Written by Judy Bachrach. Originally published September 2008 on Obit-Mag.com.
If you never saw him young, then you never really saw him. Paul Newman’s flame- blue eyes were, he always thought to his much voiced regret, the source of his enormous box office appeal. But actually it was his mouth: a more modulated form of Julia Roberts’ upper lip, flattened some against his front teeth; and beneath that, a taste of more voluptuous flesh: an exquisitely tender and generous lower lip that hovered like a plump, loose-living cherub over an iron-clad cleft chin.
And so this was the secret to Newman’s success: the ironic twist of features that we might reasonably call Newman’s Own. He was no Cary Grant, too perfect to incite interest. He was no Brad Pitt, whose talent forever pants to keep up with his looks. Every bit of Newman was always in perpetual conflict: the eyes pretty but deeply mistrustful, the body fully armored and locked in perpetual battle with the face; the voice, which in the course of a half-century career never once trembled or even dipped with a moment’s irresolution; the upper arms and stalwart chest, both of which enjoyed star billing in all his early films, threatening to upstage the rest of him.
In other words, small wonder we couldn’t avert our gaze.
Forget Exodus, where almost 50 years ago Newman played a resolute latter-day Moses in a tank top, pursued under the sweltering Mideast sun by hot women, cool Brits and cranky Arabs.
Instead, try renting The Young Philadelphians, a 1959 film in which the actor, after being discovered naked under the sheets by a lovely would-be adulteress, manfully succeeds in fending off her advances – but not before showing the viewing audience exactly what stimulated her ardor. (One of the other reasons to rent it? It’s almost the last time the on-screen Newman would prove so resistant to lust.)
Self-deprecating and even self-pitying though the actor was about the nature of his allure (Newman claimed to find his sex appeal a secondary, even specious asset that prevented him from being taken seriously by the rest of Hollywood, and he did have a point), he was shrewd enough at the same time to capitalize on it whenever possible.
How else to account for the 1961 film The Hustler, where he played a cool amoral pool player, a scam artist who proved as devastating to Piper Laurie as to his victims? Or the movie Hud, released in 1964, in which the actor played, opposite the hungry-eyed Patricia Neal, a cool, amoral cowboy with a knack for both seduction and excellent repartee? A guy who liked to court, if that is the right word, waitresses and housekeepers with cool, amoral lines: “The only question I ever ask a woman is what time is your husband coming home.”
(Of course the ultimate, indeed signature, cool Newman role was his winning portrait of a brutalized prisoner in the provocative Cool Hand Luke, released in 1967. But the seriousness of the film, an indictment of chain gangs and prison labor, was undermined by the star’s looks, which appeared to improve after every beating.)
“I would like it if people would think that there’s a spirit that takes action, a heart and a talent that doesn’t come from my blue eyes,” Newman once complained. And part of him clearly meant it. It is perhaps significant, for instance, that in his private life Newman maintained a long, affectionate marriage with the actress Joanne Woodward, who in her perfectly respectable career never had to leap the hurdle of distractible beauty that so bedeviled her husband.
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward (studio publicity shot, c. 1960)
But really those Newman eyes, that mouth, that body – they were all inseparable from the talent. And for that matter, from the spirit.