Monday, September 29, 2008

Paul Newman, R.I.P.

By Mitchell

We live in an era in which the main goal of many celebrities is to be seen. Whether at sporting events, cultural galas, or in interviews on TV, the celebrity is there for one purpose and one purpose only: self-promotion. (Think, for example, of the number of stars of Fox series you're likely to see at the World Series this year. Do you think they can even tell a sacrifice fly from a stolen base?) You can imagine this probably gets tiring even for the celebrity, and you can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number who actually have any kind of interest in the event they're attending. But there is the odd celebrity who attends an event not to be seen, but simply because they want to be there; they're acting not as the cool star of the moment, but as a fan with a genuine interest in what's going on. Jack Nicholson and the Lakers is one example; Paul Newman and auto racing was another.

Paul Newman got the bug for racing somewhere around the time he made Winning, a melodrama about race drivers and their loves on and off the track. Before long Newman was learning all he could about cars and drivers and what made them both tick, and eventually he became a champion race driver himself, winning several SCCA titles, finishing second at LeMans, and - at age 70 - was part of the winning team in the 24 Hours of Daytona. He was also a successful car owner, wininng several Indy car championships with drivers such as Mario Andretti, and was a regular at race tracks everywhere (including BIR in Brainerd, which is where I saw him). To the racing world, Paul Newman was no celebrity, out there simply to be seen - he was one of them, having traded the greasepaint for motor oil and sweat and callouses from gripping the steering wheel, and thus earned the respect and affection of his peers.

With Paul Newman, what you saw was what you got. Politically he was an extreme liberal, but he was an honest one who put his money where his mouth was. While other celebrities fumed and threatened to leave the country if their candidate lost, one can imagine that Newman simply surveyed the landscape and decided that just meant he'd have to sell a few more jars of spaghetti sauce to fund the causes he held close to his heart, to make sure the outcome was different next time. We didn't buy his sauces because we didn't support his causes, but at least we knew where the money would go.

Oh yeah, he made a few movies as well. He starred in television, making a name for himself on the live anthology dramas of the 50s, and made the transition to the big screen in style. Eventually, as his stature rose, his mere presence in a movie would give it a touch of class that raised it above the mundane. Take, for example, his appearance in a pair of B detective movies of the 60s and 70s, Harper and The Drowning Pool. Based on Ross Macdonald's hard-boiled P.I. Lew Archer (Newman had the last name changed to Harper because he thought names beginning with H were lucky), these were good movies with big-name casts (Lauren Bacall, Robert Wagner, and Newman's wife Joanne Woodward, for example), but hardly the kind of "prestige" movies that the biggest stars make nowadays. Nevertheless, Newman's presence made them something more, made them worth watching. It was the same with Slap Shot, the bawdy hockey comedy. Not many actors could sell a movie about hockey, let alone make it a success, but Newman (along with the Hanson brothers, to be sure) helped make it into a classic.

And then there was Newman the rebel, in movies such as Cool Hand Luke. Maybe it was there that people saw the real Paul Newman, a man defiant in his own beliefs, refusing to go along for the sake of getting along, with the kind of "FU" attitude that we all secretly (or not-so-secretly) admire. Newman himself displayed that attitude throughout life, from the twinkle in his famous blue eyes to the smirk he would frequently flash at others, to his refusal to become part of Hollywood society. At the end of that movie he famously said, "What we've got here is a failure to communicate," and that's become a kind of metaphor for our entire culture nowadays. Rare is the person in any walk of life who can truly communicate with others, and when we find one who can, we admire them all the more.

Perhaps that's what it was about Paul Newman, and why people mourn him today. Liberals mourn the loss of an activist, the racing world a driver and owner, and movie fans a star who often held them in thrall. For all those people and many more, Paul Newman communicated with them and made them a part of his world for just a little while.

On second thought, I'm not sure that was it at all. I think it was that Paul Newman became a part of their world, came into their lives for that little while, and made it better for his being a part of it.

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