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The Best Paul Newman Performances on Film

Shawn Levy's biography Paul Newman: A Life was published in May 2009. The book is a thorough, if unspectacular, look at the life of the great movie star and humanitarian.

Paul Newman received nine Oscar nominations in his legendary career that spanned more than half a century. He received an honorary Oscar in recognition of his outstanding career in 1986, then followed it up the very next year by winning a competitive Oscar for Best Actor in The Color of Money, a reprise of one of his most memorable characters, Fast Eddie Felson from 1961's The Hustler. In 1994, Newman was the recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Scienes in recognition of his peerless charitable work.

Not all of  Paul Newman's greatest performances merited attention from the Academy, but many of them did. Here are the top 10 Paul Newman performances captured on film, listed in alphabetical order:

1. Butch Cassidy in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) Paul Newman's  performance and the movie both were iconoclastic and struck a nerve with movie audiences at the end of the 1960s, when the old Hollywood was collapsing and the New Hollywood was not yet in place. Newman's performance and the movie were both considered subversive of the standard Western genre in a way that the more obviously comic movie Western Cat Ballou (1965)  was not. Surprisingly, Newman's performance was overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, but he won a different crown. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid became one of the all-time box office hits, and Paul Newman was voted the #1 Box Office for 1969 and 1970 by theater owners.

2. Luke in Cool Hand Luke (1967) Paul Newman's Luke is one of the great icons of the rebellious, non-conformist 1960s. With Luke, Newman reached the epitome of his iconic characterization of the sardonic loner that he first limned in The Hustler. Newman is at his best as the rebellious, non-conformist con who keeps trying to escape from a Southern chain gang. As Luke, Newman refined the martyred character specialized in by Marlon Brando since On the Waterfront, adding a nihilism to the mix in sync with the times. For this performance, which remains an essential part of the cultural milieu of the turbulent decade that was the 1960s, Newman received his fourth Best Actor Oscar nomination.

3. John Russell in Hombre (1967) Paul Newman's coolest performances was as "Hombre," the white man raised by Indians in this superior Western. The climax between Newman, who is not a part of the white society he physically appears to belong to, and villain Richard Boone is one of the great, unheralded moments in American cinema. Boone, as the epitome of evil, has been double-crossed by Hombre, who has suicidally put himself between a proverbial rock and a hard place (Boone and his gang) to save a white woman on a point of personal honor. Boone, telling Hombre he is about to die, asks "Well now, what'ya suppose hell's gonna look like?" Newman's Hombre cooly replies, "We all die. Just a question of when," before both men are quickly consigned to ttheir final resting places, Hell or some other reward. It's a moment as good as any from an Akira Kurosawa samurai classic.

4. Hud Bannon inHud (1963) George C. Scott, Newman's Oscar-nominated co-star from The Hustler, said that Newman's own Oscar-nominated turn in The Hustler was a performance any number of actors could have turned in, but Scott claimed that Hud was one of the great pieces of American cinema acting. Only Paul Newman could have played Hud, Scott claimed. George C. Scott s not wrong, on either count. Paul Newman received his third Oscar nomination as Best Actor playing the amoral cowboy whose spirit may veer towards evil, but whose lust for life is irrepressible. His performance remains an American cultural icon. Hud heralds the ascendancy of the Barry Goldwater-Ronald Reagan school of a rugged individualism that says to hell with the rest of society.

5. Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler (1961) Paul Newman was more than memorable as the pool hustler Fast Eddie in Robert Rosson's noirish classic, he created his first cultural icon (later joined by Hud, Luke & Butch Cassidy). Fast Eddie is a martyr, a descendant of Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, but Newman makes the character and the archetype his own. Newman has a just-right cockiness that the emotionally heavier, more lugubrious Brando could not have brought to the role. He was nominated for an Oscar for the role. A quarter century later, Newman reprised the role in Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money (1986), winning the Oscar at long last.

6.. Sully in Nobody's Fool (1994). Newman gives an outstanding performance as a working class, down-on-his-luck, ne'er do well handyman struggling with aging, his own sorry and precarious position in the world, and his relationship with his son and grandson. Newman shows why his acting teacher, the legendary Lee Strasberg of the Actor's Studio, said that Newman might have been as great an actor as Marlon Brando if he had not been so handsome. (Strasberg felt that Newman relaxed and relied on his good looks and coasted through too many performances.) Brando essentially gave up his career in his late 40s, but the aging Newman was still giving some of his best performances, now that his physical beauty was no longer in the ascendant. Ironically, the no-longer impossibly handsome Paul Newman provided posterity with a beautiful piece of cinema acting.

7. Captain Edward W. Hall, Jr. in The Rack (1956) One of Paul Newman's earliest roles, and still one of his most impressive achievements as a cinema actor. Newman more than makes up for his disastrous debut in The Silver Chalice (he reportedly took out ads in the Hollywood trade papers to apologize for the debacle) with this superb performance as the haunted, guilty Army POW who is charged with treason and conduct unbecoming an officer while incarcerated in sub-human conditions in a North Korean POW camp.

8. Rocky in Somebody Up There Likes Me "Dying is easy, comedy is hard," the great English thespian Edmund Kean said on his death bed. This is the first of Paul Newman's great comic turns, as he shows his comic acting chops playing Rocky Graziano as a lovable mug in Robert Wise's memorable boxing picture. Marlon Brando might have been the greater actor, but by his own admission, he could not do comedy. Newman could. And do it superbly.

9. Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) Paul Newman's performance as Chance Wayne, Tennessee Williams' small-time hustler, is superior to his Oscar-nominated turn as the sexually repressed homosexual Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Here, Newman plays an aging Lothario, a failure as a chorus boy on Broadway, now reduced to playing gigolo to a faded  movie star (the great Geraldine Page in an Oscar-nominated turn). Newman's Chance returns to the town of his boyhood to hook back up with his old sweetheart Heavenly Finley (a memorable Shirley Knight, also Oscar-nominated), planning to blackmail Page's movie queen into taking them back toHollywood with her. But Heavenly has a secret, and a defeated Chance decides to embrace the tragedy hurtling his way, like a railroad train bearing down on some struggling silent-film diva, with resignation. While the film is not as powerful as the stage play due to censorship, the acting is superb, and Chance Wayne remains a memorable American character.

10. Frank Galvin in The Verdict (1982). Quite simply, one of the best bits of movie acting in cinema history. Paul Newman plays a down-at-the-heels Boston attorney, an aging failure who is given one last shot at redemption. It's a part Marlon Brando might have played, and been superb. He did not. Paul Newman did, receiving his first Oscar nomination in fifteen years. This is the movie he should have won his Oscar for (not the mediocre Color of Money four years later. That was a fabled "make-up" Oscar combined with a "career" Oscar so given to great old vets in their less-than-great performances, who for some reason, mostly Oscar politics, had failed to win. (Newman, as a Connecticut resident, was not part of Hollywood circles, and the Academy has a distinctive bias towards the locals against the New Yorkers.)

11. Reggie "Reg" Dunlop in Slap Shot (1977) Not a serious bit of acting, but Paul Newman at his comic rogue best as the aging veteran player-coach of a third-rate, down-at-the-heels, minor leage hockey team. There's a moment in the film, a throwaway bit, where a disgruntled fan verbally assaults Reg (and the team) at a bar. Newman smiles, winks and says they'll try to do better. Newman keeps the "winking" eye closed for the exchange, telegraphing his good-natured contempt for the irate fan and the whole minor-league millieu of his life while simultaneously telling us he's on top of it and he will not only survive, but triumph. A sweet little piece of acting in a movie that Newman cited as his most enjoyable filming experience.


  • Emylou Lewis 5 years ago

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