Top Ten Paul Newman Films
Paul Newman: the actor with that knowing rebel smile and the ice blue eyes who was even more of a hero offscreen than on. Paul specialized in playing characters with a bit of an edge: rebels and criminals with dark histories, abrasive personalities, or deep internal demons. Quite simply, Paul Newman played the characters no one else could, bringing depth and charisma to even the most morally ambiguous of characters.
Off-camera, he was a devoted Method actor, going to great pains to research each role. He, famously, married Oscar-winning actress Joanne Woodward, enjoying a marriage that lasted for 50 years until his death in 2008. Also a generous philanthropist, Paul founded several non-profit and charitable organizations that still exist today (including his non-profit food company Newman’s Own and his summer camp for seriously ill children, The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp). In his later years, he even became a professional-grade racecar driver, earning the title of the oldest winning driver of a major auto race at the age of 70. So, if you're not familiar with the amazing Paul Newman yet, it may be time to do something about that.
FYI: I chose the order of my Paul Newman top ten by considering each film's importance in Paul’s overall career, the size/importance of his role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Paul Newman film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
Top 10 Paul Newman Films
- Cool Hand Luke
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
- The Sting
- The Hustler
- The Verdict
- Nobody's Fool
- The Long, Hot Summer
- Somebody Up There Likes Me
- Sweet Bird of Youth
1. "Cool Hand Luke" (1967)
Featuring Paul in one of his most iconic roles, this classic anti-establishment film, also, earned him his 4th Academy Award nomination. Based on the novel of the same name by Donn Pearce, Paul stars as the titular Luke, a former war hero who has been arrested for cutting the heads off of parking meters. Luke is sent to a rural Southern prison camp to serve out his sentence and his unwillingness to adhere to any sort of status quo, immediately, becomes clear. While this does not endear him to the prison bosses, it soon turns him into an unlikely symbol of hope to his fellow inmates. Yet, the burden of being a hero may come at a greater cost than anyone expects. Paul gives a brilliantly understated performance as Luke, allowing you only glimpses of the vulnerable man beneath his cool and unflappable exterior. To prepare for the role, Paul traveled to West Virginia in order to study the local accent as well as observe the locals' general behavior. On the set, realism was paramount to director Stuart Rosenberg. The prison set, itself, was a recreation of Tavares Road Prison in Florida where author Donn Pearce had served out his own prison sentence. A crew was even sent to the prison for pictures and measurements to use for reference in building it. The ultimate show of realism, however, is the film’s memorable road-tarring sequence. While filming, the actors really were required to pave an entire mile-long stretch of highway for the local county (an agreement that had been established before shooting), meaning that no doubt very little acting was required when portraying the characters’ exhaustion at the end of their grueling task.
2. "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969)
Named by the AFI as the 8th greatest Western of all time, this movie is the very definition of a must-see classic. Based on the true-life story of famous Western outlaws Robert LeRoy Parker (aka “Butch Cassidy”) and Harry Longabaugh (“The Sundance Kid”), the film charts the two men’s adventures as they attempt to continue their criminal career despite being ever more relentlessly pursued by the law at every turn. Starring Robert Redford as Sundance and Paul as Butch, this movie has something for everyone: humor, tragedy, romance, action, and suspense. Paul and Redford form one of cinema’s greatest duos with the kind of onscreen chemistry that allows them to bounce off of one other with perfect precision. So it may be surprising to learn that, originally, Steve McQueen was cast as Butch opposite Paul as Sundance. When McQueen backed out over a billing dispute, both Paul and director George Roy Hill lobbied for the lesser-known Redford to be cast. Knowing that Redford would be better suited for the role of Sundance, the original roles were switched and the rest is film history. The role of the Sundance Kid ended up turning Redford into an instant star, prompting the actor many years later to name a certain ski area in Utah after the role, eventually leading to the establishment of the year-round Sundance Resort, his non-profit Sundance Institute, and, of course, the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Extremely popular when it was first released, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid became the top grossing film of the year, winning Oscars for Best Cinematography, Best Original Song, Best Original Score, and Best Original Screenplay. During filming, the real Butch Cassidy’s sister, Lula Parker Betenson often visited the set and was very impressed by Paul’s performance, as well as, the accuracy of the film’s script.
3. "The Sting" (1973)
One of the all-time great caper movies, The Sting gave Paul a chance to reunite with his Butch Cassidy co-star, Robert Redford, as well as, director George Roy Hill. Set in the 1930s, the movie stars Redford as Johnny Hooker, a young grifter who spends his time pulling off small-time cons with the help of his older partner, Luther Coleman (played by Robert Earl Jones). But when the pair, accidentally, run afoul of crime boss Doyle Lonnegan’s (Robert Shaw) operations, the encounter ends up getting Luther killed. Hoping to get back at Lonnegan, Johnny travels to Chicago to look up an old friend of Luther’s named Henry Gondorff (Paul). Gondorff is known as an expert of what is called “the big con”, but he’s been laying low ever since the FBI put out a warrant for his arrest. Johnny begs Gondorff to help him con Lonnegan and, eventually, Gondorff relents, deciding to use a “long outdated” and elaborate con known simply as “The Wire”. The film’s story was partially inspired by the real-life con stories depicted in David Maurer’s book, The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man, and The Sting definitely has a story that will keep you on your toes. The full extent of the main con is not even completely explained until the very end of the film and, believe me, it’s well worth the wait. The Sting’s Oscar-winning score is famous for its heavy use of ragtime, particularly the work of Scott Joplin (the melody of Joplin’s piece, “The Entertainer” was adapted by composer Marvin Hamlisch and is used extensively throughout the film). After The Sting was released, not only did it win 7 Oscars (including Best Picture) it, also, created a huge resurgence of interest in Joplin’s music that even led to Hamlisch’s version of “The Entertainer” becoming a top ten single.
4. "The Hustler" (1961)
Based on the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, The Hustler stars Paul as Fast Eddie Felson, a talented pool hustler from California who has traveled across country to face legendary pool player Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) in the hopes of proving himself as the best pool player in the country. However, Eddie’s game against Fats doesn’t go according to plan. Nevertheless, professional gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) sees great potential in Eddie’s abilities and offers to become his manager for a sizable fee. Humbled by recent losses, Eddie agrees, but the price of learning how to win (or as Gordon calls it “gaining character”) may be steeper than Eddie anticipates. Filmed entirely on location in New York City, the production made use of the real pool halls, Ames Billiard Academy and McGirr’s. In fact, many of the film’s extras were simply thugs that director Robert Rossen had grabbed off of the street. Real-life pool champion Willie Mosconi served as the film’s technical advisor for the pool scenes (he, also, appears in a small role as Willie, the man charged with holding the stakes for Eddie and Fats game). Although Mosconi performed some of the film’s most difficult trick shots, a large majority were done by the actors themselves. Gleason, in particular, was a highly skilled pool player already. In order to strengthen his own pool skills, Paul, actually, installed a billiards table in his dining room so he could practice at all hours of the day. At the time of its release, The Hustler was credited with creating a renewed interest in the game of pool, but in case anyone was wondering, the primary game played in the film is, actually, straight pool (as opposed to the more commonly known 8-ball often played today). As a matter of fact, straight pool used to be the dominant pool game in America before faster games like 8-ball and 9-ball started to become more popular in competition.
5. "Hud" (1963)
Directed by Martin Ritt, this modern Western was, actually, produced by Paul and Ritt’s production company: Salem Productions. Based on the novel, Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry, the film stars Paul as the titular Hud, a selfish and amoral cowboy living and working on his father’s ranch in Texas. Despite his egotistic nature, Hud is well-known and generally liked around town due to his attractive looks, charming demeanor, and cool confidence. One of the people not so easily fooled by Hud’s charm is his father, Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas), an old-fashioned and principled man who is disgusted by the person his son has become. What’s worse is that Homer has begun to notice that his teenage grandson, Lonnie, is starting to look up to Hud and he greatly fears that the boy will end up just like his arrogant uncle. Filmed on location in Texas, Hud is, in essence, a modern morality play with Hud cast as the seductive devil and Homer as the pious angel on Lonnie’s shoulders. So it’s interesting to note that, originally, Hud was only intended to be a minor character in the story. However, the script was eventually re-written to make him the title character and, by extension, the film’s main anti-hero. Although Hud was written as a callous, quasi-villianous, and ultimately irredeemable character, many young audiences at the time misinterpreted him as a western hero. This completely shocked Paul Newman, but Ritt believed that the counterculture/anti-authority movement of the ‘60s had a lot to do with it. But, another factor may have simply been the undeniable charm of Paul Newman bleeding through, making audiences somehow unable to hate Hud despite what he might say or do.
6. "The Verdict" (1982)
Named by the AFI as the 4th greatest courtroom drama of all time, The Verdict is based on the novel by Barry Reed, but was adapted for the screen by David Mamet. Directed by Sidney Lumet, the film stars Paul as Frank Galvin, a down-on-his-luck lawyer barely making ends meet as a shameless ambulance chaser. A longtime alcoholic, Frank has even started crashing funerals in an attempt to pick up new clients. So when an old friend gives him what should be a simple medical malpractice suit, Frank jumps at the chance for an easy settlement and quick cash. However, once Frank, actually, begins to look into the case, he soon realizes that his clients deserve much more than a quick settlement. Before Paul Newman was cast, a number of actors showed an interest in the role of Frank Galvin (including Frank Sinatra, Roy Scheider, and William Holden). But, it was Paul’s old friend Robert Redford who, actually, came the closest to being cast. Redford, eventually, left the film because he wasn’t happy with Mamet’s script, even after several rewrites were attempted. (Many believe that this was due to Redford being uncomfortable with Frank’s alcoholism). But, whatever the reason, once Paul was cast as Frank, Mamet’s original script was restored. However, one thing that did change, was Mamet’s original ending for the film. In an earlier draft, the script, actually, did not include the final verdict at all. Thankfully, Lumet was able to convince Mamet that the story needed closure and the titular “verdict” was added.
7. "Nobody's Fool" (1994)
Based on the novel by Richard Russo, this sweet little dramedy stars Paul as Donald Sullivan, a freelance construction worker living in the small town of North Bath, New York. Recently injured on the job, Sully is trying to file a worker’s compensation suit, but is, simultaneously, continuing to secretly work off the books for businessman Carl Roebuck (Bruce Willis). Even though he’s well into his 60s, Sully has somehow managed to live his life as free from actual responsibility as possible. But when he runs into his estranged son, Peter (Dylan Walsh), everything changes. Peter’s return to town not only gives Sully the chance to reconnect with his son, but, also, a chance to get to know the grandson he never knew he had. Paul gives an absolutely perfect performance as Sully and is possibly the only actor fully capable of playing such a cool and unflappable rebel at the age of 69. Filmed on location in New York state, Nobody’s Fool, actually, features memorable performances from its entire cast, which, also, includes Melanie Griffith, a very young Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the great Jessica Tandy. Nobody’s Fool, actually, proved to be Tandy’s very last film role, with the actress passing away only 3 months before the film’s release. So, the filmmakers, naturally, decided to dedicated this film to her memory. All in all, Nobody's Fool is a just little movie with great performances and some nice big ideas. Very character-driven, you’ll find that very little in Sully’s life actually changes very much by the end of the film. And yet, somehow, what he experiences proves to be profoundly life altering.
8. "The Long, Hot Summer" (1958)
The Long, Hot Summer is particularly significant in the life of Paul Newman in that it marks the very first time that he would appear onscreen opposite his future wife, Joanne Woodward. The two would, eventually, appear in a total of 10 films together (with Joanne starring in 5 more that Paul either directed or produced). But, this steamy drama is the one that started it all. The film stars Paul as suspected barn-burner Ben Quick, who finds himself in Frenchman’s Bend, Mississippi after being run out of yet another town due to a suspicious fire. There he meets Clara Varner (Woodward), daughter of Will Varner (Orson Welles), the wealthiest and most powerful man in town. Clara wants nothing to do with the opportunistic drifter, but her father finds Ben’s rough edges intriguing. He’s been hoping for grandchildren for some time and, in Ben, he believes he may have, finally, found the son-in-law of his dreams. He pushes Ben towards wooing Clara by offering him a large fortune if the two get married. However, Clara is not as keen on Ben Quick as her father, and neither is her long-suffering brother, Jody (Anthony Franciosa). Filmed on location in Louisiana, The Long, Hot Summer is, actually, an amalgamation of several William Faulkner stories, including his novel The Hamlet, as well as, his short stories Barn Burning and Spotted Horses. The chemistry between Newman and Woodward is understandably potent in this movie and it’s not surprising that they were, actually, married shortly after filming wrapped. The role of Ben Quick ended up catapulting Paul to a new level of fame and solidified his screen personae. In preparation for the role, Paul made sure to arrive in Louisiana early in order to study the mannerisms and speech patterns of Southern men. His hard work, obviously, paid off, for his performance in this film is nearly flawless. Cynical, weathered, and self-confident to the point of arrogance, Paul gives Ben Quick an underlying charm, humor, and intelligence that forever established himself as an actor capable of drawing an audience into rooting for even the most potentially unlikable of anti-heroes.
9. "Somebody Up There Likes Me" (1956)
Featuring Paul in his very first starring role, Somebody Up There Likes Me tells the real-life story of legendary boxer Rocky Graziano, who managed to rise above his start as a common street thug to not only become the middleweight boxing champion, but, arguably, one of the greatest boxers of all time. Originally, James Dean was set to play the part of Rocky, but when Dean was killed in a sudden car accident, the part was handed over to Paul. The role marked a turning point in Paul’s career, proving that he was fully capable of carrying a film all on his own without the help of any other major stars. To prepare for the role of Rocky, Paul spent a great deal of time with the real Graziano in order to learn his mannerisms and capture the essence of his personality. Clearly, Paul succeeded in his goal, for he nearly disappears into the role of Rocky and those who knew Graziano (as well as Rocky, himself) greatly approved of the finished film. Somebody Up There Likes Me ended up winning Oscars for both Best Art Direction and Best Black-and-White Cinematography, so it may be surprising to hear that the film was, originally, intended to be filmed in Technicolor. However, when major star James Dean had to be replaced with the lesser-known Paul, the decision was made to film in black-and-white instead. The movie ended flourishing under the black-and-white photography, giving the film a darker and grittier look than Technicolor would have allowed. It’s very easy to see how this film later influenced other boxing films, such as Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and (of course) Rocky, so fans of those films will likely enjoy this one.
10. "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1962)
Based on the play by Tennessee Williams, Sweet Bird of Youth stars Paul as Chance Wayne, an opportunistic aspiring actor who returns to his hometown in St. Cloud, Florida with a tipsy movie star in tow. That movie star is Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page), an aging screen siren who is experiencing a bit of a breakdown after attempting her big comeback. Chance is hoping to take advantage of the star’s weakened state and get her to not only jumpstart his career, but, also, the career of his former girlfriend, Heavenly (Shirley Knight). But, Chance is not given a particularly warm welcome when he returns home. In fact, Heavenly’s brother (Rip Torn) and powerful father (Ed Begley) are intent on running Chance out of town. Although her family have never been particularly big fans of his, this time they are being especially aggressive and no one seems willing to explain to Chance why that is. Paul, actually, originated his role of Chance Wayne on Broadway and many felt that the play only worked because of his unique ability to make such an amoral and somewhat sleazy character sympathetic and possibly even likable. Geraldine Page and Rip Torn, also, originated their roles on Broadway and they both give brilliant performances in the film version. The two had, actually, been dating ever since they met during the Broadway production and were married shortly after the film was wrapped (they remained happily married up until Page’s death in 1987). For those that are more familiar with the play, this film version does soften a few of the play’s more disturbing elements, but the story certainly stays within the general unseemly ballpark.
Honorable Mention: "The Color of Money" (1986)
For my honorable mention this time around, there was no question that The Color of Money was the only possible choice. Directed by Martin Scorsese, this was the film that, finally, won Paul his well-deserved Oscar after 6 previous nominations. And I suppose it was only appropriate that Paul would end up winning his Oscar while revisiting one of the roles that had earned him a nomination in the past. The Color of Money continues the story of “Fast” Eddie Felton, 25 years after we saw him last at the end of The Hustler. Since then, Fast Eddie has, effectively, retired from pool hustling and become a moderately successful liquor salesman. But when Eddie sees a talented young pool player named Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise) play a game of 9-ball, he just can’t resist taking him under his wing. It turns out that Vincent has been doing some small-time hustling with help from his girlfriend, Carmen, but he mostly plays pool simply for the love of the game. So, Eddie decides to show his new protégé how one can really make a living playing pool, taking Vincent and Carmen on a life-changing road trip that none of them will ever forget. Although The Color of Money is, technically, based on Walter Tevis’ novel, the storyline, actually, deviates drastically from its source material. Although Tevis did write an early draft of the film, Scorsese, eventually, decided to take the movie in a different direction, collaborating with both Paul and screenwriter Richard Price to create a brand-new storyline. For those who aren’t avid pool players, pay close attention to the film’s opening narration (distinctively spoken by Scorsese, himself). It explains everything you'll need to know about the game of 9-ball, which is distinctive from the more commonly known 8-ball and is the main pool game played throughout the film. Just like with The Hustler, billiards enjoyed another surge of popularity after The Color of Money was released and many pool players still cite the significant impact this film has had on the game. Indeed, The Color of Money features a number of cameo appearances from top American billiard players of the time, including world champion Steve “The Miz” Mizerak, One-Pocket Hall of Famer Grady “The Professor” Mathews, and notorious real-life hustler Keith “Earthquake” McCready.
And if you would like to learn more about the incomparable Paul Newman, check out the books Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman by Matt Stone and Preston Lerner and In Pursuit of the Common Good: Twenty-Five Years of Improving the World, One Bottle of Salad Dressing at a Time co-written by Paul with A.E. Hotchner.
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© 2014 Lindsay Blenkarn