THE LISTS: Top 10 Paul Newman performances

Posted by · 7:15 am · September 30th, 2008

Paul Newman in The StingExpected or not, this week’s news that screen legend Paul Newman has broken through to the other side is deeply depressing.  But as I noted over the weekend, it’s best to take moments such as this as an opportunity to celebrate the man and his work.  So it is that this week’s list reflects the very best Newman had to give us…according to me, of course.

Newman had an undeniable screen presence.  It wasn’t the piercing blue eyes, nor the tall, dark and handsome figure he cut into the celluloid.  It was the attitude.  His character dripped with a sort of soulful aroma that couldn’t quite be considered performance art so much as meditative experiences.  Right out of the gate with “The Silver Chalice” and all the way through to vocal work in “Cars,” Newman’s characters were more genuine than anything surrounding them.  It makes a list of ten nearly impossible to whittle down.

Any list is going to vary, though a few staples are bound to pop up consistently enough (I’d wager my top four fit that bill).  But it’s ultimately a joy just to go back and revisit these portrayals, regardless of their ranked order.

Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid10. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969)
For some, an obvious top tier choice but it just scoots into my top 10.  It’s unfair to give too much credit to either performer in this defining “buddy” western, however, because Newman and Robert Redford played off of each other so damn well.  Though Redford got the real zingers, Newman could crank out William Goldman’s one-liners like he was born to do it: “I have vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals,” “My, we seem a little short on brotherly love around here,” “What’d you say that for? You didn’t have to say something like that,” on and on.

Paul Newman in The Color of Money9. “The Color of Money” (1986)
There’s plenty of debate regarding Newman’s Oscar win for this sequel to 1961’s “The Hustler.”  Some say his Honorary Oscar the year prior was a wake-up call to those who didn’t realize the legend was still without a statuette.  Others thought it was the perfect opportunity to reward two performances at once.  Whatever the case, I always felt his take on “Fast” Eddie Felson 25 years later to be a more nuanced, lived-in portrayal than the black-and-white showcase that helped make him a star.  It was the role that introduced Newman to the next, and ultimately final level of life and he wore it perfectly.

Paul Newman in Absence of Malice8. “Absence of Malice” (1981)
When Michael Gallagher waltzes into Megan Carter’s newsroom for a big reveal in Sydney Pollack’s “Absence of Malice,” the poor woman knocked her coffee over, reacting almost to the man’s presence more than her surprise.  And Newman maintained that presence throughout, a true hero role late in life after his career writhed about in destitution throughout the 1970s.  Any journalist or newsperson is bound to have a soft spot for the film and the role, but like most of his endeavors, Newman found a way to inject undeniable humanity into a character that could just as easily have remained a symbol throughout.

Paul Newman in The Sting7. “The Sting” (1973)
Still a favorite film for many, Newman got the chance to play off of Redford once again with George Roy Hill calling the shots one more time, and the result was comedic brilliance.  “The Sting” was mostly revered for it’s clever, genre-defining screenplay, but though Redford got most of the acting accolades that year, Newman was equally innovative with his take on the con-man trickster.  Much like “Butch Cassidy,” however, Newman owed much of the finished product to the undeniable chemistry with his co-star, so much that it is difficult to envision the film led by two other stars.

Paul Newman in Road to Perdition6. “Road to Perdition” (2002)
The soft-spoken sincerity of Newman’s performance in this noir-ish graphic novel adaptation is spine-tingling and effective.  He didn’t claim a lot of screen time, but the impact was enough to secure supporting acting honors throughout the awards season.  Many will remember the rain sequence, others the church basement confrontation.  But one element that sticks out in my mind is his stalking of his son, almost like the villain of a monster film, the camera behind him, wobbling with his fury.  He brings both fists down on top of a cowering Daniel Craig and proclaims, “I curse the day you were born!”  Absolute power.

Paul Newman in Nobody\'s Fool5. “Nobody’s Fool” (1994)
It’s one of the portrayals that seems to get lost in the shuffle, even as we discuss his life and times now, but Newman’s take on Sully Sullivan in this Robert Benton gem is still one of my favorite examples.  The right mixture of buried childhood mischief and weathered fatherly warmth seemed to begin here as the definition of his later career.  He had perfectly awkward father/son chemistry with Dylan Walsh and equally honed give-and-take with Melanie Griffiths, whose intoxicating love for the old timer we bought, hook, line and sinker.  It’s the kind of performance that might go unnoticed today.

Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke4. “Cool Hand Luke” (1967)
Moving into the truly defining stuff, no one can deny Luke his due.  From the first images of the character defiantly chopping parking meters off at the stem, we knew this would be a role emblematic, not only of the actor’s gifts, but of the times as well.  It’s difficult to deny it as Newman’s most iconic performance, owing plenty to the revelatory creation of novelist Donn Pearce.  An Oscar nod was in the cards, but a tough loss to an equally relevant portrayal was perhaps a little easier to take than it might have been.  Still, to this day, it remains his most quotable and signature work.

Paul Newman in The Verdict3. “The Verdict” (1982)
In many ways, Newman’s work in this Sidney Lumet court room drama was so much more than the material.  It is one of two clear examples (the other being our #1 choice) of the actor elevating the character with a bravado and an essence that put the story in a secondary position.  It other ways, it was wonderfully symbolic of where Newman was in his career at the time.  Just as Frank Galvin was a washed-up ambulance chaser, Newman was a guy chasing the goods rather than having them handed to him on a platter like days of old, relegated to entertainment fare in the late 1970s.  Now, he was truly back.

Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof2. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958)
Another iconic performance owed plenty to an iconic role, but Newman owned it like seemingly no other actor could.  It was the beginning of his tough-hearted heart throb “schtick,” a schtick he would truly subvert and make into qualified art throughout his career (see next entry especially).  Any actor would revel at the opportunity to chew on the words of Tennessee Williams, but Newman was able to make them his own rather than a part of a specified wheelhouse.  He may have even surpassed Brando as the definitive on-screen character from the Williams portfolio.

Paul Newman in Hud1. “Hud” (1963)
No surprise here, I’m sure, but Hud Bannon truly was “the man with the barbed wire soul,” and Paul Newman is the one that gave it to him.  Like “The Verdict,” Newman took a role that could have easily lay dormant on the page, spouted the dialogue — which tells the story well enough — and called it a day.  But of course that wasn’t in his blood.  He got under the skin of Hud in a near-frightening way, offering a wretched man unforgiveable at every turn, yet understood all along.  Larry McMurtry gave the character life but Newman gave him substance, and the end result was perhaps the most underrated portrayal of his entire career.

Have your say.  Tell us your favorite Paul Newman performances in the comments section below!

→ 20 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Lists

20 responses so far

  • 1 9-30-2008 at 7:41 am

    Joseph said...

    Apparently I need to catch up on my Newman. (Haven’t seen Hud or The Verdict) But my current favorite is still Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid.

  • 2 9-30-2008 at 7:59 am

    John Foote said...

    “Absence of Malice” over “The Hustler”?? Wow. Really disagree with “The Hustler” not being on the list Kris (your opinion of course) as he was hateful and seething and vulnerable and finally nearly pathetically self aware in that performance, just a remarkable piece of acting that instantly defined him as the best of his generation — I would place it under “Cool Hand Luke” which is his best work. Nice to see “Road to Perdition” on your list…loved that film, and Hanks as much as Newman — thouight “Slap Shot” might make it on the list, better performance than some there I think.

  • 3 9-30-2008 at 8:08 am

    Al Simmons said...

    Its worth mentioning his role as Reggie Dunlop in Slap Shot as well.

  • 4 9-30-2008 at 8:48 am

    Patrick said...

    All great performances, however….his Chance Wayne opposite Geraldine Page in “Sweet Bird of Youth” is perhaps his most unappreciated. I think his gigolo here is much more realistic than his Brick in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

  • 5 9-30-2008 at 10:48 am

    Jeff said...

    1.) The Verdict
    2.) The Hustler
    3.) Cool Hand Luke
    4.) Hud
    5.) Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid
    6.) Slap Shot
    7.) Nobody’s Fool
    8.) The Color of Money
    9.) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
    10.) Sweet Bird of Youth

  • 6 9-30-2008 at 11:17 am

    Speaking English said...

    “The Hustler”definitely contains his best performance, and one of the greatest performances in cinema, but “Hud” is right behind and still remains by favorite of his films.

  • 7 9-30-2008 at 11:54 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I knew The Hustler exclusion would turn some heads. Obviously, it’s my #11, but I was always more attracted to his work in the follow-up for some reason. It was more of a creation to me than The Hustler, and a hell of an achievement to revisit a character so many years later and live in those shoes so absolutely once again.

  • 8 9-30-2008 at 2:07 pm

    entertainmenttoday... said...

    My top pick would be The Verdict!

  • 9 9-30-2008 at 3:03 pm

    Casey said...

    1. Cool Hand Luke
    2. The Hustler
    3. The Sting
    4. Nobody’s Fool
    5. Road to Perdition
    6. The Color of Money
    7. Butch & Sundance
    8. Slap Shot

    embarrassed to say i have yet to see Hud, Absence of Malice, The Verdict, or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof… dont worry my Newman movie marathon is bout to hit the unseen

  • 10 9-30-2008 at 4:00 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I see nobody mentions Mr and Mrs Bridge, and I understand why it doesn’t have broad appeal… but it would unquestionably make my own list. He and Joanne Woodward were so attuned to each other in that film, the performances almost can’t be separated — it’s something special.

  • 11 9-30-2008 at 4:12 pm

    John Foote said...

    Mine too Guy, and for Kris — I get what you are saying, but The Hustler would make mine — high up in fact.

  • 12 9-30-2008 at 5:20 pm

    Kamish said...

    Pne for the list – Roy Bean…Life & Times Of Judge Roy Bean

  • 13 10-01-2008 at 3:09 pm

    Chad said...

    Next week’s topic? 10 Best Scores of the Decade

    10. Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard – THE DARK KNIGHT
    9. John Williams – A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
    7. James Newton Howard – SIGNS
    6. Harold Budd & Robin Guthrie – MYSTERIOUS SKIN
    5. Jonny Greenwood – THERE WILL BE BLOOD
    4. Michael Andrews – ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW
    3. Mogwai – ZIDANE: A 21st CENTURY PORTRAIT
    1. Clint Mansell – REQUIEM FOR A DREAM

  • 14 10-11-2008 at 9:16 pm

    Dean Treadway said...

    What a great man, Paul Newman:

    1) The Verdict
    2) Hud
    3) Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
    4) The Color of Money
    5) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
    6) Cool Hand Luke
    7) The Hustler
    8) Harper
    9) Slap Shot
    10) Somebody Up There Likes Me

  • 15 10-13-2008 at 8:54 am

    movie fan said...

    it’s hard not to admire Paul Newman for putting his money to work in such productive ways, such as his Newman’s Own line–high quality stuff and the proceeds go to good causes… very smart.

  • 16 10-23-2008 at 1:03 pm

    Brian said...

    One of if not my favorite actor.

    1. The Hustler
    2. Nobody’s Fool
    3. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
    4. Verdict
    5. Hud
    6. Cool Hand Luke
    7. Color of Money
    8. Absense of Malice
    9. Sting
    10. Somebody Up There Likes Me
    11. Butch Cassidy
    12. Sweet Bird of Youth
    13. Road to Perdition
    14. Slap Shot
    15. Harper
    16. Long Hot Summer
    17. Mr. & Mrs. Bridge
    18. Hudsucker Proxy
    19. Hombre
    20. Twilight

  • 17 12-08-2008 at 5:09 pm

    Paulie said...

    this is a fine list except the fact that the hustler is missing and that in my opinion is his possible best performance miles ahead of his incidental oscar winner the color of money

  • 18 4-27-2010 at 10:48 am

    terry said...

    Interestly, everyone is supposed to think that Hud is the evil, ruthless, rapacious son (even Newman disliked the character according to a biographer) and the father(Melvin Douglas) is the venerable cowboy “saint”…I think Pauline Kael referred to him as someone who would vote for Adlai Stevenson(a recommendation?)
    Anyhoo, my wife, whose brother was Hud in the flesh, feels that the father is the evil one…A distant unfeeling man who perferred Norman to Hud all his life–he created Hud the monster with his loveless, soulless judgemental “parenting” so that Hud just naturally had to “go bad in the face of so much good”..No matter what the critics say, she thinks Hud was crippled by a lousy upbringing–just like her brother–and thinks Homer Bannon is the real evil in the family. But we’ll never know..When Hud said to Lonnie,”You don’t know the whole story” it’s too bad he didn’t tell a little of it.

  • 19 7-25-2014 at 10:11 am

    Ayush Chandra said...

    All his performences are good, every single has it’s own taste