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Paul Newman, heartthrob with a twist of pain

October 2, 2008 |  3:05 pm

Newman_2As the heartfelt obituaries and tributes have been reminding us, Paul Newman never forgot that he was an actor before he was a movie star. His training at the Actors Studio during its 1950s heyday taught him to search out the self-lacerating contradictions and double-take complexities of his characters. His irresistible good looks suggested more of a romantic hero than an unregenerate rogue, but he had a way of incorporating into his seductive appeal (those oceanic eyes, those killer abs!) a startling barbed-wire-like menace. 

Newman, however, didn't leave it there. Even his most fiendishly unapologetic cads are shown to be fighting more for their psychological survival than for their selfish advancement. To put it another way, something desperate is driving them to be baser than they really are. Whether or not they're fugitives of the law, they're almost always on the lam from secrets too shattering to share.   

For some, he'll always be Butch Cassidy to Robert Redford's Sundance Kid. But it's three early film roles that drew out of Newman what only a playing opposite a woman could expose: a softness too vulnerable to be masculinely withstood. 

Not surprisingly, two of the characters come courtesy of Tennessee Williams: Brick, the sexually repressed alcoholic locked in a marital stalemate with Elizabeth Taylor's Maggie in "Cat on a Hot Tin

Roof" and Chance Wayne, the Hollywood hustler he originated on Broadway in 1959 opposite Geraldine Page's man-devouring diva Alexandra Del Lago, and later sensationally reprised alongside her for the 1962 film. The third role is the title character of "Hud," a rowdy, unscrupulous rancher whose estrangement from his deepest feelings is painfully glimpsed when Patricia Neal hops on a bus to escape his sadistic clutches. 

"Sweet Bird of Youth" magnificently showcases the many lessons Newman picked up from his theatrical travels: Never play one emotion, when the truth is a barrage; don't give up on your character, even if he seems, morally speaking, to be a lost cause; and finally, don't worry about audience approval when the anguish you're exposing, ugly though it may be, is genuine.

I was only lucky enough to see Newman onstage once. It was in the 2002 Broadway revival of "Our Town," in which he played the Stage Manager, crisply establishing the Grover's Corners universe of Thornton Wilder's classic.   

But I have another theatrical memory of Newman that radiates just as brightly. It comes from having sat behind him off-Broadway in 1999 at Playwrights Horizons, where Christopher Durang's "Betty's Summer Vacation" was galloping riotously. My companion and I were laughing in a way that was becoming dangerously out of control; I was afraid an usher might be forced to ask us to leave.  But there was no need for embarrassment, as Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward were laughing just as uproariously as we were.

On Friday night, the lights on Broadway will dim in his honor. 

--Charles McNulty

Photo: Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"

Credit: File photo

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