hope to receive such a loving tribute after we're gone? ("Our father was a rare symbol of selfless humility, the last to acknowledge what he was doing was special. Intensely private, he quietly succeeded beyond measure in impacting the lives of so many with his generosity.")

What I've written about Newman's transformation across the screen from rebel with a cause to subdued defender of a cause is most certainly a fantasy, one to which I imagine many subscribe. I've grown cynical enough that this has become a very easily-deconstructible thing, but I'll let the last vestiges of my idealism shine through to mourn him a bit and check out some of those movies of his that I never saw (Hombre comes to mind).


Incidentally, I've had a weird instinct to mourn lately in a manner that has never really been a part of my personality until now. David Foster Wallace was a young-ish writer with whose works I never got the chance to acquaint myself while he was alive, and now I'm tearing (slowly) through Infinite Jest.... There's sure to be a post about the work of mourning in culture coming up soon, but for now I have to perform that work myself in a more private manner.

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