Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paul Newman 1925-2008

The news reports are sad, but true. A good actor, but thanks to all he did for others, a fine man. My condolences to his beloved wife, children and all who called him friend, (including millions of moviegoers for the last five decades.)

He wore his fame and all that went with it with such humor and grace. I thought he was a pretty good actor, though when young, his classic male beauty reminded me of a Praxiteles sculpture come to life--a fact that I don't think he was always particularly comfortable with even though he must have realized how much it helped him become a star.

As he aged, and the laugh lines grew deeper, the hair grayer, and the death of his only son Scott broke his heart but not his spirit, he changed, becoming less of a part of the herd of angry young men and more of a mensch. While I thought that he became a very good actor in time, because of all his work for others, I came to admire him more as a fine man and a good citizen who refused to be cynical or to take himself too seriously.

I particularly cherish two of his late career performances. The first one that comes to mind is in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990), allowing Newman to do a beautiful job of playing the kind of straight arrow character he probably knew well from his Ohio boyhood. I think that he enjoyed finally being able to be a character actor first, and a movie star second in that role. My favorite scene in that is when, as a rock-ribbed Mid Western lawyer who often refused to acknowledge the real, changing complexities of life, he was having dinner at the country club with his dithery wife (Joanne Woodward, in a very good performance). When a radio flash alerts everyone of an imminent tornado, he refuses to leave his meal for the basement, outraged at nature's intrusion on his repast. This scene managed to be funny and troubling simultaneously. The film, which I don't think was particularly successful financially, is a gem thanks in large part to his beautifully detailed performance.

The last time I saw him act, it was in a production of the Thornton Wilder classic, Our Town which he'd also done on stage. Playing the Stage Manager in an avuncular way, using his many years to build a memorable performance while his blue eyes still sparkled sadly and warmly, I can still hear the lines from the play in which Emily asks "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?--every, every minute?"

Newman's Stage Manager replied quietly, with a sigh, "No. Saints and poets, maybe--they do some."

Maybe Mr. Newman was one of those who did realize life as he lived it.

If you'd like to see a partial list of charities underwritten by Paul Newman over the years or to make a donation in his memory, please click here.


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