BEST -- AND COOLEST --
The good people at dictionary.com define “cool” as “calmly audacious or impudent,” “socially adept,” and “great, fine, excellent.” Using these definitions, I hereby declare Paul Newman the coolest guy in the universe. Yes, he’s a world-class philanthropist, donating scads of cash each year. Sure he’s a consistent, involved political activist. I love that he's been married to the same woman for nearly half a century. Of course, all that’s cool. But most of all, he’s delivered decades of indelibly cool movie performances. Here are 13 of my favorites:
1. Cool Hand Luke. (1967) The cornerstone of the faith, the ultimate Newman-rebel role, and a highly entertaining movie. Luke gets arrested for a pointless act of vandalism (cutting the tops off parking meters) and ends up on a chain gang. This is not the place for Luke, because he simply cannot conform. He thinks too much, sees the bullshit too clearly, to ever take the easy route. Yet he’s funny and charismatic, a hero to the other inmates. This movie has a lot of terrific scenes – the egg-eating competition, the highway paving scene, Luke’s harrowing “night in the box,” Luke on the run and his final conversation with God (“what we have here is a failure to communicate”). But for me the most memorable moment is Luke sitting on his bunk, mourning the death of the much-loved mother he disappointed time and again, by singing, “I don’t care if it rains and freezes long as I got my plastic Jesus riding on the dashboard of my car …”
2. Hud. (1963) My favorite Newman performance. He’s a ruthless, heartless SOB who believes to his very core that the ends justify the means. And yet, even though we know all about this bastard, even after he lies and rapes and nearly destroys his family, we keep hoping he’ll find redemption. When towards the end of the movie Hud cynically cracks that he’s like this because, “My Mama used to love me, but she died,” he breaks my heart, because I suspect that for the first time, he's spoken the truth.
3. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. (1969) George Clooney recently said Newman and Redford are the last real movie stars, and this movie shows us why. So handsome, so charming, with such beautiful blue eyes and such amazing smiles, that we almost forget that these two are doomed from the start. The movie moves slowly to a tragic ending, but we have so much fun along the way that we almost forget how inevitable their demise is, too.
4. The Verdict. (1982) Frank Galvin is an alcoholic lawyer who is way, way past his prime. But a case falls into his lap that touches something deep in him, a respect for life and justice and the law that he thought he lost. His need to regain his real sense of self is at once redemptive and cool.
5. The Hustler. (1961) Who knew that pool could be exciting to watch? Who knew that Carrie White’s mom (Piper Laurie) was once lovely and sympathetic? Who knew Jackie Gleason could act? And most of all, who knew that talent doesn’t always accompany character? A terrific film, with a towering performance by Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson. He won his only acting Oscar decades later for reprising the role in The Color of Money.
6. Sweet Bird of Youth. (1962) Chance Wayne (I love that name) is almost the opposite of Fast Eddie. He’s an undertalented actor who gets by on his looks, his attitude and his gifted way in bed. Yet even ultra-cool Chance can get tripped up by something as uncool and corny as love, true love.
7. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (1958) Brick has problems with a forceful father, Big Daddy, played by Burl Ives. Brick may be Big Daddy’s favorite son, but he doesn’t understand him one bit. Neither does Brick’s gorgeous, frustrated wife, an obscenely carnal Elizabeth Taylor. She acts as though the lack of loving from her husband just might kill her. When she tells him that she feels like a cat on a hot tin roof, he cooly advises her to, “Jump off the roof. Cats jump off roofs and land uninjured.”
8. Harper. (1966) A "so cool he’s cold as ice" PI who has seen it all and has an answer for everything. Yet when he’s confronted with the mystery of what happened to some rich guy named Sampson, even he is rattled by the missing man’s decadent family and lifestyle. Unlike Hud, at the last moment, Harper does the right thing. He’s as surprised by this as we are. After all, Harper’s philosophy is, “The bottom is full of nice people. Only bastards and cream rise.”
9. Slap Shot. (1977) One of the funniest, most profane sports movies ever made. Newman is Reggie Dunlap, player/coach of a failing hockey team. Reg discovers that the way to save the team is to give the public what it wants. No, not a winning hockey team. The team becomes popular when they go lowest-common-denominator – fighting and playing dirty at every opportunity. I'm no prude, but my favorite line of line of dialog – Reggie taunting an opposing player with an observation about his wife – is too vulgar for even ME to repeat. Which is not to say it’s not funny. And you’ll never forget the Hanson brothers.
10. Nobody’s Fool. (1994) A very traditional, predictable movie, but still, it has its moments – and they are all courtesy of Newman. Unlike a lot of major movie stars (Jack Nicholson comes to mind), he doesn’t dominate the screen, he inhabits it, and plays wonderfully with his fellow actors. Watch him charm Jessica Tandy, banter with Bruce Willis, woo Melanie Griffith, and bond with his young grandson. He makes Sully an unforgettable smalltown character.
11. Absence of Malice. (1981) Newman is Michael Gallagher, related to, but not involved with, some very unsavory characters. Imagine Michael Corleone gone good. He becomes the target of law enforcement, and then of the press, and even though he hasn’t done anything, his reputation is damaged. He gets his revenge by staying cool, keeping his head and simply being smarter than everyone else.
12. The Long, Hot Summer. (1958) Newman’s first film with his long-time, off-screen leading lady, Joanne Woodward. He played Ben Quick, a loner who rolls into a sleepy Southern town and heats everything up. In fact, there are rumors that he’s an arsonist. But the town’s leading citizen (Orson Welles) overlooks that and hires Quick, hoping romance will spark between Ben and Clara, his schoolmarm daughter. Sparky fly alright. Boy, do they ever!
13. From the Terrace. (1960) Another Newman-Woodward collaboration. Even though this movie is kinda soapy, I still find it very relevant. How should we define success? Newman’s character has a life that looks completely terrific from the outside – great job with a lot of room for advancement, a wife on his arm who is a business asset. But this life feels fraudulent and pointless to him. So he makes the choice to be true to himself, which is the coolest choice of all.
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