To understand the impact Paul Newman had on the screen, look past the Newman/Redford films and to the films where he is paired with the more popular actors of our time. In “Message in a Bottle”, an anemic chick flick, Paul Newman’s presence was an instant draw of the eye away from Kevin Costner’s performance. In “The Color of Money” Newman’s presence left almost no room for the emerging Tom Cruise. Even in the Pixar film “Cars” Paul Newman came through the animation to make his character’s story almost as interesting as the main character’s.
Then there were the classics. In “The Hustler” Newman starred with Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, and George C. Scott. Of “Fast Eddie”, Roger Ebert wrote,
There are only a handful of movie characters so real that the audience refers to them as touchstones. Fast Eddie Felson is one of them. The pool shark played by Paul Newman in "The Hustler" (1961) is indelible--given weight because the film is not about his victory in the final pool game, but about his defeat by pool, by life, and by his lack of character.
And of course there were the movies with Robert Redford. Newman was the senior partner, both on screen in character and off screen in terms of experience. In “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, Newman’s portrayal of Butch Cassidy drove the events of the picture, for good or for ill. In “The Sting”, Newman was probably at the height of his powers but moved little beyond the cool character he had created. But there was a foreshadowing of the roles Newman would play later. Past the stage of the romantic leading man, Newman evolved into a lead character actor, the experienced (often tragically) older man trying to win one more time.
Newman’s style of acting was not a hit with every director. During the filming of “Torn Curtain” Newman asked Alfred Hitchcock the motivation for his character. Hitchcock replied, “Your salary.”
However, I think the body of work and Newman’s presence in so many critically acclaimed films speaks for itself. As for the looks and his blue eyes, a Doonesbury cartoon captured the public feeling well when a hungover Mike Doonesbury woke up, looked in the mirror and proclaimed how good looking he was. From the wall came the answer, “I’m not your mirror. I’m your Paul Newman poster.”
A giant of Hollywood has died, and his like in movies is unlikely to be found again. He was 83. RIP.