Timing is everything for an actor, and Newman’s curtain-call, coming as it does amidst meltdown on Wall Street and panic on Capitol Hill, and at the end of a decade defined by the twin disasters of 9-11 and Iraq, is nothing if not dramatic. The myriad obituaries and tributes to Paul Newman in the last few days have been richly deserved, but his passing seems to symbolize more than just the death of a great and well-loved actor, or even the curtain falling on one of the last products of the Hollywood studio system. It seems almost to mark the demise of the American Dream itself. A dream that is looking more and more like a distinctly mid-to-late 20th Century reverie.
But what a reverie! Newman was stunning in his youth, like a neo-Classical Florentine statue brought very magically to life: those proud cheekbones, that straight nose connecting with his thoughtful brow, the square dimpled chin and his tight little (non-steroidal) boxer body, that claspable neck, those white teeth, those pouting lips and those preternaturally pale blue eyes, more inviting than penetrating, that seemed to contain in their coolness, the un-spoilt, exciting, abundant promise of America’s plains, lakes and shining seas. The fact that in his personal life he turned out to be an extraordinarily generous and socially-concerned chap makes that promise even more poignant.
Newman, who himself was part of the ‘Greatest Generation’ (he served in the Pacific during the Second World War), was the post-war American Dream made beautiful, friendly flesh. Somehow, projected on silver screens around the world in the 1950s and 1960s, this demigod managed to be entirely desirable but also entirely approachable. In other words: American. Everyone, male and female, wanted to buy him a drink and be his buddy or lover or both – and, crucially, thought they could be. Newman was one of the actors (all from the 1950s and 1960s) I watched as a kid on TV that made me announce to anyone that would listen that ‘when I grow up I’m going to move to America to become mates with those blokes in the movies!’.
In terms of projecting the American way of life around the world, Hollywood’s Paul Newman was worth more than a fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers – and probably rather more fun in bed.
It’s no accident that Newman’s two most popular movies were both buddy-love vehicles with the (almost) equally all-American Robert Redford: ‘Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid’ (1969) and ‘The Sting’ (1973). Newman seems to have been slightly exasperated that most people had missed the point of ‘Butch Cassidy’: that it was a film about male love – a male romance. It was in many ways the original and much superior Brokeback Mountain, thirty years before the tedious, mawkish Ang Lee ‘remake’. For my popcorn money, Butch/Newman’s and Sundance/Redford’s love for each other is much more convincing and affecting than that of their Noughties men’s-fashion-shoot-with-a-Western-theme counterparts, despite never being consummated.
Newman’s tough vulnerability and deliciously flawed masculinity seem to have made his relationship to homosexuality symbolically central to his cinematic persona; the fact he seems to have been a very happily married heterosexual in ‘real’ life only adds to his mythos. Below is a YouTube clip of Newman (with a Placebo soundtrack you can mute), pouting peerlessly as Brick in the 1958 movie version of Tennessee Williams classic ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ as an all-American jock struggling with his secret love for Skipper his buddy who has committed suicide, Big Daddy’s expectations of a grandson and the ‘mendacity’ of family-values American life.
Because of the mendacity of 1950s Hollywood, the movie-version of William’s script bowdlerised Brick’s latent homosexuality. However, such was the troubled erotic power of Newman’s appearance on the screen that the original meaning still somehow shines through, despite the baby-making happy ending.
Perhaps it’s just me, but all these years later Elizabeth Taylor, wonderfully youthfully glamorous as she is here, now sometimes looks less like Brick’s wife and more like his incestuous young mother. There was already something not quite right about the American Dream back in the 1950s, and Tennessee Williams couldn’t leave it alone.
As for the rest of us, we couldn’t leave Paul Newman alone.