Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paul Newman, Dead At Age 83

Paul Newman, one of the last of the old-school movie stars, has died of cancer.

The thing that always interested me about Newman was how he essentially had two careers: everything before "Slap Shot," and everything after. The pre-"Slap Shot" Newman was, for the most part, stoic, cool and (as even Newman would later admit) content to get by on his chiseled features and those legendary baby blues. But by the time he starred in "Slap Shot," a shockingly profane, hilarious comedy about a minor league hockey team that succeeds through goonery, he was already into his 50s. And though he always looked good enough to play 10-15 years younger, he didn't want to coast on his looks anymore. If anything, his career of the last 30 years was built on anti-vanity, allowing Newman to look as bad and crass and un-star-like as possible. This was a much more relaxed Newman, and a much more compelling one.

"Slap Shot" is an all-timer, and "The Color of Money" got him an overdue Oscar, but for me the peak of this later period was 1994's "Nobody's Fool," with Newman as an aging construction worker named Sully who had spent his entire life running from responsibility, but being too lazy to run very far. It's a small movie (very little happens in it), but a very funny and, at times, moving one. And by then, Newman's talent and charisma were so powerful that he was able to elevate the work of everyone around him. Bruce Willis (who took an uncredited supporting role just to work with the old man) has rarely been better; Melanie Griffith has certainly never been better. (It's a movie that makes you think she could act.)

So whether you grew up with Newman movies or simply know him as the guy with the popcorn and salad dressing business, you will get an awful lot of entertainment out of seeing either of those films -- or "The Verdict," or "Cool Hand Luke," or "The Hustler," or "Twilight," or "Blaze," or...

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