Is it too late to talk about Paul Newman?
News cycles being what they are, and Newman having been gone for a full week now, it probably is - but what the hell, he was an icon and a legend and everything else besides, so I'm gonna talk about him.
You want a maverick? A guy who followed his own moral code, in life and in work, and never apologized for doing the things he thought were right? Take a look at Paul Newman.
I'm not confusing the man with his characters, either. Sure, he frequently played prickly outsiders with unshakable ethics- Hud Bannon, "Fast Eddie" Felson, Lew Harper, cool-handed Luke - but he played plenty of charmers, too. Spin up The Sting or Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid or even Slap Shot and you can see his charisma in full force.
Newman was a terrific actor who became a megastar at a time when megastars weren't really allowed to be terrific actors. (Case in point: Exodus.) At the apex of his stardom - after proving himself a gifted director as well as a powerhouse performer - he was still making crap like The Towering Inferno, and visibly bristling at the fact.
He took his victories where he could. He got Universal to make a movie out of Ken Kesey's epic novel Sometimes A Great Notion. He took a chance on Robert Altman's bizarre post-apocalyptic drama Quintet, and he trusted the Coen brothers when they asked him to buffoon it up in The Hudsucker Proxy. The results weren't always great, but they were never less than interesting.
For my money, though, his two greatest triumphs came relatively late in his career. In 1982, he played an alcoholic lawyer who rediscovers his soul in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict, and in 1994, he played an aging wastrel connecting with the son he barely remembers in Robert Benton's Nobody's Fool.
You don't watch these films for the plots; you watch them for what they tell you about their star. In two indelible performances, Newman quietly refutes the roles that made him a movie star. He shows us where the life of the cool outsider ends up: in sad isolation, sitting around in silence with a bottle and a handful of memories about the good old days when he used to matter.
That wasn't Newman, though. By all accounts, he had a pretty happy life. He and Joanne Woodward were happily married for half a century; he made the movies he wanted to make, raced a lot of pretty snazzy cars and spent as much time away from the spotlight as he possibly could.
His good deeds were legion. His Hole-in-the-Wall camp gave sick and disabled children a retreat from chemotherapy and prosthetics; the Newman's Own empire donated more than $220 million to charities around the world; that's nearly one-quarter of a billion dollars. Newman never made a point of bringing up the philanthropy in interviews; you always had to press him for details.
So when Sarah Palin chirps that she's part of a team of mavericks - or when John McCain works the term into a press conference six or seven times - I get a little cranky. Real mavericks don't call attention to their headstrong ways and forthright natures; they simply go out and get shit done.
Paul Newman could have been a leader of men, if he'd wanted. He had the communication skills, and he certainly had the looks. But he wanted to be a storyteller, and he spent most of his career trying to find stories worth telling. If you find yourself with a few spare hours this chilly autumn weekend, spin up The Verdict or Nobody's Fool - or hell, any one of his films that you think you might like - and give the man his due.