American Beauty

I always remember with embarrassment that, when I first saw The Sting (its original release, I was 12), I couldn’t understand what was so great about Paul Newman. Robert Redford I got, with his obvious homecoming king looks and grin.

Thank God that the wisdom that comes with age is only a partial myth. I’ve come to recognize Redford as the consummate cheeseball. Newman has, for a few decades, made me a bit weak in the knees.

It started with The Verdict. There are definite problems with the movie. Wolcott recently did a post on Mamet going utterly off the rails politically with his new book. But I’ve never seen him as any sort of writing deity, a designation a lot of folks seem to be willing to accord him, at least when it comes to scripts. This screenplay, like his others, has Achilles’ heel dialogue which could reach a heightened, frenetic patter on stage and embody the schizophrenia of late 20th-century America – but that I think sounds overly studied in the precision that is film. Verdict is memorable mostly due to Sidney Lumet’s direction, John Kasarda’s art direction, and good performances, including those of James Mason, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warner, Joe Seneca, and Lindsay Crouse, who would never be so well-served again onscreen by her then-husband.

But of course, Newman is best of all. Gravel-voiced, eyes red/white/blue from a combination of scotch-abuse and the certainty of failure, his hands shake so badly that he’s forced to lower his face to his first shot of the day like a dog dying of thirst. Yet when he says, simply, nakedly, to Charlotte Rampling, “You are some beautiful woman,” the famous gaze piercing into hers in an intimacy that is frightening, heartbreaking, and sexy all at once – who could resist? Yes, the advance is coming from a desperate drunk. But when that drunk is Newman – I’m just not strong enough.

Cool Hand Luke is on AMC now, and what a showcase for Newman it is. Much as I appreciate Harper, Hud, and The Hustler, it’s the breakout. Highly watchable, it’s the first big-screen effort of director Stuart Rosenberg, who came to it straight out of TV. The shooting is on the literal side, overly crisp and straightforward in a way that works great on the small screen and tends to make the big look a little smaller. But the casting is superb, with a host of later-famous character actors: Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Anthony Zerbe, Joe Don Baker, Wayne Rogers, Jo van Fleet (magnificent), Ralph Waite (a fine character actor despite the fact that he’s known to most as the dad on The Waltons), Strother Martin. George Kennedy is over the top as always, but he’s as good as he would ever get here, despite his odd attempt at a Cajun accent.

But it all gets back to Newman. Rarely was he more beautiful. Great film actors are fully themselves. It’s usually not about variation in performance (though a few, not many, achieve that), it’s that they are utterly comfortable to be themselves in front of the camera. Cool Hand Luke captures both his easy grace and his reticence. At heart, Newman’s beauty is in that conflict. Nothing, it seems, can touch him, which makes it all the more precious when something does. He’s ice that somehow doesn’t melt despite the fire burning underneath – but sometimes it seems like the fire might just have a shot.

Beauty is so glorious, so rare, and most of all so random. Always, I remain in awe of the gift that movies are, in the way that they capture forever moments, and stars like Newman, who would in another time be confined to inaccurate memory.

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