Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Paul Newman & the Cinematic South

The Ideal Imposter: Paul Newman & the Cinematic South

A parody of the Christ story set on a Florida chain gang, Cool Hand Luke is one of those movies so many people think is great that critics who recognize life is short just shudder and change the subject. It’s not worth trying to get fans to notice how pointless Luke is, or how inordinately pleased the filmmakers are by the hip equation of the hero with Jesus—which is cleverness in a vacuum, because the equation actually doesn’t tell us anything about either man.

That quote comes from an interesting article by Tom Carson that explores Paul Newman's connection with the American south. Newman starred in a slew of films that took place in our nation's heartland - from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Sweet Bird of Youth, Hud to Cool Hand Luke. While I don't agree with his assertion that Cool Hand Luke is "pointless" - Luke is one of my favorite films of all time, and regardless of the overt religious undertones, it is a fun picture that does explore the psychological effects of imprisonment to some degree. But Carson draws an interesting connection between Newman and the deep South; Despite his Cleveland, middle-class upbringing, Newman always managed to convince audiences that he was that lonesome southern man simply looking for his peace/piece.

it’d be a mistake to call the disconnect incongruous; a more accurate word would be crucial. Audiences always knew this puckish smoothie was just acting when he curled his lip to taunt us with his contempt for gentility—not really plumbing the depths of postwar sophistication or bitterness, but showing us what a rakish good time could be had in their shallows. A tragedian he wasn’t, and that’s why he was so phenomenally enjoyable. It made him the ideal inauthentic Southerner for a Hollywood whose new appetite for bold themes was in hock to the old imperative of making them congenial.

I've made the point before that anything Newman touches essentially turns to gold, and I'll stand by that statement. Even at his current age, Newman remains a nuanced performer. In tribute, here are some sweet scenes from Cool Hand Luke:

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