Newman's Coming into His Own
On today’s 93rd birthday of the revered screen icon Paul Newman (1925-2008), fans are thankful for his legacy of 57 performances in feature films both monumental and somewhat less meritorious between 1954 and 2006. This label’s personnel count themselves among his admirers, privileged to present three sterling examples of early-career projects that burnished his charismatic leading-man aura. These also provided a mix of fond and frustrating memories for Newman as well. From his sidewindingly sexy turn as the wily Ben Quick in the Louisiana-lensed William Faulkner adaptation The Long, Hot Summer (1958, directed by Martin Ritt), in which his sizzling on-screen romance with leading lady Joanne Woodward would prefigure their marriage 60 years ago this coming Monday, there would come what Paul Newman: A Life biographer Shawn Levy called “a most unusual memento: a gigantic brass bed that they’d discovered while antique shopping in New Orleans. Newman loved to speculate as to its origins: ‘Three could sleep in it very comfortably,’ he told a reporter. ‘We figure it must once have stood in a cathouse; there’d be no other reason to make a bed that big.’ Tennessee Williams, he once bragged, had tried to buy the bed from them: ‘He considers it the most perfect example of Southern decadence he has ever seen.’ But he couldn’t have it. Pretty soon Newman and Joanne would be able to sleep together in their big brazen folly for the rest of their lives.” The experience also gave him an insight into the volcanic and, at that time in his life, disruptive fellow cast member, the mighty Orson Welles, playing the conniving family patriarch Will Varner. Levy learned from Newman: “Orson and I didn’t see eye to eye about a great many things, and I had no truck with his temperamentality….But he said a very touching thing. By this time Marty had started to get to him, and I think he’d begun to trust him a little bit, and he said, ‘I didn’t play that scene very good, did I?’ And Marty said, ‘No, I think you could have done better in it, but, you know, the light’s gone and we can’t – ’ And he said, ‘I don’t know; I feel like I’m riding a tricycle in a barrel of molasses.’ Up until that time I’d been terribly resentful of him, but I saw something in a statement like that, so that all of his belligerency came out of a terrible insecurity….I finally wound up liking him very much and being able to talk to him without being uncomfortable. We weren’t at all close, but I had tremendous admiration for him.”
Newman had a tremendous attraction to quality work, which he believed he wasn’t getting on his 1950s Warner Bros. multifilm agreement, so he forked up a reported $500,000 to buy out his contract, a “terrifying leap,” as Levy writes, because he learned another valuable lesson about worrying about cashflow and thus taking on too much simultaneous work – i.e. the late 1959 Broadway run of Tennessee Williams’ play Sweet Bird of Youth, while juggling a daytime commitment filming the New York location scenes of his second Twilight Time title, the romantic melodrama From the Terrace (1960, directed by Mark Robson from a John O’Hara bestseller) about, you guessed it, the corrupt crossroads of money lust and blind ambition. Levy reports: “Joanne starred opposite him as the society girl he marries and can’t hold on to; Ina Balin played the sweet girl he meets too late and decides to love anyhow. Never missing a single one of the 300+ performances of Sweet Bird during his run with the play, he kept on schedule with the movie. Sol Jacobson, the press agent for Sweet Bird, recalled of this grueling routine, ‘Eight times a week he created the part as if it were opening night. And what is even more astonishing, by day he got up before dawn and commuted to the [film] set.’ Newman admitted to being shattered by the workload. ‘We’ve been under pressure from the start,’ he told an interviewer. ‘I worked day and night…I guess I was greedy.’ But having Joanne on the set with him was a balm against his worst impulses. ‘When I get home,’ he explained, ‘I can’t bluster around growling that the director fouled me up on this or that scene, because Joanne was there.’”
On his next project, the handsome, blue-eyed Newman would take on a role that challenged and discomforted him, perching him atop a superb company of actors, and requiring him to tap into his half-Jewish family heritage while collaborating with a notoriously autocratic director on a lavishly scaled location-shot historical epic. The experience reportedly unnerved and frustrated him, and certain critics at the time would evaluate his work as “restrained,” “rigid” and “humorless,” despite his genuinely, warmly adult scenes with love interest Eva Marie Saint as an American aid worker drawn into the story’s desperate geopolitical struggle. But, as resident TT essayist Julie Kirgo notes, “Newman would come into his own as an international superstar with Exodus [1960, directed by Otto Preminger from the Leon Uris book and a solid box-office hit]. He enters the film like a god, emerging from the sea, dripping and shirtless, with both beauty and authority: frankly the most stunning Jew (apart from his compatriot Kirk Douglas) ever to grace the screen. Newman never made a big deal out of his Judaism; like Preminger, he was probably as secular as they come. But here, he brings undeniable conviction to his portrayal of the Zionist leader, Ari [Ben-Canaan]: a Sabra – born in Israel of a father (Lee J. Cobb) who walked from Russia to take his place in the Jewish homeland of Palestine – who displays both command and inclusive compassion in his struggle to make a nation for his people.” Though the episodic 208-minute roadshow extravaganza involves many stories involving the British military (Ralph Richardson, Peter Lawford), Arabs (John Derek) and freedom fighters (Sal Mineo, Jill Haworth, George Maharis, David Opatoshu), Newman’s Ari is the connective central character of what Time’s reviewer called “an amazing achievement, a serious, expert, frightening and inspiring political thriller.” As filming concluded, Newman remained unsure of the toll that his contentious relationship with Preminger might have taken on his work. Levy reports: “On the plane as the crew left Israel, [costume coordinator and Preminger’s wife] Hope Bryce claimed, he turned to Preminger and told him flat out, ‘I could have directed this picture better than you.’” A noteworthy directorial effort of birthday honoree Newman will come into focus here in the coming days, but for now, his splendid acting chops can be celebrated via TT’s splendid hi-def Blu-rays of The Long, Hot Summer, From the Terrace (available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/30726/FROM-THE-TERRACE-1960/) and Exodus.