Movie Mom

Paul Newman died yesterday at age 83 after a long struggle with cancer. This tribute from Slate by Dahlia Lithwick describes Newman’s unassuming generosity in contributing a quarter of a billion dollars, 100% of the profits from his food companies, to help sick children. At his Hole in the Wall Gang camp,

Newman never stopped believing he was a regular guy who’d simply been blessed, and well beyond what was fair. So he just kept on paying it forward…Today there are 11 camps modeled on the Hole in the Wall all around the world, and seven more in the works, including a camp in Hungary and one opening next year in the Middle East. Each summer of the four I spent at Newman’s flagship Connecticut camp was a living lesson in how one man can change everything. Terrified parents would deliver their wan, weary kid at the start of the session with warnings and cautions and lists of things not to be attempted. They’d return 10 days later to find the same kid, tanned and bruisey, halfway up a tree or canon-balling into the deep end of the pool. Their wigs or prosthetic arms–props of years spent trying to fit in–were forgotten in the duffel under the bed. Shame, stigma, fear, worry, all vaporized by a few days of being ordinary. In an era in which nearly everyone feels entitled to celebrity and fortune, Newman was always suspicious of both. He used his fame to give away his fortune, and he did that from some unspoken Zen-like conviction that neither had ever really belonged to him in the first place.

Entertainment Weekly has a fine list of Newman’s best performances. His best-loved films are probably the two he made with Robert Redford, The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He was always superb as a flawed or damaged hero, as in The Hustler, Hud, and Harper. I enjoy his leading man performances in light romances like “A New Kind of Love” and “What a Way to Go.” But he was at his best in drama, and like many of the flawed characters unexpectedly seeking redemption he played, he kept getting better.

Here he is with Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

He was a lawyer no one expected to be honest in “The Verdict.”

And a man who was not going gently into old age in “Nobody’s Fool.”

Adam Bernstein’s perceptive obituary in the Washington Post sums up his career, calling Newman “the prime interpreter of selfish rebels.”

Newman had built up a critical reputation of imbuing stock characters with an intelligent restraint that often was not associated with the more flagrant of the Method acting followers. As examples, reviewers pointed to his work as boxer Rocky Graziano in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956) and an Army officer accused of enemy collaboration in “The Rack” (1956). He brought a vulnerability to roles that emphasized his physique, notably in “The Long, Hot Summer,” based on stories by William Faulkner, and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (both 1958), from the Tennessee Williams play.

And Lithwick, who worked at his camp, sums up the man:

Hollywood legend holds that Paul Newman is and will always be larger-than-life, and it’s true. Nominated for 10 Oscars, he won one. He was Fast Eddie, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy. And then there were Those Eyes. But anyone who ever met Paul Newman will probably tell you that he was, in life, a pretty regular-sized guy: A guy with five beautiful daughters and a wonder of a wife, and a rambling country house in Connecticut where he screened movies out in the barn. He was a guy who went out of his way to ensure that everyone else–the thousands of campers, counselors, and volunteers at his camps, the friends he involved in his charities, and the millions of Americans who bought his popcorn–could feel like they were the real star.

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