It’s somewhat forgotten now, but when Paul Newman’s career was getting going, he was sometimes hailed as the next Marlon Brando. Newman, however, never bought into that.
“I had fun with that comparison thing between Brando and me,” he said in 1973. “When I first went out to Hollywood and everybody was referring to me as the ‘road company Brando’ and things like that, I found it was kind of interesting, ‘cause that’s what I consider lazy journalism. … I liked to nail those guys, and it’s very simple to do. You ask them, ‘What is Marlon’s basic quality? What does he carry within himself?’ Well, they’re absolutely stumped, and they flop around a lot, and I ask, ‘Well, what do you think my basic quality is?’ And they wouldn’t know that, either. They didn’t have the vaguest idea of what Marlon’s focus is, which is eruptability. Eruptability is always in the potential of the masses-type hero.”
So what was Newman’s basic quality?
The Oscar-winner, who died in 2008 at the age of 83, had a similar penchant for brooding everymen and difficult antiheroes. But Newman carried his characters’ torment lightly, letting us see their pain without trying to convince us that he shared in it. Growing up in Ohio, he’d wanted to be an athlete, but he wasn’t talented enough, and after serving in World War II in the Pacific, he pursued acting, moving from stage to screen but never entirely loving the idea of sharing himself as part of the promotion of his films. In a 1983 interview, he groused, “This is the great age of candor. Fuck candor.”
The films speak well enough for him, allowing Newman to embody restless, often arrogant young men who weren’t always aware of their most glaring flaws. The same wasn’t true of Newman, who was often brutal about the weaknesses he saw in his own work. “There are only so many different facets of your own personality that you can get to,” he said in 1974. “You find yourself repeating yourself. I mean, there are actors like Olivier and Guinness who are extraordinary and who seem to have a limitless [depth] … I don’t seem to have that.”
It’s fair to say that Newman has often been considered more of a popular, beloved star than a great actor, although that perception never kept him from digging deeper — especially as he got older. His charitable work and endless love for race cars are integral to his legacy, but never forget that Newman successfully forged a permanent bond with moviegoers, who rooted for his characters because they just liked him. That common touch is something greater actors can’t always achieve — they’re so mighty we bow down in their presence. By comparison, Newman was always more approachable, which is probably why so many of his movies are still so warmly embraced.
So, where do you begin in his filmography? Below are 10 fairly consensus picks for the perfect Paul Newman starter kit. The big hits and established classics are all here, and with good reason: They’ve held up wonderfully, even if Newman himself didn’t think so.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
“I never felt like a leading man, never felt it,” Newman said in 2000. “You’ve gotta feel like a leading man in order to be a leading man, and I never had that kind of confidence.” Of course, his career would suggest otherwise, and he had his first big hit with this adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play, in which he plays Brick, a drunk mourning the death of a friend, the end of his promising athletic career and the shambles he’s left of his marriage to Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor).
In the original Broadway production, the source of Brick’s torment was more apparent — he’s closeted, and his dead friend was secretly his lover — but 1950s Hollywood wasn’t ready for such subject matter. But despite the watered-down adaptation, Newman gives us a portrayal of a man who feels like he’s lost everything — and he’s chosen to take it out on his wife, who still loves him even though he’s convinced she had an affair with the friend.
Although Newman was later dismissive of his performance, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof suggested the soulful fire within this exceedingly handsome man — the all-American guy wrestling with his demons. The film’s success paved the way for movies in which he’d utilize that talent more powerfully.
The Hustler (1961)
It was good fortune that Newman landed the part of Eddie Felson, a cocky pool player who’s convinced he’s the best in the world — and is determined to rub it in every opponent’s face. Newman was supposed to be shooting another movie in France, but when that fell through, the script for The Hustler came his way. “So I started to read this thing and was halfway through,” he recalled. “Called my agent and said, ‘I’m halfway through… make it happen.’”
No doubt a couple generations of men have looked up to Fast Eddie, who Newman plays with such swagger that he’s the embodiment of effortless cool. When he’s moving around the table, talking shit and calling his next shot, he’s like Muhammad Ali taunting his opponent in the ring. Of course, though, Fast Eddie is a lot more than that — there’s a darkness to the guy — and Newman really brings that to the fore. In The Hustler, we see a different kind of gambling-addiction drama: This poor schmuck desperately needs to win, and he’ll sacrifice everything else for that rush.
The Hustler was Newman’s first great film, setting the stage for the dashing-but-complicated antiheroes he’d play in the 1960s. “I didn’t seek out those [antihero] roles,” he said in 1994 when asked to explain this tendency toward such characters. “They’re probably [just] written better.”
Based on a Larry McMurtry novel, this passionate drama starred Newman as Hud, a real bastard who wants to seduce his family’s housekeeper, Alma (Patricia Neal, who won an Oscar for her performance). There’s also a fraught generational battle going on between Hud and his father (Melvyn Douglas), an upstanding rancher who doesn’t understand how he’s raised such a willful, rowdy son.
“Films were fun in those days,” Newman said. “Production companies left you alone to do your work.” Indeed, he seems to have relished the opportunity to explore such a loathsome, selfish individual — a womanizer who’s like a wrecking ball destroying everything in his path. He received his third Best Actor nomination for the performance — the first two were for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Hustler — but it angered him when some critics thought he was too pretty to play such a hardened, angry character.
“One review I’ll never forget,” Newman once recalled. “It said that Hud was quite a marvelous picture. ‘The only problem,’ the reviewer wrote, ‘is that Paul Newman is playing the part, because basically, he has a face that doesn’t look lived in.’ But Jesus Christ, that’s exactly what made the bastard dangerous. The whole point is that he has a face that doesn’t look lived in.”
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Newman’s penchant for playing delightful rascals probably reached its zenith here. Prison movies are often about the individual squaring off against “the system,” and that’s especially true of Cool Hand Luke, in which Newman portrays Luke Jackson, who’s part of a chain gang in the 1950s, locking horns with the vindictive warden (Strother Martin). This is hardly a fair fight: Newman couldn’t be more charming as a rebel who refuses to conform. Sadly, his character ends up on the losing side of this showdown.
Cool Hand Luke only continued to cement Newman’s popularity, which didn’t always sit well with him. George Kennedy, who won an Oscar for his role as a rival prisoner, remembered that his friend resisted the trappings of celebrity. “When we were making Luke,” Kennedy said in 1968, “we were in Stockton, California, and on weekends, Paul and I would fly back to Hollywood. I remember once Newman got so fed up with all the fuss that he made the plane reservation in another name. But somehow the airline crew got the word. … [T]he captain made an announcement about how great it was to have Paul Newman on board and so on. I can’t understand how the really big superstars like Newman can stand it.”
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
At one point, it could have been Marlon Brando playing Butch, with Newman taking on the role of Sundance. But that’s not how things worked out: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid didn’t just define a certain type of male friendship on screen but also forever equated in audiences’ mind the pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. At that time, Redford was just an up-and-coming actor, but Newman reportedly predicted to his co-star while they were shooting, “You’re in your first $20-million picture” — in other words, a big hit.
You know the film, even if you haven’t seen it. Newman is Butch, and Redford is Sundance, two wisecracking outlaws who represent an individualistic lifestyle that’s on its way out. Although tragedy awaits these guys, nobody thinks of this lightly revisionist Western as a bummer because, in Redford, Newman found his finest doubles partner. Although they were about a decade apart in age, their rapport made them seem like brothers, which explains why Butch Cassidy is also something of a love story — albeit a bittersweet one.
“Too bad that they got killed at the end,” Newman once said, “‘cause those two guys could have gone on in films forever.”
The Sting (1973)
Arguably the most beloved of Newman’s films, The Sting is, ironically, a movie in which he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. (He was just about the only one: The picture received 10 nods, winning seven, including Best Picture.) The con-man comedy reunited him with Redford and George Roy Hill, his co-star and director from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for another period piece. This time, it’s the 1930s, as two crooks work together to get back at a mobster (Robert Shaw) who killed their friend. All they have to do is come up with the perfect scam.
Newman’s Henry Gondorff is advertised as a veteran grifter who used to be among the best — a classic character trait in the roles Newman pursued — and he’s especially charming in The Sting, giving us a guy who’s fallen on hard times but will find his shot at redemption. And like The Hustler’s Fast Eddie, Gondorff is a gambler and a showboat — he’s immensely pleased with himself, and with good reason. The Sting is, itself, a movie about the joy of pulling a fast one — it’s a metaphor for acting in a way — and Newman has rarely had so much fun on screen.
Slap Shot (1977)
“I think the picture is profane but it is funny — genuinely funny,” Newman once said of this underrated sports comedy. “There is violence in this picture, but it is hockey violence. And hockey violence is a lot of blood drawn and a lot of teeth knocked out.”
That’s a pretty apt description of Newman’s third collaboration with director George Roy Hill. Slap Shot wasn’t as acclaimed as their previous two films, but like The Bad News Bears, which came out the previous year, it’s a sports movie in touch with the anti-conformist spirit of the times. Newman plays Reggie, an over-the-hill hockey player whose minor league team faces an uncertain future because of the town’s collapsing economy. The only way to drum up fans? Be the most unruly, violent bunch of goons that the game has ever seen.
Newman was in his early 50s when Slap Shot came out, and the film in a lot of ways anticipated the career transition he’d be making. Still impossibly handsome, he would start playing characters who were reflecting back on their life, often filled with regret or facing existential dead ends. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of his very best work came during this period.
The Verdict (1982)
Newman tended to have a dim view of his performances in even his most beloved films. But he actually felt he started to develop into a good actor around The Verdict, which he called “foremost among the contenders” for his favorite role. I agree with him about his performance as Frank, a lawyer with a reputation for drinking and shady ethics. (One’s true, the other is a bit more complicated.)
The film involves him signing onto what seems like a slam-dunk case — medical malpractice where the hospital wants to settle fast — but after Frank meets the plaintiff, who’s in a coma after a botched operation, he decides he wants to take the matter to court. As directed by Sidney Lumet and written by David Mamet, The Verdict is, technically, a courtroom drama, but it’s really a character study about a guy who’s betting everything on winning justice for his client. For the first time in forever, Frank passionately cares about a case — but he also cares about turning his life around.
“It’s more about the personal salvation of the Paul Newman character than it is about the case itself,” Lumet later said of The Verdict. “The case only serves as the instrument by which a man saves himself.” Newman had played failed men before, but The Verdict seemed to bring out something far wearier and more broken within him than anything he’d done previously. There’s something deeply pathetic and feeble about Frank, but he never stops believing in himself, and so we end up believing in him, too. Newman would sometimes talk about how he liked to be thought of as a character actor rather than a leading man. In The Verdict, he’s both.
The Color of Money (1986)
“I had a latent hope somehow that I would not ever win an Oscar until my finally expiring days, and that I could be carried up on the stage on a stretcher … and this grungy, spindly hand would come up underneath the sheet and grab this thing and snake it back underneath the sheets and have the stretcher disappear.”
That’s what Newman had to say in 1994 when a journalist asked him about finally winning the Best Actor prize for The Color of Money when he “should” have taken home the Oscar years earlier. Obviously, the actor’s macabre fantasy didn’t come true, and indeed his victory has always felt like a classic example of the Academy making up for past snubs. Nonetheless, this follow-up to The Hustler, with Newman reprising his role as Fast Eddie, offered a rare opportunity for an actor to revisit a character much later in life. The Eddie of the first film was a young hotshot. The Eddie of The Color of Money? Still out there hustling, but a lot further down the road, jealous of the new young hotshots — particularly, Tom Cruise’s ambitious up-and-comer — and wondering what his life has added up to.
But although The Hustler is the better film, it’s awfully satisfying to watch an older, more experienced Newman return to that character, in essence commenting on the star he used to be and the star that he became. As a result, the Oscar win felt as much a celebration of his career as for the individual performance. But it also cemented a change in Newman’s own way of thinking. “I guess I may have been competitive about acting at one point my life,” he said in 1987 while reflecting on the award. “I’m certainly not competitive anymore.”
Road to Perdition (2002)
In the final two decades of his career, Newman focused mostly on paternal figures — he was the voice of Doc in the Cars films — and earned accolades for the modest, luminous character piece Nobody’s Fool. But Road to Perdition earned him his final Oscar nomination, playing John Rooney, a mob boss in 1930s Illinois — essentially, the same time period and milieu as The Sting. But this was a much darker and more mournful picture, in which he serves as a deadly father figure for Tom Hanks’ soulful hitman Michael.
On one level, Rooney is a pretty straightforward character — he’s not in the movie all that much — but Newman finds the right elegiac tone. Rooney’s someone who’s held power for so long that he doesn’t need to flaunt it, and so it’s interesting to see Newman — who was so good with charismatic showboats — play a muted, grandfatherly role near the end of his life. It would be one of the last times he appeared on screen, and it was a beautiful farewell.
Back in the late 1960s, Paul Newman wondered if he’d peaked. “I’m running out of steam,” he said at that time. “Wherever I look, I find parts reminiscent of Luke or Hud or Fast Eddie. Christ, I played those parts once and parts of them more than once. It’s not only dangerous to repeat yourself, it’s damned tiresome.” He didn’t know that some of his finest work was still to come. Plus, those 1960s gems he referenced have lost none of their luster. They still shine like the omnipresent twinkle in his eyes.