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Rethinking Paul Newman, Part 1: "Nobody's Fool"

By admin Published: July 5, 2008


Since the talk that Paul Newman is very ill, I've been planning to look back at some of the pivotal movies in his career. "Nobody's Fool" may seem like an odd place to start ...

After all, it's from 1994, pretty late in his career, and was not some kind of box-office sensation. But it's Newman collaborating with director Robert Benton, whom he would join again a few years later for "Twilight," and based on a book by Richard Russo, who would also work on "Twilight" and later on HBO's "Empire Falls," which Newman would executive-producer and co-star in. (Fred Schepisi directed that one.)

Then there's the cast in toto: Jessica Tandy (in her last movie), Melanie Griffith (in her best perfomance), Bruce Willis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Dylan Walsh, Catherine Dent, Elizabeth Wilson, Josef Sommer, Margo Martindale ... This is a bunch that plays well (even Griffith). And you have to be comfortable around real actors, actors who can take a scene away from you with a barely arched eyebrow. Your own brows better be ready to play.

And there, in the middle of it, comfortable as hell, is Newman. He plays Donald Sullivan, a ne'er-do-well in a small town of Bath, NY, a guy who knows everybody but also seems to know nothing. Over the course of the movie, he reconnects with his son and gets to know his grandson, gets threatened by a dog and shot at by a cop, propositioned by the wife of a rival, spends a little time in jail and struggles with a bum knee -- and still, at the end, has made us believe that he's a decent soul, maybe the best guy in the town. If nothing else, he is a lifeline for people with nothing else to hang on -- although he would probably hate it if anyone pointed that out to him.

Instead, he goes through his life, trying to figure out the right move and coming up with the correct answer less than half the time; seeing his grandson makes him reconsider some of his past actions, but I don't get the sense at the end that he will act much differently than he has before. OK, he'll do a few more good things than he did before. But his success rate isn't going to get much better than 50-50. But for a lot of us, 50-50 would be a pretty good deal.

Now what about Newman's performance? He's playing a guy who is 60, about 10 years younger than Newman was at that time, but it's not a stretch. In Newman's hands, Sully isn't physically adept but he hasn't forgotten the verbal and facial swagger that he had in his thirties. But he has also learned some lessons about saying and doing too much, and Newman brings a lot of restraint to his performance. Even if the blue eyes shine, he is still playing 60. He is admitting that neither he nor Sully are the young studs anymore.

I think as Newman got older, one of the reasons he got better as an actor was that he mastered the idea of less is more. (Tom Hanks, who would later work with Newman in "Road to Perdition," was another guy who learned the importance of keeping it spare and simple; he earned a couple of competitive Oscars for it, while Newman had to settle for a career-achievement award.)

In fact, before I watched the movie again recently, I remember Newman more for what he didn't say than for what he did; one of the surprises on rewatching was his cockiness and relative chattiness in the first part of the film. But he still knows when to pull back, particularly in scenes with Willis and Tandy. But he gives all the actors room to work, while still being fully involved in the scenes. He's comfortable, as I said; he doesn't have to prove that he's the best actor onscreen, he just has to give the best performance he can and count on Benton and the other actors to make sure everyone else does likewise.

"Nobody's Fool" is one of my favorite Newman movies. One of my favorite movies, for that matter. It creaks a little when you watch the whole thing -- and the lawyer character is too artificially comedic for my taste -- but there are still scenes that dazzle. And there's Newman, using his old movie self while creating a character that, even with the best makeup, he could not have played nearly so well when he was young.

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