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The opposite of acting
October 2, 2008 - Rick Chatenever
Last Saturday, the day Paul Newman died, I went to the movies. I didn’t feel like weeping along with Richard Gere and Diane Lane in “Nights in Rodanthe” or suffering through the dysfunctionality of “Fireproof” or “Towelhead.” I had no need to watch Spike Lee correct the record about black World War II soldiers in “Miracle at St. Anna.”
So I went with the crowd to see the weekend box-office winner, “Eagle Eye.” But watching all the Stephen Spielberg-produced mayhem about a Pentagon computer taking control of the government, my mind kept going back to Paul Newman.
The end of an era proclaimed the tributes pouring in for the iconic 83-year-old actor. His obituary, which read like a great script from Hollywood’s golden age, alluded to him as the last of the Movie Stars who fulfilled our fantasies … when our fantasies were a lot simpler.
He was the last of a breed of actor who learned his craft in New York, cut his teeth in the early days of television, and then made his way to citrus-scented Hollywood, still a company town in the ’50s, in the business of manufacturing dreams.
His Cinemascope looks were both asset and challenge since he wanted to be an actor as well as a star. He brought an easy grace to the job. He acted his age over five decades of the ever-changing 20th century.
Then there was his 50-year marriage to Joanne Woodward, on and off screen. He directed her to an Oscar nomination. He had scores of his own nominations and prizes, finally taking the best actor Oscar, way after the fact, in 1987’s “The Color of Money.”
Not every performance in his career was great — just almost every performance. It’s hard to narrow the field down to, say, a half-dozen favorites.
Mine would include “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and “Hud” from the early years; “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting,” of course, in which he and Robert Redford ushered in the genre of buddy movies; “The Verdict,” the one he should have gotten the Oscar for, except he was up against “Ghandi”; and “Absence of Malice,” reminding us that journalism needs conscience to work right.
Newman was the kind of actor who could make great writers greater, from Tennessee Williams to Larry McMurtry and Ken Kesey. He had the same effect on great directors, from John Huston and Arthur Penn to Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers and the proverbial many more.
His heroism seemed even greater off the screen. Long before NASCAR became a political badge in a polarized nation, he was a champion auto racer … and a liberal Democrat. While most in his profession do the love-it-hate-it dance with publicity and celebrity, his face instead adorns food labels.
Newman’s Own, the nonprofit food line, has given $250 million to charity for programs like the Hole in the Wall Gang camps for children suffering from serious illnesses. It’s all about providing nourishment.
As fine an actor as he was, Paul Newman’s greatest quality felt like the opposite of acting. For all of us who only knew him as light projected larger than life on a screen, he enlarged our sense of what it means to be human — even as he kept raising the bar for us all to try to be better at it.
… All of which provided a tough act for “Eagle Eye” to follow. First the good news: It makes more sense than the trailer, which basically bombards you with stunts, one after another. And it’s better than the reviews pointing out that its plot is utterly implausible, from the first frame on.
Oh, really? Critics are noticing this now? After decades of watching guys swinging from skyscrapers on spiderwebs, bouncing off walls and ceilings, bending bullet paths, outrunning fireballs, rising unscathed from falls off high-rises, riding jet planes on the wings?
The techno-paranoia of “Eagle Eye’s” script brings Shia Labeouf and Michelle Monaghan together in a “Bourne Identity”-style chase across the U.S., that finally winds up in Washington, D.C.
Why? Only this Tokyo Rose-type voice on their cellphones knows, and she’s not telling. She just tells them where to go next. The voice seems to have a direct line on the future, and also seems in control of everything on the electric grid. She can turn red lights green. She can flash your name on a billboard.
She’s tied to a supercomputer that basically knows everything every one of us is doing. Big Sister is watching you. In the story, the computer belongs to the Pentagon … an only slightly scarier thought than having it in the hands of Google. Oh, and did I mention the part about the plot to kill the president?
There’s adrenaline to be had joining Shia and Michelle on their trip. But it can’t compare with watching Paul Newman making movies about characters, and character, rather than just trying to outrun the latest digital gizmo to mess with our minds.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org
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