Paul Newman: A Decade of Taking Chances

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The 1970’s was not Paul Newman’s greatest screen decade but it represented his widest variety of work. From a box office perspective, he had two huge hit films, several successful ones and a series of misses. Critically, his films were all over the map. In the 1970’s, Paul Newman did not play it safe. His choices of films may have been the product of where he was in life, or his interest in specific characters or directors. Newman was, and remains, one of film’s most interesting and endearing actors. Privately, he was a man of conviction and enormous generosity. He would disdain any pious compliments even though his charitable work and philanthropy have provided nearly half a billion dollars toward various programs and causes. Clearly, as he aged, his interests shifted, though his drive to produce quality work never seemed to diminish.

Paul Newman had huge star power, he only selectively used it, but when he did, the studios wanted something back. In the 1970s, he made two large scale films and he delivered what was expected. For the rest of the decade he picked films that didn’t demand that he be the A-List movie star, just Paul Newman the actor.

These films were a mixed bag of offbeat roles, ensemble casts, or unusual concepts. Unlike Redford, Beatty, Eastwood or Reynolds, he mostly avoided A-List commercial projects, topical action films, or leading man romantic fare. He recognized that he was not 30 years old anymore and movie audiences were beginning a big shift. In part, this realization may have freed him, but it also provided challenges of connecting with audiences.

After a hugely successful decade of the 1960’s, Newman was at the top of his game. His last film of the 1960’s was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, what could be better than that? His first five films of the new decade were: WUSA and Sometimes a Great Notion, both released in 1970; Pocket Money and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, 1972; and The MacKintosh Man in 1973. None of those films set the world on fire. All were studio films, made with notable directors (even Newman himself) and included strong casts. Let’s look at each one of the films.

1970 WUSA

Newman made several films with Stuart Rosenberg, his Cool Hand Luke director. Co-starring his wife Joanne Woodward, with a good supporting cast, the film attempts some broad statements about white supremacy and the confrontation of opposing political beliefs. It is neither subtle or effective. At the time it might have seemed daring but it sinks in melodrama. Seeing Newman and Woodward together is worth the price of admission, so long as it is matinee priced.

1970 Sometimes a Great Notion

Directed and starring Newman, from a novel by Ken Kesey (Catch-22), and co-starring Henry Fonda and Lee Remick. The film is a backwoods story that is both folksy and grim. Newman has played similar characters before, flawed but with a good heart. Newman was not intending to direct this film but fell into the role. He is a competent and efficient director, who gets good performances from this actors, but he never really attained a directing style. The film has scenes that are quite nice and others whose realism makes you want to turn away. The downbeat material was typical of the early 1970’s cinema, main characters that die and endings that leave you feeling unsatisfied. Although not a widely circulated film, it is worth a viewing if you can find it.

1972 The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

Teaming with John Huston seemed like a good career move. Huston had a way with good hearted but crusty characters. Originally written by John Milius, the finished film only hints at some of the bolder story images Milius had in mind when he wrote it. Milius had himself in mind to direct it, but the job went to the more accomplished Huston instead. Newman plays a cantankerous, larger-than-life character that appoints himself the law and behaves accordingly. Newman seems to be having the time of his life adding another character to his collection of oddball roles.

1972 Pocket Money

Tales of modern cowboys in rural America coming to grips with their own failings were quite popular in the early 1970’s. These gritty, realistic views of a changing America could be challenging to pull off, particularly when viewed through a Hollywood lens. Vanishing Point, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and Charlie Varrick were three effective uses of two-lane blacktop America. The Newman character is all wrong for him, although the rest of the cast is fine. This might have played well on paper, especially since it was written by a young Terrance Malick, who would go on to much greater success, especially as a director. Pocket Money is not a terrible film but it didn’t do much for Newman’s career.

1973 The MacKintosh Man

The MacKintosh Man is one of the lesser known Newman films. I remember sitting in a theater in 1972 watching the preview and having no idea what the film was about, other than it was supposed to a spy thriller. Seeing it years later (it was hard to find) I still had very little idea what it was about. Written by Walter Hill and directed by John Huston, the film had tremendous talent attached to it. What Butch Cassidy was to the Western, The MacKintosh Man was to have the same impact on the spy game. Butch Cassidy was witty, cool, inviting and relatable. The MacKintosh Man was none of those. It was confusing, dense, cold and foreign. Audiences stayed away.

Newman, to his credit, trusted his directors and was willing to take chances on scripts. He frequently re-teamed with directors, George Roy Hill and Stuart Rosenberg for example, whom he trusted and built some success. He also made two films each with John Huston and Robert Altman during the decade with only moderate success. Huston, a respected director who had great success early in his career, often laid rotten eggs instead of Faberge eggs. Newman got the Huston who had stopped working at his craft and seemed more interested in his hobbies and vices than creating bold films. Altman was just coming into his famous style, and directed numerous hits in his career to go along with many misfires.

paul-newman sting1973 The Sting

Henry Gondorff was one of Newman’s best roles, though he gave much better performances. Newman’s role was not as flashy as Redford’s, but Newman gave an effective performance. To his credit, he never overplayed the role. The film, one of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films, grossed a fortune, and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning seven.   Sadly, it was the last time Redford and Newman would work together, although they spent decades looking for the right project. The Sting is a smart film, witty, with grand characters and many plot twists.

the-towering-inferno-70s-films-secret-cinema11974 The Towering Inferno

High concept, huge production, big profile film. The cast of characters is a who’s who of popular actors. The biggest challenge wasn’t filming the fire as much as finding a way for Newman and McQueen to coexist in the same production. Every line of dialog was counted to make the parts even (including extra production to add dialog), and a creative way was devised to show equal billing above the title. This was a popcorn movie, not big ideas at work, just the nail biter of who would make it out alive at the end. McQueen got more action but Newman got to express more emotion. Besides looking at architectural plans and being defiant about building codes, Newman did not have a lot to do. The special effects are the real star of the film. The film garnered eight Academy Award nominations and was the highest grossing film of the year.

1975 The Drowning Pool

This is a follow-up to his Harper film of a decade before. Adequately made, it made some money but it seemed out of step when it was released.   The private eye genre had moved on in the years since Harper, though The Drowning Pool hadn’t really noticed. These slow, character drive who-done-it stories with were already out of fashioned.   If The Drowning Pool had been made five years earlier, it might have been a hit. There is nothing wrong with the film, the cast or the performances, other than lacking spark and being behind the direction of film-making at the time.   After two big studio-drive vehicles, Newman must have thought this film gave him a meaty role in a low-key mystery.

1976 Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson

The first of Newman’s two films with Robert Altman, who was in full stream-of –consciousness-film-making with this one. The film is very much in the vein of MASH and Nashville, so if you like those films you might enjoy this film. It is interesting to look at and follow the bits of action happening in various parts of the frame as the camera sort of meanders through the action. The menagerie of actors and the different subplots are fascinating, even if the film does not add up to the sum of the parts. Newman as Buffalo Bill is one of his stranger roles. He’s not awful but you feel like you are watching him act, something you don’t usually experience with Newman. The character of Buffalo Bill is given little depth as he is not really The Star, but one of many characters fighting for screen time. A lesser actor might have flourished in the role but Newman is not a supporting player, he’s like a thoroughbred who needs to run to get up to speed. Altman only gives him a short track to operate.

newman slap shot1977 Slap Shot

Besides The Sting, this is the Paul Newman film of the 1970’s that should be required viewing. Reggie Dunlop is every bit as Newman as Luke, Hud, Gondorff or Butch. This film is very 1970’s in fashion, language and music; but watching it today it doesn’t feel dated because it is spot-on funny. Some dismissed the film because of its language, brief nudity and frank humor, and criticized Newman for lowering himself to being crude. There is nothing gratuitous about the humor, language or nudity. In Reggie Dunlop, Newman gets to play his age and revel in his flaws. Re-teaming with George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy, The Sting), the film weaves many fine supporting actors into the story while keeping the pace moving. While the film is generally remembered for the Hanson Brothers (starring in two worthless sequels), they are a minor part of the film. Newman is the cook who stirs the other ingredients with the right seasoning when needed.

quintet1979 Quintet

Quintet is perhaps the biggest misfire of Newman’s career, and his last film of the decade. His second pairing with Robert Altman, was much less successful than the first. I would love to have been at the first meeting between Newman and Altman when they talked about this film to see what was said to convince Newman to agree to this project. They might have decided that this was a serious art film, not intended to be a big crass, commercial film. Or, the film is an end-of-the-world story with big ideas that plays out as a murder mystery. I imagine that Robert Altman could tell a convincing story; over a few drinks he would weave cinematic magic with subplots and allegory, a film that no one else would have the courage to tell. I imagine Altman needed Newman’s name attached to the project to get funding. The film does have a strong cast, and they all seem to be pulling in the same direction, but it is against a strong current of a confusing plot. The viewer has a hard time grasping the circumstances of these characters and staying connected to them through the entire runtime of the film. I remember watching this film at the university one winter Sunday afternoon and leaving the theater feeling like this morose fog had descended on me. How’s that for a happy film experience?

The 1970’s signaled some changes for Paul Newman the actor. His film work output slowed down. Audience tastes were changing rapidly and the old paradigm no longer always worked. As tastes changed, Newman, despite such landmark films as Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy that pushed cinema toward the next decade, represented Old Hollywood and his name above the title no longer guaranteed a connection with the audience. Despite his sex appeal, Newman was 45 years old at the start of the 1970’s. Acting was lucrative and could be tremendously rewarding, but did he really need it like in previous years? Clearly, his life outside of acting (family, racing, social causes, death of his son) shifted his focus and energy. He was interested in directing and took his acting craft very seriously, turning down many commercial projects as he sorted through stacks of scripts sent his way. Newman was a racing driver and the 1970’s may have signaled a downshift, as he left the familiar straight-aways and took his career through a series of turns, balancing speed with a more diverse driving experience.

about-founder-paul-and-kidsIn the next decade and beyond, Newman made fewer films but he would return to a more consistent balance of films, more commercial and critical fare, as he experimented less and less. His name did not have to appear in first place, nor did he have to carry the load himself, as he became more of a character actor, something he may  have seen himself as being all along.



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