Sunday, September 28, 2008

Goodbye, Mr. Gondorff

There never really was a failure to communicate, not when Paul Newman was on the screen.

I first saw him in The Sting as a kid and thought that he and Robert Redford were the greatest movie stars ever. Even 35 years after it first came out, I can watch that movie over and over and never grow bored. While my appreciation for actors on screen has broadened over the years, The Sting remains one of my all-time favorite movies due so very much to Newman's Henry Gondorff and Redford's Johnny Hooker. It wasn't until several years later that I watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for the first time. I've enjoyed it every time I've watched it since then but it doesn't have the same rakish appeal that I find in The Sting.

When I was 12, I was introduced to the older Newman when Don Dewing, my late Scoutmaster, took me to see The Verdict. Pretty deep stuff but I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. Newman, older, more craggy, still captivated me and the rest of the audience. Sadly, the print failed with about 15 minutes left in the film and while we were given free tickets for a future show, Don and I didn't make it back and it wasn't until The Verdict was available on video that I found out how it ended. In the interim, I'd started to catch up on more of Newman's work, entertained by fluff like Slap Shot and disaster-of-the-week schlock like The Towering Inferno (Newman and McQueen on one screen!! Holy Cow!), left speechless by Cool Hand Luke and winced as his thumbs were broken in The Hustler. Even in oddball stuff like the Coen brothers' The Hudsucker Proxy, Newman displayed a devilish glint in his eyes and made watching movies even more fun.

Strangely, it was the one film that he won an Oscar for (The Color of Money) that I really couldn't stand. Like Pacino's Oscar for Scent of a Woman and Scorcese's for The Departed, I suspect that there was a sense of "they've earned in their career and we don't know if we'll have another chance" that tipped the voting a bit. I mean, Newman and Pacino were fine in those films and The Departed is certainly grim and gripping but can anyone really make the case that these were their best work or clearly the best work for that particular year? All of matter of opinion, I suppose.

What isn't really a matter of opinion is that the world is a less colorful place without Paul Newman in it. Not colorful in an attention-seeking, egotistical actor way. He just always struck me as one of those stars you really would want to spend time with, maybe have dinner with, and who truly enjoyed entertaining people. In the 36 hours since his passing, nothing that I've read has disabused me of that idea. Everyone knows about his philanthropic efforts (and the tasty food that supported them) but how many people realized what Newman put into and got out of this? Read Dahlia Lithwick's heartfelt remembrance of her summers as a counselor at the original Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut and you'll learn something new about the man. I certainly did.

And in the end, it's clear that Paul Newman never failed to communicate with us either via the big screen or through the example he set, even as he picked your pocket. Goodbye, Mr. Gondorff. I can't wait until the next time I see you swindle Doyle Lonnegan.

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