The first thing you think upon hearing the news is “But Paul Newman isn’t someone who can die.” Whatever species he belonged to, he of the aquamarine gaze-blazers and the Roman-coin profile, it couldn’t have been a mortal one. The space he invited viewers into was a kind of hyperlife, a state of sharpened attention and heightened vibrancy; if Paul Newman was in it, it was a Paul Newman movie, regardless of the size of his role.
His best roles were the ones that acknowledged that quality of being not superhuman, but somehow extra human. When he played a sour, bitter, reduced man, like the crippled and closeted Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the fit wasn’t right. He could be a bastard, like the unrepentant prodigal son in Hud, but it had to be a bastard who inhabited his body fully and joyously. (Has anyone on-screen ever reveled in the brute pleasure of being young as completely as Hud Bannon?) And when he combined that potent physicality with out-and-out sweetness—when he goofed around on a bicycle for Katharine Ross in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for example—well, forget it. You’d do anything for the guy.
There are so many different ways of framing Newman’s 50-plus year career: You could trace the passage from his early, Actors Studio-trained muscularity to the almost Buddhist subtlety of his late style, or the way he used his aging body as an instrument to explore a whole new type of role, like the frail alcoholic lawyer in The Verdict (1982).
But the theme that kept recurring as I revisited Newman’s films—an inappropriate theme, perhaps, given the circumstances—was his sexuality. Not so much Newman as an object of sexual desire, though God knows he made a worthy one, but as its subject. From his earliest leading-man roles to his late character studies (and even in parts that, unlike Hud, weren’t explicitly priapic), Newman played characters whose desire lived close to the surface. He related to other actors by coveting them, teasing them, or seducing them, which is another reason, perhaps, that his Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof feels airless. In secret mourning for his dead male friend (and hampered by the Hays production code that muffled the explicit gayness of the character), Brick had no one on-screen to desire.
In this clip from The Left-Handed Gun (1958), an odd little existential Western scripted by Gore Vidal and directed by then-newcomer Arthur Penn, Newman plays a tormented, half-bright Billy the Kid in the Stanislavski-influenced vein that led some to dismiss him as a Brando copycat. Here, Billy burns his own death notice (mistakenly published in a sensational broadsheet), declares his resurrection to a smoldering Mexican senorita (Lita Milan), and has his way with her in a barn. It’s true that Newman was still feeling his way toward a mature style, but what’s remarkable about this scene is the way he makes Billy’s rage inseparable from his lust.
Four years later, in Hud, Newman had relaxed into his own physical power. He didn’t need to project overt brutishness in order to hint at the menace behind his charm. In this scene, the irresistible-yet-loathsome Hud tries to seduce the housekeeper who works on his father’s farm (a never-better Patricia Neal, who won an Oscar for the role). In a brutal scene later in the film, he will attempt to rape her—a threat that already seems imminent in the way Newman nibbles at that daisy. (Can you imagine Marlon Brando nibbling a daisy?)
The Long, Hot Summer (1958) marks the first time Newman played opposite the woman who would become his wife of 50 years, Joanne Woodward. Widely acclaimed on its release, the movie feels dated and florid now, largely because of the unfortunate casting of a supremely uncomfortable-looking Orson Welles as the paterfamilias of a decaying Southern family. (The movie was loosely based on Faulkner’s Snopes family stories.) Still, its mood of erotic languor remains captivating, and watching Woodward and Newman fall in love before your eyes is positively electric.
The two had met years earlier during a Broadway production of Picnic, but because Newman was married at the time, they kept away from each other until the filming of The Long, Hot Summer. (Since Newman’s first wife had not yet officially granted a divorce, they had to be discreet about their affair. In an interview in the DVD extras for the film, a much-older Woodward fondly recalls that “there were a lot of hotel rooms,” as Newman, sitting by her side, demurs, “Maybe they don’t need to know about that.”) Here, Newman, as drifter Ben Quick, and Woodward, as prim schoolteacher Clara, finally acknowledge their slow-burning attraction to one another. The two actors seem almost amused by the way the dialogue resonates with their real-life involvement. It’s as if you can hear them thinking, I can’t wait to get you off this set.
This last clip is also from a movie Newman made with Woodward,the 1990 Merchant-Ivory drama Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. But Woodward barely features in this scene, in which Newman’s character, a rigidly conservative Midwestern businessman, glances out the window as his daughter (Kyra Sedgwick), an aspiring actress in the full bloom of youth, sunbathes on the lawn. Without speaking a word, and in just a few seconds, Newman registers at least four distinct emotions: paternal disapproval at his daughter’s scanty attire, a troubled stirring of arousal, the immediate stern repression of that arousal, and finally a moment of solitary sadness. It’s not that you come away thinking that Mr. Bridge wants to do his own daughter—this is a Merchant-Ivory film, not some Italian melodrama about incest—but you see at what cost he’s kept the world of the flesh at arm’s length his whole life.
The delicacy of that moment is what I mean by the Buddhism of Newman’s late style. It was as if the raw sexual energy of those early roles had passed through a refiner’s fire, concentrating itself into his smallest expressions and gestures. As his own beautiful body aged, Paul Newman’s acting grew ever more deeply embodied, and ever more beautiful.