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Paul Newman the American Dream-Boy is Dead

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.

8 thoughts on “Paul Newman the American Dream-Boy is Dead”

  1. He was beautiful and more than that, he was – as the inner-city kids say “havable.” In your fantasies, if you were his friend, he wouldn’t turn you down – not because he would be into it so much as he would be into you. You’d get a great kiss and then he’d beg off because he was married to Joanne. And he’d tell Joanne about the kiss and she’d be fine with it because she, of all people, would understand why you wanted him in the first place. It’s a fantasy constructed on a foundation of grace and generosity that both he and Woodward laid from the beginning.

    The footnote: Woodward had not one, but two suitors in the runup to her marriage to Newman. There was Newman; the other suitor was an American writer by the name of Gore Vidal. The three of them reportedly remained close.

  2. Following the trail blazed by the late, great Robert Mitchum (and ignoring the advice of his studio handlers), Newman went out of his way to play against type, first taking on the morally ambiguous Fast Eddie Felson and next the downright despicable Hud Bannon — his finest role in my opinion. “Let’s get some of that family spirit flowing!” he says as he downs a shot of whiskey.

  3. Ok, Mark. Never mind. It’s just the the word beautiful is usually used to describe femenine aesthetics and that of adolescent boys and not that of adult men. To me, Newman was always handsome and not beautiful because his facial features were always too mature in my opinion. Jude Law in “Gattaca” was beautiful. Leo DiCaprio as King Louis the XIVth in the film with the same name was beautiful. Orlando Bloom as Legolas in the Lord Of the Ring sequence, a character he played when he was still in his very early twenties, was beautiful. Newman always looked too masculine to be beautiful. That is my opinion. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. But I do agree that he was one tremendous actor and the one of the last ones possesed of genuine, convincing masculinity.

  4. I repeat, ‘…in his prime Newman visually hovered between boyhood and manhood and the characters he played exploited that.’

    Newman’s beauty in the 50s and (early) 60s – and he was beautiful, not simply ‘handsome’ or ‘good looking’ – blurred the boundary between boyhood and manhood and helped make him such a symbolically powerful figure.

  5. But the Florentine artists from the Renaissance were inspired by Greek models. That’s where the the “neo” in nelclassic comes from. The last time I checked, Michaelangelo’s David shows a supremely gorgeous boy that appears to be around 17 years old. Compare his face to Newman’s and you’ll understand the obvious difference. It is the difference between the face of a youth and that of a young man. I’m not saying that Newman wasn’t extremely good-looking; he was. What I’m saying is that his beauty was not ephebophilic. That’s all. And a 24 year-old who’s shaved still lokks like a young man shaved, and not like a teenage boy.

  6. Maggie: I wouldn’t dream of saying anything other than nice things about you. I value my sight too much for that, honeychile.

    Coderch: I take your point, but I didn’t quite say he was a Greek statue come to life but rather a ‘Florentine neo-Classical’ one, so there. And yes, Newman on film in the 50s and 60s was handsome, but boyishly and beardlessly so. I think that in his prime, Newman visually hovered between boyhood and manhood and the characters he played exploited that. By the time of Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid he had lost much of that boyishness, which leant the movie a slightly melancholic feel from the outset.

  7. My mother loves Paul Newman, and with reason. He was the handsomnest of the last generation of young men from when masculinity still meant something crucial: despite atomic weaponry and radars, the generation that fought in WWII and the Korea War still had to win battles by taking ground from the enemy, which is seldom the case nowadays when the U.S simply bombards enemies from afar with intelligent missiles and then invades in heavy armored vehicles with .50 machine guns that give no chance to the opponent to hurt you back. War in those days was a ballsome afair. No wonder Newman was the dream of young women from the era, since he epitomized virtuous masculinity in a handsome package.

    But notwithstanding I have to disagree with your assertion that Newman was like a Greek statue come to life. Newman hardly fullfils the ideal of ephebophilic boyish beauty that the Greeks adored. The reason for this is that Newman’s features were too mature and masculine in his youth for him to be regarded as that ideal. The last time Newman looked 17 was when he was 12, Mr.Simpson. I have seen pictures of Newman when he was 17 and he already looked like a 22 year-old young man. Extremely handsome, yes, but hardly a beautiful boy in the Greek tradition.

  8. You better not say nothing bad about Maggie the Cat Mr. Simpson, or I will scratch you.

    We’re not living – we just occupy the same cage!

    but I think she put it best or Tenny did:
    If I thought you’d never make love to me again, I’d find the longest, sharpest knife and stick it straight into my heart. I’d do that!

    Job well done!

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