Tuesday, September 30, 2008

#85 Paul Newman--pt. 2

To continue from last post. Before his real shot at stardom in Somebody Up There..., the actor was picked for his debut in the lush, formula-laden, god-and-sandals epic, The Silver Chalice. (And need I point out: the perfect kind of picture to watch in the exotic, palace-like surroundings of the Avalon Theater.) Most all of these, noted last time, were conflationary clones of Samson and Delilah meets The Robe--lots of action and slave-girl skin with a little sappy romantic "mush" and soppy (for the grown-ups) spirituality, from which us guys disgustedly averted our eyes.

The stars of TSC? NOT Paul Newman or even the wonderful Pier Angeli. No: the painted-pagan witch-goddess Virginia Mayo and the creepy Jack Palance as the sinister Simon Magus. SHE (and her dancing girls--invariably in these movies bare-foot-anklet-and-sequined-bikinis-with-transparent-veil-clad pin-ups) seduced us right down to the inside our pants; then HE scared them off. All this and Natalie Wood, too. I'll admit that the only scene I remember from a half-century ago with absolute clarity is when Christ-rival-manque' Palance, raving madly (and reminding me now of Frederick Forest's great "Blue Duck" character in Lonesome Dove trying to prove that Indians could "fly" by crashing fatally through the second-story jailhouse window), attempts to prove his divinity by jumping from a mile-high tower. Splat. Like the movie's box-office receipts. But great camp, looking back.

Newman had no such competition in his sophomore effort two years later. Though Steve McQueen debuted in it uncredited, and Sal Mineo had a small part, the movie-rendering of Rocky Graziano's autobiography was all Paul's, if you discount the beguiling Pier Angeli, matched up with him again by popular demand, no doubt. (Mandatory cosmic-convergence-trivia-diversion: James Dean originally picked for the part of Rocky Barbella...killed famously in car crash...replaced by method-actor-Dean-Brando-type = NEWMAN...Pier Angeli's ex-fiance' Dean the "only man I ever loved"...shortly before her suicide in 1971, age 40.) The plot? Think Rocky Balboa (ring-scenes and make-up, too), Stallone's rip-off of every fight-film ever made, and over and over again at that.

But for chacterization, look to the angst-ridden, failure-prone boxers in DeNiro's Raging Bull, or in the prototype, Brando's On the Waterfront (1954). The latter's blockbuster success, I'm sure, is what gave Newman his coattail-effect second chance by the studios. And unlike the one in TSC, his performance here was memorable for me, maybe because at thirteen I could understand the mature--face it: testosterone-centric-- themes that I couldn't quite "get" in OTW two years earlier. It's as if Newman explicated Brando for me. The actor could have in fact played Brando for the rest of his career, and been quite successful at it. But even here in SUTLM he brings that quintessential Newman touch, the Sly Rogue, the Mischievious Rebel, to the part of the not-quite-punch-drunk-yet boxer. Aided by the script (and the real-life story), the actor uses that intelligent blue-eyed glint to lend verisimilitude to the preposterous roller-coaster narrative. While getting beaten up most of the time, Rocky is really putting the con on the gangs, and then the gangsters and the boxing establishment, until his ultimate triumph. (It's interesting that in real life too, Graziano had a fairly successful post-pugilist career as a comic actor. I remember him as Marta Raye's quondam fiance' on her 50s TV variety show.)

It all came together (including his incredible, forever-marriage to his co-star, Joanne Woodward) for the actor two years later in The Long Hot Summer (his character's name explains it all--Ben Quick--even though I hated the movie about as much as I did that other Southern Gothic yuck-fest, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, though Newman's acting stood out like a "Brick" in that one. [Apologies to ghosts of Faulkner and Tennessee Williams])--and EXPLODED in The Hustler (1961), his defining role. And this may be unfair to him, but I think he played variations on "Fast Eddie" Felson for the remainder of his career...at least in his better performances (fill in the blanks, starting with Butch Cassidy). He even had to repeat the role in Color of Money to win the Oscar! So what? No actor has been more watchable, if indeed predictable. And did I mention he was also a pretty good human being? No need to. The enduring "shelf-life" of his filmic achievements may be exceeded only by his "Newman's Own" products and the good works they've spawned. Pace.

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