To those movie-lovers of my age, conceived in or near the Summer of Love, Paul Newman — who died of cancer on Friday — was Dad.
That summer of ’67, I was in utero, and Newman, more important, was in production on “Cool Hand Luke,” a pretty good movie whose one great line — “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” — doesn’t even belong to the star, or at least not until the end of the movie. Voiced early in the film by Strother Martin’s abusive prison warden, the “failure to communicate” line does, however, speak fully to the condition that Newman’s most indelible characters found themselves in — being on one side of a gap, generational and sometimes legal as well.
By the time Newman’s prisoner Luke makes the line his own, repeating it with a minor variation just before his death at the hands of the law, it’s too late. Communication, failed or otherwise, wouldn’t help much across chasms as wide as they were in ’67.
Pretty bad movie with one great image
Young and fresh-faced throughout the ’60s, salt- and pepper-haired but still nimble by the time of the priceless “Slap Shot” in ’77, Newman wouldn’t look like anyone’s dad until “The Verdict” in ’82; before then, at least to me, along with plenty of others my age, he was Dad Before I Was Born. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) is a pretty bad movie whose one great image — Newman’s Butch peddling a bike in nostalgic sepia tones, raindrops falling on his head and Katherine Ross sitting on the handlebars — always looked to me like a chaste primal scene of sorts: Dad when he was courting Mom.
“Butch Cassidy” and “Slap Shot,” along with “The Sting” (1973), were directed by Minneapolis native George Roy Hill. Since this is MinnPost, I’d be remiss not to mention that Newman had at least a few other connections to our state. In ’68, he campaigned hard for Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s presidential bid, and 40 years later supported Al Franken’s ongoing run for Senate. A racecar driver, too, Newman in ’82 won his first professional race in Brainerd, either despite or because of the rain there. And in “The Hustler” (1961), his “Fast” Eddie Felson played pool for days against none other than Minnesota Fats.
To me, Newman was a truly great actor and great movie star who made only a few great movies — chiefly “The Hustler” (1961), “The Color of Money” (1986), “Slap Shot,” and “The Verdict,” give or take Arthur Penn’s “The Left Handed Gun” (1958), James Ivory’s “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” (1990), and the two films he made with Robert Altman, “Quintet” (1979) and “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” (1976).
I’d guess Newman knew a lot of his films weren’t great, and that he didn’t much mind. In 2006, while lending his voice to the role of Doc Hudson in Pixar’s “Cars,” he said, “I started my career giving a clinic in bad acting in the film ‘The Silver Chalice,’ and now I’m playing a crusty old man who’s an animated automobile. That’s a creative arc for you isn’t it?”
Hole in the Wall camps
More important to Newman than acting in movies, it often seemed, was his vast philanthropic work, including his Hole in the Wall camps for children with serious illnesses — a gift even more beautiful than “The Hustler.” Onscreen, particularly in “The Color of Money,” his 25-years-later sequel to “The Hustler,” Newman’s paternal instincts didn’t work out nearly as well — which one could take as a measure of the honesty of his art, even in movies that didn’t deserve it.
“The Color of Money,” directed by Martin Scorsese, did earn the actor’s talent, and it repaid him with what looks now like a film about the failure to communicate, this time with Newman on the other side of the generation gap. Here, “Fast” Eddie yearns to pass his pool hustling skills along to “The Kid” — aka Vince, aka Tom Cruise, perfectly cast in a role designed to illustrate the irreconcilable differences between hustler and top gun, pocket money and risky business, the ’60s and the ’80s.
Newman’s dialogue in “The Color of Money,” penned by novelist Richard Price, is brilliant for how elegantly it sails over Vince’s thick head — and sometimes over ours. It’s not 1961 anymore, but “Fast” Eddie Felson is still talking in syncopated jazz riddles about being “yourself, but on purpose” and about how sometimes “when you lose, you win.” Huh? The old “Fast” Eddie, a player of dazzling, infuriating talent, reminds me of no one more than my dad — and to the extent that Newman was characterizing a make, model, and vintage of guy, I’d guess the role hit home for a lot of ’80s kids.
That Newman has been eulogized in a joint statement by his five daughters — who said he’ll be “profoundly missed by those whose lives he touched” — hardly minimizes the actor’s role as a paternal icon. “The Color of Money,” to its credit, leaves the old man looking largely incomprehensible, if not altogether unapproachable. But Newman, using only his voice, came over the finish line of his acting career with a happy ending, as ol’ Doc manages to make something of a budding humanitarian out of the revved-up kid known as “Lightning” McQueen in “Cars” — once my own son’s favorite movie.