Saturday, September 27, 2008

The law west of the Pecos

When I heard the news this morning that Paul Newman had died, I immediately thought of his roles in The Verdict and The Hudsucker Proxy. Those were movies that meant a lot to me when they came out, and that I still remember as daring experiments in style and mood.

Although The Verdict was hardly groundbreaking, it came out when I was a junior in high school and was just beginning to be able to attend movies. I was shaken by its bleakness and moved by Newman's vulnerability and gravitas. Sidney Lumet, as he nearly always did, made me feel like an adult, and I loved the movie -- and Newman -- for that. What a cadre of nominees for the Best Actor Oscar that year -- Ben Kingsley (the winner for Gandhi), Newman, Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie), Peter O'Toole (My Favorite Year). (I'll pass over Jack Lemmon (Missing) without comment.)

Newman isn't indispensible to The Hudsucker Proxy, really, but his role symbolizes the seriousness with which he took his craft and his never-waning interest in cinematic experimentation. For such a box-office stalwart, Newman never seemed to sa
y no to the chance to work with great filmmakers on risky scripts. He stayed on the cutting edge right to the end.

But the performance that I'll always treasure most is his cranky, quirky star turn as Judge Roy Bean in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, an oddball John Huston/John Milius comic western from 1972. It was one of a handful of pop culture artifacts that my circle in Athens was obsessed with. We quoted it incessantly.
  • "Justice is the handmaiden of the law." "But you said the law is the handmaiden of justice!" "Works both ways."
  • "This was the original Bad Bob. The albino."
  • "I'm very advanced in my views and outspoken."
There's no doubt that the movie doesn't hang together, but like many such ramshackle affairs, it turns out to be utterly unforgettable in bits and pieces. Paul Newman, thank you for bringing it to life. And rest in peace.

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