The salutes to Paul Newman's eyes have ranged from 20/20 (Manohla Dargis' sharp squint in the Times) to blurry-teary (Bob Mondello's drippy evaluation on NPR). As far as filmographies go, no one will best my colleague and friend Mark Harris’ remarkably concise yet complete look at Newman’s work on EW.com.
My only disagreement with Mark is that he doesn't give greater credit to Newmans Slap Shot, the ferociously funny, profane 1977 hockey film that has been given a typically impassioned yet meticulously observed appreciation by Kim Morgan here.
When I was a teenager, my Favorite Film Of All Time (you can have those when you're an adolescent) was Cool Hand Luke, the martyrdom of whose title character suited my teen self-pity so perfectly I saw it 16 times the year it was released including once in Copenhagen when I snuck off from a church-group trip to see it once again (from the silence in the audience, I could only deduce the Danish subtitles didn't do justice to Newman's witty line-readings).
If I had to pick one Newman film to gaze upon over and over these days, however, it would be The Verdict (1982), his last great role and by some accounts his favorite. As the rhuemy-eyed rummy lawyer Frank Galvin, Newman did what he loved doing in the second half of his career—which was to do his best to demolish the first half. By which I mean, this least narcissistic of beautiful men seemed to enjoy suggesting what the ultimate fates of characters such as Hud, John Harper in Hombre, and the Lew Archer surrogate in Harper would have been had they lived to late-middle-age.
Working with co-conspirator director Sidney Lumet, Newman turned himself into a shambling wreck held up by an expensive-turning-threadbare lawyer's suit. The early scenes in which Newman leans over a pinball machine for drunken support as much for the purpose of playing the game, and—even more chillingly, repulsively, movingly—attends the funeral wakes of people he doesn't know to press his dog-eared business cards into the hands of the bereaved are marvels of actorly control. Newman played cynicism and dissipation with even more of the commitment he brought to his lovely light comic turns in bigger hits such as The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Lesser actors would be content merely to have sketched a portrait of an alchoholic making one last stand for dignity; Newman let you know that, in the end, this was no mere proto-episode of Law & Order, ending with the attorney pulling himself together for redemption. After the credits rolled, you knew that Frank Galvin would probably, eventually, end up looking closely at a bottle for the rest of his short life.
There's another whole piece to be written about Newman's other life as a public personality—I expect David Letterman, his fellow race-car buff, will summon his usual humble grace to salute the numerous appearances Newman made on Letterman’s show over the years, content to sit in the studio audience and wave silently, humorously, once again subverting his celebrity with bright-eyed enthusiasm.
And some time I'll have to tell about the day my construction-worker dad shared a beer with Newman and confirmed everything you may have thought about the man when he was off-camera…