Paul Newman: Verdict on a Superstar

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Verdict on a Superstar

Paul Newman wins in auto racing, salad dressing and his 43rd movie

For the first scene we need underwater photography. Very expensive, but we're going first-class. The opening shot is a stunner. The viewer doesn't know it yet, but he's looking up from inside the drain of a bathroom sink. Very spooky. There's a lot of ice floating around, seen from below, and in the middle of the Cinemascope screen something that looks, at extreme close range, as if it might be the hull of the Titanic. Bubbles are coming out of this ambiguous mass, "BLUB-BLUB-BLUB-BLUB!" Tension grips the audience as the bubbling thing, strangely facelike, rises and breaks the surface of the water. The camera follows. Water dribbles off the lens, and the viewer is on the point of understanding what this goofball nonsense is all about when the screen is obscured by masses of what looks like—Turkish toweling?

You bet. What we have here is not only dripping but gripping stuff, whose essence might be summarized as: Can a 57-year-old Westport, Conn., salad-dressing manufacturer find satisfaction as a hotshot race-car driver, successful political activist, prizewinning movie director, solid-state sex symbol, show-biz iconoclast and possibly the most commanding male presence in films during the past three decades? If that sounds just a touch overheated, never fear. We have Paul Newman to play the lead.

Can this be so? Are you telling us that Newman, old Cool Hand Luke, old Hud, old Butch Cassidy, old smoothie Henry Gondoroff from The Sting, is really a salad-dressing manufacturer? Yes, but we'll get back to that. The title and credits are ready to roll, and our soggy opening scene is still unresolved. What's going on? The facelike apparition turns out to be a face indeed, that of Newman himself. He has just finished plunging his muzzle into ice water, a ritual of his that, it is said, accounts for much of his eerie youthfulness. Newman was 42 in 1967, for instance, when he appeared in Cool Hand Luke, a character who looked about 28, and who would not have made sense as a man much older than that; he was 52 in 1977 when he played Reggie Dunlop in Slap Shot, an over-the-hill hockey player who looked 39½. In person now, without makeup, he might be a man in his mid-40s.

Did you actually see him do the ice-water routine? No, dammit, tried like hell, in fact we hid a reporter in a clothes hamper, but he got hit in the face with a pair of pajamas just at the wrong moment. Newman says he soaked his face in ice water and sometimes still does, and he actually did it on the screen in Harper and The Sting. The story goes that he puts a rubber tube into his mouth and stays submerged for two to three minutes (although one press account has inflated the figure to 20 minutes). It is the rubber tube that sounds a bit overdone.

So there is a possibility that Newman thought up the whole business just to con millions of middle-aged men into sticking their jowls into ice water every morning?

You certainly can't rule it out. There is more than a trace of whimsicality to the man. Assuming, of course, that it was whimsicality that prompted him to saw George Roy Hill's desk in half with a chain saw and to put 300 live chicks into Director Robert Altman's trailer when they were on location with Buffalo

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