Monday, October 27, 2008

Gone are the Days...

Whenever a star of Paul Newman’s rank and goodwill passes on, the words “end of an era” can be expected to ricochet from corner to bereaved corner—a bromide to stave off the challenge of articulating loss in a meaningful way. But in this case the platitude carries rather more weight, because Newman’s departure sounds the death knell for that endangered species, the great actor-movie star. For over half a century Newman occupied the center of a Venn diagram whose overlap has grown sliver-thin, until at last he appeared to be the linchpin holding the two circles together.

Perhaps not in the strictest literal sense—we still have Peter O’Toole, Kirk Douglas, and a handful of holdovers, not forgetting the movie stars who’ve long since relinquished their great actor status (De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, etc). But mostly when discussing great actors and movie stars, we’re contrasting general practitioners and specialists. They have different qualifications, different customers. Some can inhabit both realms, but almost never at the same time.

A movie star is, of course, a performer who connects with a mass audience, and whose vehicles (as they tend to be called) generate consistently high returns at the box office. “Great actor” is harder to characterize, so I bow to two examples of the species. Michael Caine frequently points out a difference in approach: Movie stars tailor their parts to fit their personalities, while actors undergo image modification to suit the demands of each role. George C. Scott, one of cinema’s finest actors, looked for “a joy of performing,” which I take to mean a euphoric immersion in the skin and psyche of another person, regardless of that person’s temperament. By these and any other standards, then, Newman was a great actor.

Yet all the time he was eschewing vanity and altering his image, he was working in the mainstream and grossing bloody fortunes. How did he pull it off? Can it be ascribed to universal viewer identification, or to an arsenal of allegiance and good faith so vast that audiences would follow him anywhere? Frankly I reject both propositions. Looking over his body of work, I’m hard pressed to cite one character with whom I “identify.” Outlaws, hustlers and alcoholics are not generically relatable types. Like Cool Hand Luke, Newman never pandered for acceptance; that he secured it even in these roles signals a spellbinding internal commitment, an absolute authenticity. But moreover, it owes to an intricacy of construction underscored by an avowal of weakness. (This, if anywhere, is where recognition comes into play.) Despite our tendency to conflate pop cultural icons, Luke is not Dirty Harry, and the crucial difference lies in Luke’s vulnerability. A sublime scene with his mother (Jo Van Fleet) resonates with muted acknowledgment of failure and forgiveness, and his subsequent response to her death consolidates audience sympathy through sheer refusal to solicit it.

If The Verdict contains Newman’s finest performance, as I believe it does, it’s because Frank Galvin stands as his richest reservoir of flawed humanity. A scene where he consoles a client by phone, his tranquil tones facilitated by the liquor without which he’d lack the stability to speak, is a master sketch of desperation channeled into reassurance. His portrayal is so delicately mounted that the unknown contents of his cup in the last scene make no real difference. If it holds whiskey he’s still earned his redemption; if it’s coffee he’s no less prone to relapse. Which of today’s stars could project such equivocality?

My aim is not to disparage the cluster of contemporary headliners. But as I write these words the supreme movie star (in terms of bankability) is Will Smith, and the divergence there is marked. Each July moviegoers line up to watch Smith battle aliens or robots, and come December they pay to see him grapple with poverty and persecution. But what’s really at stake here? A working definition of the movie star as proffered by Caine, Smith exhibits overriding confidence in the face of inevitably outmatched adversity. Clooney and the rest of the latter-day Rat Pack, irrespective of forays into Oscar country, offer viewers the same thing John Wayne once guaranteed: Affirmation that no hardships are too messy to work themselves out in roughly the time it takes the human bladder to process a large soda from the snack bar.

I find myself especially rankled by the recurring submission of Tom Hanks as Newman’s heir apparent—the matinee idol with the stroke of genius. There’s no denying the man’s talent, but at the same time, his much-lauded humility confounds any hope of transcendence. Old Tom is always there, peeking out from behind his character to remind us he loves his wife and kids. His potentially image-altering turn as the contract killer in Road to Perdition was hamstrung by unseemly decorum. One need only witness his scenes with a blood-chilling Newman to note the disparity. And Hanks’s rollicking Charlie Wilson is drunk under the table by his obvious antecedent, Newman’s debauched governor Earl Long in Blaze. Newman cavorts with wild abandon, convinces you of his insatiable, innumerable hungers; Hanks’s portrayal suggests that Forrest has fallen in with a bad crowd and forgotten everything Mama used to tell him.

Great actors still exist, make no mistake. Daniel Day-Lewis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeff Bridges and a few other stalwarts keep moviegoing bearable, and once in a while a riveting turn seeps into the homogenous Hollywood harvest, like Heath Ledger’s Brando-esque tour de force in The Dark Knight. But, Paul, you natural born world-shaker, when you left you took the current from the mainstream. “End of an era” has never seemed more apt.


Anne said...

You know my weak spot is classics, and I think the only Newman film I've seen is Road to Perdition (insert gasp of horror). What are your top three recommendations? (I'll assume one spot is taken up by The Verdict.)

3NT said...

Five words: Ryan Gosling and Amy Ryan.