I first saw Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but the movie in which he really caught my attention was one that most people might well consider one of his lesser works: a Cold War spy thriller called The Prize, in which he played a cynical writer who wins the Nobel Prize for Literature but soon finds himself embroiled in things far beyond his ken. It’s formulaic and it’s breezy fun, and while I’d love to say that I was transfixed by his performance, the truth is, there was a towel. A rather small white one that he put on when he found himself stuck at a nudists’ conference. Ahem. God bless the Scandinavians and their quaint customs.
Anyway, I was hooked. It was my first full-blown crush and Paul Newman was it. Forever. Sure, he was old enough to be my grandfather but that’s the magic of the movies: he was always going to be that hot young man in a towel for me. Others want to see their idols off-screen – I have never wanted to mix up my fantasy (so perfect!) with reality (frequently disappointing). But if ever I was tempted to break the rule, Paul Newman would have been the man I broke it for.
I’m sure he wasn’t perfect, but you couldn’t prove it by write ups like these.
Trying to compile a top ten list of Paul Newman movies, therefore, is like trying to choose your favorite child – in a career spanning over 50 years, he made so many wonderful movies that I really don’t think it’s possible to come up with a definitive list. There will always be personal favorites, hidden gems, bones of contention. So I’ve decided to throw objectivity out the window and present ten of my favorite Newman movies.
Note: I haven’t included his directorial efforts (though Rachel, Rachel is one of the most poignant movies I’ve ever seen) or his later work as a character actor, even though I’ve always felt that his work only continued to improve, not decline.
1. Cool Hand Luke – You’ve probably heard the hype. Believe it. The beauty of this movie is that its focus is so claustrophobic (man’s struggle against authority staged within the confines of a prison camp) but it’s interpreted in so many ways as the movie takes you ever deeper into the tiny world inhabited by the characters. And although there is a great deal of explicit violence, it’s what’s going inside the men that stays with you. Of course, that said, there isn’t a scene in this movie that doesn’t stay with you.
2. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Maggie, hustling to keep her marriage together; Brick, trying to keep himself together; and a family battling love, greed and pain as one man’s mortality hits all of them in the face.
3. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – Perfection. It’s always hard to find fault with the movies of your childhood but you have to admit, if you wanted to poke holes in a kid’s favorite movie, this wouldn’t be the one you’d pick. The best part about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is that it’s one of those rare movies that grows with you. There’s always something new to notice. And when you’ve seen it a million times, as I have, it becomes a comfort-movie – one of those blessed movies that make you feel good even if does leave you with a bittersweet ache in your heart.
4. The Long, Hot Summer – Steamy romances don’t get any steamier than this. Based on a rather dry short story of a man suspected to be a barnburner (just about the most filthy thing a man could be apparently), The Long Hot Summer is the story of a man who might be the son of the barnburner of the short story. Joanne Woodward’s repressed Southern schoolmarm and Newman’s hustler on the make with the requisite Southern family dynamics thrown in, make for a riveting movie. I don’t think I know a woman who doesn’t love it to bits.
5. Hud – If you’ve ever asked yourself the question, Could I possibly love a complete bastard? I suggest you wait to answer until you’ve had a chance to catch Hud. He’s a self-centered son of a bitch with few morals and even less conscience. But it’s hard to watch him pull off shit like the stunt below and not find yourself reluctantly attracted to him. Of course, there’s no way any of it can end well – coz the man is completely toxic. But you can hope and pretend for a little while. He makes it so easy too.
6. The Sting – There are very few movies that can even begin to match The Sting for its complexity and sheer fun. Think Ocean’s Eleven but better, much better.
7. The Verdict – The moment you see an alcoholic lawyer on screen, you know there’s trouble in the offing. And so it is in The Verdict, where Newman’s character pushes a lawsuit that nobody wanted to see pushed to trial. His motives in doing so are more than a little suspect, but as things turn out, it might just be his one shot at redemption. Courtroom dramas aren’t always my thing, but this movie definitely belongs on this list.
8. Harper – Lauren Bacall has this trick of overshadowing her co-stars. Even into her old age, it’s a rare co-star who can match her charisma. Newman is one of those few and that too in a movie set in the genre that Bogey and Bacall uniquely made their own.
9. The Prize – Evil Russians, scientists, defections, hot blondes, the Nobel Prize, a writer embittered by the fact that all his critical acclaim hasn’t actually made him a success at what he does… it could all have been a re-hash of Torn Curtain (which I like by the way, but can’t accommodate here due to space constraints) but it isn’t.
10. Sweet Bird of Youth – Yet another Tennessee Williams adaptation, this is one of those movies that I’ve always been sure that I disliked intensely… but could never forget. Chance and Heavenly (and for that matter every other character in this movie) are simultaneously pitiful and repellent, and are such a car wreck together that you can’t look away.
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