Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Birthday Take: Paul Newman in "The Hustler" (1961)

Scene from The Hustler
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Paul Newman
Born: January 26, 1925
Died: September 26, 2008 (83 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor - The Hustler (nominated) as Eddie Felson

The Take

There are few actors who manage to become iconic. Over the course of one's career, there's a chance that maybe one or two performances manage to capture the zeitgeist, forever making generations remember you for that role. Somehow, Paul Newman had the ability to appeal to many generations over his lifetime, even managing to squeeze in a fitting role in Pixar's Cars prior to his death. However, he is likely best remembered to adults as the image of masculine cool. He came on the scene with a stare and a swagger so rich that he made still images appealing. It also helps that his filmography is packed with so many impressive roles, whether they be Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (his first Oscar nomination), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or even The Sting. He is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon.

Then there's The Hustler. It may be nowhere near his first film, but it's one that feels important in order to understand the myth of Newman. Playing a pool hall junkie with an appetite for gambling, it's a tragic drama in which he is done in by his own greed. For a film that features the very uncinematic act of playing pool, it manages to be an intense and captivating story that is thankfully improved by a story rich with the underdog themes and the inability to let a good thing be. It also helps that the cast features an impressive against-type in Jackie Gleason as his competitor, by which beating him would somehow restore an ego. Suddenly, the pool hall manages to turn silent shots into something more powerful and tense.

It isn't likely that people will remember the events in The Hustler as much as they remember Newman in the role. Much like Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, it's a role whose iconography is renowned and innovative. The Hustler is the birth of a star, whose able to make something far more complex than his peers, often with no little more than a stare. Even if one could argue that his later films, specifically Cool Hand Luke, had more to do with shaping his image, one cannot ignore the impact of The Hustler. He was masculine and fragile, balancing both in a way that created one of the most compelling performances of his career. It was so good even that the actor most similar to Newman, Steve McQueen, made his own version of the same story with The Cincinnati Kid. To say the least, McQueen may have been cooler, but Newman's vulnerability gives him the overall edge.

Newman's career is very impressive and featured Oscar nominations going all the way to Road to Perdition. Among the more ironic achievements of his career, his sole Oscar win (discounting honorary) was for The Hustler's sequel The Color of Money. The very notion seems a little silly, especially when considering that the film's legacy pales in comparison not only to The Hustler, but to Newman's work. What is probably the most impressive is that unlike his peers, Newman found new ways to remain relevant until the very end of his life. While he may have branched out into the grocery market and racing, he was always the icon for adventure and coolness. The fact that he made pool seem like a cool hobby was itself an achievement that one cannot undermine. There's a reason that there's very few pool movies.

Still, one can look at the early Newman films and see an actor who seemed to have been born into every role. His confidence was always present, and he always seemed to know what the right move would be. While some could argue that Cars was the weakest Pixar film to date, it was a fitting farewell for an icon who lived fast. Going out as a classic car is pretty appropriate, even if it's unfortunately second fiddle to Larry the Cable Guy. Beyond that, he was viable, charismatic, and knew how to pick roles with the best of them. Whether you find him a great actor or not, he had something that's impossible to learn: the cool. It's because of this that he will live on as the prototype for what leading actors can be in ways far more compelling than just acting choices.

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