Paul Newman at BAM


Save a perfunctory screening of The Hustler, BAM’s eulogy for Paul Newman strays wide of the beaten path. No Sting Cassidy and the Cool Hand Hud, but there’s Torn Curtain, with more lovely Hitchcock stanzas than you remember, and if Slap Shot isn’t as rollickingly, raunchily funny as it thinks, Newman’s middle-aged player-coach, hustling to keep ahold of his youthful heedlessness, is one of his most felt roles. That film’s air of Northeastern, lower-middle-class provincialism is echoed in the disappeared Newman directorial effort, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972), which was having a well-received Paris revival the week Newman died. It’s a doting husband’s gift, in which Newman hand-picked a showpiece role for spouse Joanne Woodward. The source was Staten Island science teacher Paul Zindel’s debut play, written as an exercise in empathy (and revenge) toward lax parents he’d seen “holding back” their kids at Tottenville. Woodward’s Beatrice Hunsdorfer is a single mother who never left the hometown she always hated, and is now a wenchy domestic train wreck trailing monologues and beer cans around a dungeon-dun house. Locals remember her by a high school nickname (“Betty the Loon”); traffic-cop ex-classmates indulge her with calm condescension. Zindel echoes the Tennessee Williams idea of home as an incubator of dysfunction (Newman had a career-long dialogue with Williams—his last film was an effective Glass Menagerie). But Gamma Rays has a bleak humor all its own: Beatrice uses an ancient, sepulchral lodger as a sounding board; a schoolgirl with unblinking psycho eyes presents a home-peeled cat’s skeleton for a science assembly. Beatrice’s girls, Tillie and Ruth, are played by Newman and Woodward’s daughter, Nell Potts, and Roberta “Eli’s girl” Wallach, respectively. Each looks for a shelter from mother’s home-school curriculum of shut-in misanthropy and bathetic self-pity; Tillie’s escape is a passionate, private comfort in the cosmos (stoked by—you guessed it—an understanding science teacher). Her final statement of faith in the atom might just leave you with a catch in your throat.

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