Because of my age, Paul Newman (1925-2008) is one of those Hollywood actors—Richard Widmark, his Connecticut neighbor who died in March, is another—whom I first came to know through his 1970s work. Which is why more than Cool Hand Luke or Hud Bannon or Eddie Felson or even Butch Cassidy, Newman is always going to be con artist Henry Gondorff to me.
By coincidence, a few weeks ago I watched The Sting (1973) in its entirety for the first time in about 25 years. Directed by George Roy Hill—with whom Newman made several iconic pictures including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and the great Slap Shot (1977)—The Sting, I discovered, is still a terrible film (the seven Oscars, including one for Best Picture, notwithstanding). Creeping and bloated, it’s a superstar vehicle that seems to exist solely for the purpose of its period costumes and chintzy backlot sets, the Ocean’s Thirteen of its day. And yet Newman himself is captivating, especially in the poker game scene where, to swindle Robert Shaw’s Chicago gangster, he adroitly pretends to be already shitfaced when he sits down at the table.
Newman again played a drunkard in what continues to be my favorite of his performances, as attorney Frank Galvin in The Verdict (1982). Galvin is a Boston ambulance chaser who, in the form of a medical malpractice suit, has one last chance at redemption. Those ole blue eyes were never more radiant than in The Verdict‘s final scene, where they express all the complicated thoughts—and all the many years of living—behind his decision not to pick up the ringing telephone in front of him. Charlotte Rampling, as the woman who double-crossed him, is on the other line; it’s a bittersweet triumph for Frank not to answer. His glory days are behind him, but he’ll go on anyway.—Benjamin Strong
Paul Newman, 1925-2008 [Runnin’ Scared]