In the decade after World War II, three soulful studs went from Broadway to Hollywood. Marlon Brando, James Dean and Paul Newman became movie stars in the 50s and helped revolutionize the craft. Of these three, way back then, Newman seemed the least unique. He wasn't Brando, though he had studied at the Actors Studio and starred on Broadway in a Tennessee Williams play. He wasn't Dean, though he nearly played Dean's brother in Elia Kazan's East of Eden.
But unlike the other two, Newman stuck it out. Instead of leading his talent in weird and wayward directions, like Brando, or smashing it to pieces on a California highway at 24, like Dean, he just kept getting better, more comfortable in his movie skin, more proficient at suggesting worlds of flinty pleasure or sour disillusion with a smile or a squint. And of the three, he was the most conventionally gorgeous. How many teenage girls had that famous poster of Newman his face in monochrome, his eyes a startling sky blue tacked to their bedroom walls?
Then Newman did something really remarkable: he sustained that early promise for five decades. He grew old and gray but not fat and cranky; he was recognizably, at any moment in his film career, Paul Newman. He did cool things well, like racing cars, and made doing good seem cool, with the Newman's Own brand of foods that has donated about $250 million to charity. His politics remained responsibly liberal; his public voice retained its wit and equanimity. He deprived the tabloids of the scandal headlines they love: no rap sheet, no rehab stints, no notorious affairs. And no messy divorce; indeed, no divorce at all, once he became a public figure. He married Joanne Woodward (his second wife) in 1958; this past January they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. He was the movie star who could have been your prized next-door neighbor. To a great extent, the image had to be the man. That's why Newman, who died Friday at 83 after a long battle with cancer, was not just the iconic movie star of his age he was one of the last public figures to lead an exemplary life.
Beyond the Method
You can't put Newman into historical context without invoking Brando, who, when Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire hit Broadway and then, four years later, became a movie, shocked and enthralled audiences. His Stanley Kowalski, the working-class lout raised to preening, violent alpha male, radiated a sexual threat never before seen in a movie man. (Brando said he hated Stanley and was annoyed that the character was viewed as an archetype of the sexy outlaw hero the same opinion that Newman had of his own Hud Bannon.) All the jokes about the Method and the mumbles couldn't obscure the fact that Brando personified a new, freer, rules-smashing style of performance. By 1955, with his Oscar-winning turn in On the Waterfront, he had been anointed the great and seismically influential actor of his generation. Which he unquestionably was.
Newman, born just nine months after Brando, didn't become a star playing the boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me until nearly nine years after Brando began his Streetcar stint on stage. But when Newman did hit it big, the two actors' similarities and differences were immediately apparent. Physically, Brando was a Roman statue, thick and commanding, with a touch of early decadence. Newman was a Greek statue, with classic lines and perfect proportions. There was less calculation in his gaze, more precision in his diction. Whereas Brando was always trying to smash his own iconography by playing a tortured Nazi, a gentle Okinawan, a singing gambler, not to mention Julius Caesar, Napoleon and Emilio Zapata Newman soon settled comfortably into a more familiar role: movie star.
Though in later life he pissed away his great talent, Brando will be remembered as the great movie revolutionary. But he didn't achieve what Newman did. Newman became a 50-year film eminence by forging a screen personality that was both instantly recognizable and virtually unprecedented: the modern American male who radiated equal parts sexuality and menace while taking an easy pleasure in his ability to attract and upset the people he met onscreen and the fans in the theater, who kept coming back to see Paul Newman play cunning variations on "Paul Newman."
To be a superstar it helps to have a surname that proclaims its own uniqueness. Garbo. Brando. (Those could be miracle detergents.) Schwarzenegger. (Austrian action toy.) Streisand. (A powerful nasal-decongestion drug that had to be taken off the market.) The names of crooner-actors had music in them: Crosby, Sinatra. Tough guys had the whipcrack of explosive consonants: Cagney, Bogart. A big star could get by with a first name that obviated last ones: Rock; Burt; Clint; Leonardo; Madonna; Angelina. If you're Sylvester, go by Sly.
"Paul Newman" sounds like the ordinary guy behind the counter at a sporting-goods store. That was the role his father Arthur, who owned a successful dealership in Shaker Heights, Ohio, envisioned for young Paul. (Arthur was Jewish; his wife Theresa, a Roman Catholic who converted to Christian Science. Paul later said he aligned himself with his father's heritage "because being Jewish is more demanding.") The boy, though handsome and popular, figured he was a failure. "When I was a kid, I was not a good scholar, and I really wanted to be one," he said in an Esquire profile. "I was not a good athlete, and I really wanted to be one; I was not a good conversationalist, and to this day I have difficulty talking." When America entered the war, Paul hoped to be a pilot, but those blue eyes that would earn millions of dollars and swoons were color-blind, and he spent three years in the Pacific as a radioman, third class.