Total Recall

Total Recall: The 15 Greatest Paul Newman Movies

RT chooses our favorite movies starring the legendary actor.

by | October 1, 2008 | Comments

Paul Newman’s passing last weekend saddened film fans all
over the world — including your friends at Rotten Tomatoes, where we decided
that a fond look back at Mr. Newman’s distinguished career would be just the
thing for this week’s Total Recall.

Of course, we’re talking about a man who starred in five decades’ worth of
films, and we went in knowing there was no way we’d be able to give you even a
loosely comprehensive guide to his best performances; in fact, just choosing the
15 movies we ultimately opted to cover here was a difficult process. Consider
this, then, a very brief introduction to a large, robust body of work. After
you’re finished reliving this selection of high points, take a look at
his complete
filmography
.




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Somebody
Up There Likes Me

(1956)





Tomatometer: 80%

Newman got his first big break with this 1956 boxing picture, based on the
life and career of the legendary pugilist Rocky Graziano. The part of Rocky
Barbella originally belonged to James Dean, but after Dean’s death in a 1955
car accident, the filmmakers turned to Newman at the last minute — and the
result was this minor sports classic, which jump-started Newman’s career (as
well as the careers of Steve McQueen, Robert Loggia, and Frank Campanella, all
of whom make their screen debuts here). He clearly hadn’t yet mastered the
powerfully minimalistic style that would become his trademark — and the film
is perhaps, as Filmcritic’s Christopher Null argues, “straightforward and
simplistic” — but in the morally conflicted boxer from the wrong side of the
tracks, Newman found a character whose shades of gray would color the rest of
his career.







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The Long,
Hot Summer
(1958)





Tomatometer: 86%

Newman’s
long streak of rakishly lovable ne’er-do-wells begins with this tense,
drawn-out mishmash of several William Faulkner stories that pits Newman’s
mysterious drifter against the machinations of the wealthiest man in town
(Orson Welles, sporting a fake nose). The Long, Hot Summer feels every
minute of its nearly two-hour running time; after the first 45 minutes,
viewers weaned on American movies made after 1980 may very well have tuned out
in frustration or boredom. But the struggle between Newman and Welles is well
worth watching — as is the chemistry between Newman and Joanne Woodward, with
whom he embarked on a 50-year marriage after Summer wrapped. And for
those who stick it out to the end, the movie’s final act is, in the words of
the Apollo Guide’s Jamie Gillies, “surprising and quite exciting.”








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Cat
on a Hot Tin Roof
(1958)





Tomatometer: 100%

It isn’t a
terribly faithful adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play — which is probably
why he publicly disavowed it — but Richard Brooks’ film version of Cat on
a Hot Tin Roof
is still remembered as a classic, due in no small part to
smoldering early performances from Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor as Brick
and Maggie Pollitt, the staggeringly dysfunctional couple at the heart of the
story. Of course, this was the ’50s, so Brick’s homosexuality — a crucial
component of the play — was more or less scrubbed out of the movie, but even
in watered-down form, Cat did well enough to earn a slew of Academy
Award nominations. Despite Williams’ misgivings, the movie remains, in the
words of Film Freak Central’s Walter Chaw, “A mousetrap with teeth that grip
and a musky atmosphere of frustrated sex and milky desperation that serves as
poisoned bait.”





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The Hustler

(1961)





Tomatometer: 97%

It wound up
becoming one of the roles he was most closely identified with, but Paul Newman
almost ended up letting his chance to play pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson pass
him by — his commitment to another project initially forced him to let the
script go to Bobby Darin, but when Newman suddenly found himself free, The
Hustler
‘s producers quickly handed him the project. Darin’s loss ended up
being the film fan’s gain, as Newman took Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen’s
screenplay and put it squarely on his shoulders, taking it all the way to an
array of glowing reviews (even TIME Magazine was forced to admit Newman was
“better than usual”), nine Academy Award nominations, and decades of repeat
viewings. Twenty years later, Newman would play Felson again, and take home
the Best Actor award he missed here.







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Hud
(1963)





Tomatometer: 77%

The posters for Hud shouted that Paul Newman was “the man with the
barbed wire soul!” — which was basically a polite, early ’60s way of saying
that the irresponsible lout at the heart of the movie was a creep with few, if
any redeeming qualities. Leave it to Newman, though, to make you care about
Hud Bannon anyway — even after you learn about the tragedies his actions have
caused, witnessed his casual cruelty, and watched as he squanders every
opportunity to repair the damage, you almost can’t help pulling for the guy.
More than just a character study in alcoholic womanizing, Hud was one
of the earliest films to revel in the dark underbelly of the Western, and hint
at the bottomless nihilism that would soon eclipse America’s post-WWII
optimism and largely define the next two decades. That it’s able to accomplish
all of this is due in no small part to what is, in TV Guide’s words, “a huge
performance by Newman.”







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Harper
(1966)





Tomatometer: 100%

Paul Newman wasn’t always Hollywood royalty — once upon a time, he was
just another star in the making, struggling to prove he was more than a pretty
face. It wasn’t always certain he’d reach that goal, either; for a time in the
’60s, Newman had a hard time finding the right scripts, or taking proper
advantage of the ones he was given. On the surface, 1966’s Harper — a
transparent attempt by Warner Bros. to recapture Bogie-style magic with an
adaptation of Ross Macdonald’s novel — would seem to be a good example of a
picture from Newman’s fallow period, but despite its unoriginal ambitions
(which most critics agreed it failed to achieve), Harper turned out to
be an enjoyable latter-day gumshoe flick. Though the New York Times’ Bosley
Crowther accused Newman of being “too fresh” and “too ruggedly good-looking”
for the role, it must have agreed with him; Harper went down as one of
two films Newman ever followed up with a sequel, 1975’s The Drowning Pool.





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Cool Hand Luke

(1967)





Tomatometer: 100%

Is it an ode to non-conformity? A warning to those who refuse to follow
society’s rules? Or a heavy-handed allegory featuring a central character
meant to remind the audiences of a certain Nazarene carpenter? Stuart
Rosenberg’s 1967 adaptation of Donn Pearce’s novel could arguably be
considered all of these things, but most importantly — for our purposes here,
anyway — Cool Hand Luke also provides one of Newman’s finest
performances, offering an early example of the way he gradually stripped away
all the non-essential bits of his characters, learning to say more with a look
or a gesture than any line of dialogue. Of course, Luke has some
classic lines anyway, most notably the oft-repeated “What we have here…is
failure to communicate.” Empire Magazine’s Kim Newman summed it up perfectly,
calling it “One of those movies you remember Great Moments from.”








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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
(1969)





Tomatometer: 92%

They ended up becoming one of the most natural-looking duos in film
history, but Paul Newman and Robert Redford only came together for Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
after Jack Lemmon, Warren Beatty, and Steve
McQueen departed the project (the latter because of a now-infamous
disagreement over whether he or Newman would receive top billing). But all’s
well that ends well — and speaking of endings, this take on the oft-told
legend of Butch and Sundance boasts one of the coolest ever put to film. The
rest of the movie isn’t bad either — even the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My
Head” montage has its fans — and if large chunks of it feel overly familiar
today, it’s because they’ve been lifted for other films repeatedly in the
nearly four decades since Butch‘s release. It’s definitely more style
than substance, but Film Threat’s Brad Laidman was guilty of only mild
overstatement when he called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
“possibly the most likable movie ever filmed.”







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The Sting
(1973)





Tomatometer: 93%

Paul Newman
and Robert Redford had already teamed up once before — and the result, 1969’s
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, created the kind of box office
lightning that almost never strikes twice. But the duo (reuniting with Butch
director George Roy Hill) defied the odds with 1973’s The Sting,
assembling a buddy heist movie that was good enough to give long-deceased
ragtime pianist Scott Joplin some newfound chart success. More importantly, The
Sting
provided a template for every wisecracking, double-crossing caper to
follow. Newman and Redford weren’t the first pair of relentlessly charming
grifters to grace the silver screen, but they were two of the most glamorous
— and their deft interplay proved that with the right stars (and enough
snappy dialogue), audiences will swallow even the most convoluted plot. The
Sting
has its flaws (including an inflated running time), but Vincent
Canby of the New York Times spoke for most critics when he wrote, “The film is
so good-natured, so obviously aware of everything it’s up to, even its own
picturesque frauds, that I opt to go along with it.”





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Slap Shot

(1977)





Tomatometer: 83%

Newman reunited with director George Roy Hill for this wonderfully lewd
and profane look at minor-league hockey in the ’70s, which has overcome a
certain degree of initial critical indifference to become one of the
best-loved sports films of all time. Slap Shot‘s high raunch quotient
doesn’t exactly jibe with Newman’s reputation as one of Hollywood’s classiest
acts, but it’s easy to see why it was one of his favorite films to make; Nancy
Dowd’s script (adapted from her own book) is full of terrific dialogue and
plenty of the over-the-top violence that hockey fans craved in the sport’s
younger, woolier days. The movie’s enduring appeal is perhaps best
encapsulated by the public mea culpas of Gene Siskel, who said his greatest
professional regret was giving Slap Shot a bad review; like pretty much
everyone else who’s seen it, Siskel’s enjoyment only grew with repeated
viewings. And really, what’s not to love? Ogie Oglethorpe, the Hanson
Brothers, Newman playing the sort of embittered burnout…heck, even a
fuddy-duddy like Vincent Canby of the New York Times couldn’t resist, noting
that “Slap Shot has a kind of vitality to it that overwhelms most of
the questions relating to consistency of character and point of view.”







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Absence of Malice
(1981)





Tomatometer: 77%

Media-bashing has become so trendy that you’d almost never know that being
part of the Fourth Estate was once regarded as an honorable profession — a
public service, even. Of course, that isn’t to say reporters haven’t always
been dogged by questions of ethics — and few directors were better at framing
a thorny ethical debate than Sydney Pollack, which made him the perfect person
to guide the cameras for the film that kicked off the back half of Paul
Newman’s career. Here, Newman plays the son of a Mafia boss who is outed as
the subject of a murder investigation by an ambitious (and somewhat
scruple-deficient) reporter played by Sally Field. Though a large number of
critics felt Pollack and screenwriter Kurt Luedtke failed to present a truly
compelling picture — and some, like Dennis Schwartz of Ozus’ World Movie
Reviews, dismissed it as a “well-meaning liberal message story” — others
praised its strong performances and overall intelligence. As James Rocchi
wrote, “the ultimate conclusion of the film will leave you thoughtful and even
perhaps a touch sad — rare for any film, and even more rare for a thriller.”







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The Verdict
(1982)





Tomatometer: 96%

The late ’70s were less than kind to Newman, but the early ’80s found him
enjoying a career renaissance, kicked off with 1981’s Absence of Malice
and continued with 1982’s superb courtroom drama, The Verdict. This is
a movie whose pedigree demands excellence — aside from Newman in the central
role of a burned out alcoholic attorney who stumbles onto the case of a
lifetime, it boasts a David Mamet screenplay and typically taut direction from
Sidney Lumet. It may unfold a tad too languidly for modern audiences (Kevin
Carr of 7M Pictures describes it as “not an action flick by any means”), but
if you can set aside your craving for jump cuts and explosions for a couple of
hours, The Verdict will slowly draw you in. As Roger Ebert put it, “The
performances, the dialogue, and the plot all work together like a rare
machine.”





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The Color of Money

(1986)





Tomatometer: 91%

Was this sequel to The Hustler both unnecessary and inferior to the
original? Yes on both counts — but hey, most films are inferior to The
Hustler
, so that’s less of a knock on The Color of Money than it is
an indication of how Paul Newman’s first turn as “Fast Eddie” Felson has
endured. This time around, Newman returned to the pool halls with Martin
Scorsese behind the cameras, and with Tom Cruise and Mary Elizabeth
Mastrantonio providing some extra youthful box office drawing power. For a
handful of critics, it was little more than a crass attempt to cash in on a
classic — but they were in the distinct minority, as The Color of Money
drew overwhelmingly positive reviews, and lived up to its name during its
theatrical run, too. Perhaps most importantly, Color finally netted
Newman that elusive Best Actor trophy. Pat Graham of the Chicago Reader said
it best when he called the movie “A solidly crafted entertainment that, for
the most part, strikes a successful balance between commercial necessity and
personal expression.”







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Nobody’s Fool
(1994)





Tomatometer: 90%

It slipped past most moviegoers during its time in theaters — and given
its leisurely pace, nearly two-hour running time, and gently meandering plot,
it isn’t hard to understand why — but Nobody’s Fool is a late-period
gem in Paul Newman’s career, offering some of the actor’s most finely
balanced, quietly nuanced work. Working with a cast that included Jessica
Tandy, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, and Philip Seymour Hoffman certainly
didn’t hurt, and Robert Benton’s script (adapted from Richard Russo’s novel)
is evenly stacked with insightful, contemplative moments and chuckle-inducing
zingers. Watching Newman and Willis together is a particular pleasure, but the
same could be said for Newman and Tandy — or Newman and Griffith, for that
matter. It’s a small picture with a big heart, and in the words of
eFilmCritic’s Scott Weinberg, it “offers a hell of a lot more than just Paul
Newman at his very best, although that alone would make the flick worthy of
your attention.”







more info…


Road to Perdition
(2002)





Tomatometer: 82%

In what ended up being his final theatrical screen appearance, Newman
added an extra bit of gravitas to director Sam Mendes’ adaptation of Max Allan
Collins’ popular graphic novel, appearing as a quietly ruthless crime boss who
presides over a bloody struggle between his son and a man who might as well
be. Mendes’ meditative approach was questioned by some critics, but most
appreciated Road to Perdition‘s exploration of violence’s unpredictable
long-term consequences; ultimately, the film earned six Academy Award
nominations (including a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Newman) and over
$100 million at the box office. Though he isn’t in many scenes, Newman’s
performance here acts as a fitting capstone to a long career; his John Rooney
is a man smart enough to understand the terrible effects of his decisions —
and to understand it’s too late for him to make up for his mistakes. Newman’s
ability to convey these emotions with little more than a look was part of what eFilmCritic’s Brian McKay was referring to when he said “the strength of the
performances lies in their subtlety.”


Click here
to see the rest of Paul Neman’s legendary filmography, or
explore
our archive
for past Total Recall articles.

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