Saturday, September 27, 2008

I woke up this morning to find…

…that Paul Newman has passed away at age 83. My God, this sucks.

Sometimes when my father is at the wheel and I’m riding shotgun, we’ll pass a county mountie writing out a ticket to some speeding scofflaw, and that will prompt me to remark (in my best Jackie Gleason impression): “What we're dealing with here is a complete lack of respect for the law.” This is my father’s cue to resurrect the famous line spoken by warden Strother Martin in Cool Hand Like (1967): “What we have here is…failure…to communicate.” I’ve lost count how many times he and I have sat down and watched that movie—but it seems like every time he went channel surfing and discovered it on, say, AMC…well, it wouldn’t budge until the movie was over.

In the NY Times obituary, they reprint one of Newman’s most memorable observations: ''I was always a character actor. I just looked like Little Red Riding Hood.'' While I love Newman’s earlier vehicles—The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), Hombre (1967), Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Sting (1973)—I think the performances that came later in his career (Fat Man and Little Boy [1989], Nobody’s Fool [1994]) had a great deal more nuance and depth. My all-time favorite Newman performance (and the one that should have nabbed him the Oscar, Ben Kingsley be damned) is in The Verdict (1982); his portrayal of drunk and disgraced attorney Frank Galvin, who reclaims his soul in a controversial trial involving the death of a woman at the hands of a negligent hospital staff, leaves me emotionally drained every time I see it. (Newman eventually won a “legitimate” Oscar for The Color of Money [1986], after collecting first an honorary statuette and later the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his charitable work.)

There’s another great Newman quote in the Times obit; a comment on his long-term marriage to wife Joanne Woodward, with whom Newman appeared in several films and who also starred in several vehicles directed by her husband (including the Oscar-winning Rachel, Rachel [1968]). “I have steak at home—why go out for hamburger?” (I’ll bet if a lot of couples sat down and really meditated on that phrase the divorce rate would precipitously plunge in a good way.)

Faithful TDOY readers might be aware that I’m the only member of my family who really has an affinity for classic movies (well, my Mom sometimes does—as long as it’s one of the Universal horror films or Casablanca). My father refuses to watch anything in black-and-white (unless there are cowboys and injuns involved) and sister Kat says “classic movies” in the same tone of voice one would use if the words “Nazi Germany” came tripping off one’s tongue. But one night, my other sister (Debbie) called me up when I was still living in Morgantown, WV and she asked me what I was doing; I replied that I was watching Paul Newman in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956).

“Hmm,” was her response. “I haven’t seen that one…I’ll have to check it out sometime.” I thought this might be her way of making idle chit-chat, but she told me she really liked Newman a lot.

For that…and for so many other reasons…R.I.P, Mr. Newman. You will be sorely missed.

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