Oscar Actors: Newman, Paul–Winner at Eigth Nomination, Contemporary of Brando

It’s time to honor the artistry of Paul Newman, a handsome and versatile performer who perhaps lacks the splendor and brilliance of his contemporary, Marlon Brando (they are the same age), but is nonetheless the most reliable and most accomplished actor of his generation.

Newman Vs. Brando

Brando’s brilliance impressed audiences with his very first screen performance, The Men (1950), and he continued to dominate the American cinema of the 1950s with his stunning charisma, often eccentric roles in such movies as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954), for which he won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar.

However, a complex, non-conformist personality has arguably been responsible for an erratic career that saw many ups and downs. In the l970s, you may recall, Brando had some sort of a comeback with The Godfather movies and the controversial The Last Tango in Paris.

In contrast to Brando, Paul Newman has enjoyed a steady, continuous career in an industry known for its fickle taste and lack of stability. The remarkable achievement of Newman is not just his sheer survival–he has made more than 70 movies in four decades–but the incessant development of his craft.

Newman has continued to grow and to polish his skills as an actor with almost every assignment. Like Henry Fonda and Burt Lancaster, two distinguished actors, who practiced acting up until they were forced to quit due to health–and in Fonda’s case death–Newman’s brand of acting is understated, the kind that gets easily overlooked by critics.

Now, at the age of 70, after finally winning an oscar Award for Scorsese’s The Color of Money, at his eighth nomination, Newman is the star of Robert Benton’s new drama, Nobody’s Fool, a gentle, low-key comedic tale about an aging loser named Sully.

Playing losers always presents a challenge for actors, because they have to work harder in order to win the audience’s sympathy. I have some reservations about the pacing of this uneven film, though Newman’s performance is flawless.

Newman’s Sully is a 60-year-old construction worker who has made nothing of his life. Divorced from his wife, and alienated from his children, he lives at the house of Miss Beryl (the great Jessica Tandy), his old teacher. As the story begins, Sully is pursuing some legal action with his incompetent lawyer (Gene Saks), another loser who has never won a single case.

Set in a small New York town, the run-down surroundings are most congruent to Sully’s lonely, shabby existence. Adapting to the screen Richard Russo’s novel, Benton structures his character-driven picture with seemingly small and uneventful incidents. By Hollywood’s commercial standards, Nobody’s Fool lacks exciting energy and genuine drama. Yet, on the plus side, the film also defies sentimentality and melodrama, exerting a modest appeal by its faithfulness to the tone of the story and its characters.

Some tension is introduced when Sully’s college professor son, Peter, having lost his teaching job, arrives in town with his wife and two boys. As expected, Sully develops a more meaningful rapport with his grandson than with his son, whom he has not seen in years.

I recommend that you see this mature film, whose characters are grown-ups and elderly, the kinds of which are rarely seen in American movies. Benton is a gentle, perhaps too humble director, but he is very good with his ensemble cast.

It’s a major loss that Hollywood has not made better use of Jessica Tandy, mostly known for her stage work–until her l989 Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy. Tandy, who passed away a few months ago, gives a lovely, elegant performance. She probably had one of the richest voices to have ever graced the American stage.

But the film’s glory belongs to Newman, who here delivers one of his most engaging and richly detailed performances. Newman makes Sully’s loser a human, sympathetic character, despite a life full of disappointments. Still handsome–with beautiful blue eyes and silver hair–Newman has some priceless scenes with Melanie Griffith, who plays an unhappily married woman, envisioning himself as a ladies’ gentleman.

Looking at Newman’s screen credits cumulatively, I can’t help but realize that his specialty and strength have always been in playing misfits, losers, and underachievers, men who embody the darker side of the American Dream. Just consider the essence Newman’s best roles, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Absence of Malice, The Verdict, and The Color of Money.

Newman’s 70th birthday is  on January 26–I can’t think of a better tribute to his career than honoring his work in Nobody’s Fool.

This essay was written in 1994.


Newman was honored as Best Actor of the year by the National Society of Film Critics.