Sunday, September 28, 2008

Cool Hand Luke

I'm sipping a mug of Newman's Own-brand coffee reflecting on the life of the man who lent that product its name.

I've seen few of Paul Newman's movies, so I was pleased to see that a post I made on this blog last year picked up on a quality others are singling out now that he's gone. An Associated Press headline announcing Newman's death said: "Paul Newman, actor who personified cool, dies." My subject had been Newman's relatively calm presence amid the scenery-chewing of the 1966 movie Harper, based on Ross McDonald's novel The Moving Target. I wrote:

"Just about anyone with more than thirty seconds' screen time spends some of it mugging or otherwise going over the top. ... Even Newman, the anti-Pacino, the most graceful and restrained of stars, gets into the act, rolling his eyes and tossing his head in impatience. (He brings it off better than anyone else in the movie, making it a part of the character and not just a piece of schtick.)"
Here are two takes on the movie, neither of which is pleased about the protagonist's name change from Archer to Harper, whatever Newman's role may have been in the change.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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16 Comments:

Blogger Michael Carlson said...

My understanding was that the producers were the ones who wanted to keep the H thing going (don't forget the excellent western Hombre too).
You might as well ask why the Parker character in any of the many adaptations of Richard Stark's novels has never been called Parker.

September 28, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

We can all agree that Ross McD was poorly served and I think Newman seemed bored by the whole production. Over-reaction is a typical response to boredom. I suppose film making typically (unless Peckinpah is directing) is a pretty dull business and unless you're really into the material its going to show.

For me I'll prefer to remember Newman in The Verdict rather than Cool Hand Luke; giving Newman the Oscar for Color of Money was like giving Scorsese the Oscar for The Departed.

Still, one of the good guys and one of the last of the giants. His decency shone through to the end.

September 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd read both that the producers and that Newman were behind the change, not that the crime was of such gravity as to be a matter of great historical interest.

The Parker thing is one of the weird little mysteries of moviemaking. I've read plenty of discussion of the issue, but I'm not sure I've read any explanations. And John Dortmunder, too, has had any number of other names on screen. Maybe it's become a bit of a game among producers, to see how far they can go and weird they can get in casting and renaming Westlake's protagonists.

I haven't forgotten Hombre. I posted a brief comment about it here , possibly around the time I watched Harper.

September 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's an interesting thesis, that Newman was bored. Maybe the mass over-acting was a contagion spread by boredom. Whatever the reason, it was especially noticeable because many in the cast were talented and presumably capable of better. Harper is not a bad movie; it's just dated in so many ways. I mentioned Newman's occasional eye-rolling and head tossing. At the time I assumed this was his concession to the mugging that surrounded him. Maybe his impatience with the production is responsible as well.

Re the intense boredom of moviemaking, a film crew spent a day in my newsroom a few months back, a massive, efficient army deployed to capture a few seconds of screen time (including a shot of Owen Wilson walking down a corridor of desks that includes mine. Not sure my mess is visible in the shot, though). It's a tribute to moviemakers that they can (often) build a coherent product out of a process that moves in such maddeningly tiny fits and starts. It makes me wonder what relationship movie acting has to acting.

September 28, 2008  
Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Titillating post, Peter, on so many levels. First off, Hollywood nearly ever gets the adaptation of a book right. I don't know how often I've read a writer/reader say that the film is nothing like the book.
Second, it's ironic, William Goldman, the screenwriter of
"Harper," is known for his quote,
"Nobody knows anything in Hollywood." Filmmaking is a crap shoot. The casting director has the job, but is often interfered with the egos of actors, directors, and the power of the producers.
Third, Will never forget Paul Newman's class and generosity.
*laughing* I think I'll have salad for lunch with his ranch dressing.
p.s. Hope you enjoy "The Longest Date"

September 28, 2008  
Blogger Dana King said...

I read somewhere (I forget where) that the name change was actually Macdonald's idea. Apparently the producer/studio/whoever owns the names once they buy the rights, and Macdonald didn't want locked into just one production company.

That may or may not be true; it's just another explanation.

September 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

PM, as soon as I saw you had commented on this post, I thought I should check to see if any of your scripts had offered Paul Newman a part. I shall do so once I've posted this comment.

William Goldman offers entertaining and illuminating commentary on the DVD version of Harper, though I don't remember and criticisms of the acting. He may have had something to say about Shelley Winters' performance, maybe praising what I had raised my eyebrows at.

Harper is an interesting case of Hollywood not getting a book right. It's not as if the movemakers didn't quite get the subtleties. Rather, they moved the story into a new universe. Ross Macdonald wrote his novel in the late 1940s, so updating the setting to a dangerous year like 1966 was problematic. I don't know who or what was responsible for the weird overacting, but I tie that to the spirit of the times as well. (I have a thing about 1966. That was also the year of the wretched Modesty Blaise movie, a truly calamitious and misguided piece of excess that may have been the real end of the 1960s.)

Re Newman's class, two things stand out for me: His was a Hollywood marriage that lasted for decades, and he was politically active without making brickheaded or self-important pronouncements (at least that I can recall), the way today's movie stars do when they want to be taken seriously.

September 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I may have read the same story that you did. In any case, I have heard something similar about producers/studios' acquiring the rights to characters when then buy the rights to a book. This strikes me as a grave injustice and a gross abuse of intellectual-property rights, not to mention an area ripe for reform, if someone is willing to take on the movie industry.

September 28, 2008  
Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

*laughing hyserically* at Frank Sinatra whacking Vince Vaughn. I wanted to include a Jersey boy other than Tom Cruise.
p.s. Kate Winslet, the actress who has the heart of an unnamed blogger. ;)

September 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think some of your choices could capture the comic side of that role, but Bill Murray would do better than the others and getting the tenderness and insecurity down.

As for Frank, I'll say nothing against his suitability for this or any other role. I don't want to wake up tomorrow next to a horse's head.

September 28, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Slapshot.

It may not qualify officially, but it is the best Canadian movie ever made.

And Paul Newman's long-lasting Hollywood marriage is strange in that he and Joanne Woodward were both married to other people when they started seeing each other. That makes it even more odds-defying.

September 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd forgotten about Slapshot. Did Newman do his own skating in that movie?

September 29, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Yes, he did his own skating. I think Paul Newman's father ran a sporting goods store. He was apparently quite good at a few sports, including hockey.

September 29, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Another admirable quality, though the most memorable parts of the on-ice performances in the movie were probably the fighting rather than the skating.

September 29, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

The fighting? What about the striptease?

And how come George Roy Hill has no legacy as a director?

September 29, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You've just reminded me of the memorable striptease. Thanks.

That's a good question about George Roy Hill. I researched it by looking up the list of movies he directed. It's a surprisingly short list, which might explain why he has no legacy, but why was the list so short?

September 29, 2008  

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