The Movies

We asked Wendy MacLeod '81, James E. Michael Playwright-in-Residence, to tell us about her favorites among Newman's film roles. With so many gems to choose from, it's not easy to select just a few. Here, in chronological order, are MacLeod's top picks:


In the same way that Marlon Brando owns Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, any young stage actor taking on the role of Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has to wrest it away from Paul Newman. The viewer gets a visceral sense of Maggie's sexual frustration, watching her share a bedroom with the indolently beautiful Newman, whose anger is shutting her out. Brick's homosexuality is muted in the movie version; we see Brick privately inhaling Maggie's negligee in the bathroom, which tells us how much he wants to give in to her. But we also share Brick's suspicion that Maggie wants his inheritance as much as she wants his body. Newman's Brick is driven to drink by the no-necks and schemers that surround him, and he somehow manages to be that very rare thing, an attractive alcoholic, who drinks out of a sense of moral outrage.

HUD // 1963

This is, quite simply, one of the best movies ever made. It captures the grittiness of a working ranch and is prescient about the forces that will compete for America's soul. Newman bravely commits to playing Hud, a Texas rancher who's a Cadillac-driving ladies' man and a "cold-blooded bastard." Newman's charm and beauty are a fascinating counterpoint to everything we see Hud do. He tries to take the family ranch away from his aging father because he sees dollar signs in the oil that lies beneath the land his father loves. He corrupts his adoring nephew, rapes the family's beloved housekeeper, and brings about his father's death. Yet because Newman captures Hud's dimensionality, we never altogether lose our sympathy for him. In the climactic scene, when his father tells Hud that he "values nothing, and respects nothing," Newman shows us the pain of the boy within, who never succeeded in earning his father's respect.


Set largely in the barracks of a Southern prison, Cool Hand Luke explores why the men in the chain-gang find hope in Newman's happy-go-lucky Luke Jackson. It may have something to do with him being easy on the eyes-there's a homoerotic undercurrent here-but it's mostly because Newman's Cool Hand Luke loses fights and comes up swinging. He gets lousy hands in poker and still ends up winning. (In the heart-wrenching scene with his dying mother, we discover where Luke gets his ability to bluff.) When the guards punish him for his escapes by having him dig his own grave again and again, Luke finally breaks down and Newman shows us what it has cost his character to be a hero. Newman's pitch-perfect final taunt at his nemesis, the prison guard who shoots him, turns the death into a victory as Luke escapes forever.


While ostensibly playing "the brains" to Redford's younger brawn, Newman is still a heartthrob in this Western version of Jules and Jim. Newman seems to enjoy playing over-the-hill, but it's obvious that Katherine Ross would rather ride a bike with Newman's Butch Cassidy than sleep with Redford's Sundance Kid. Newman's playful, throwaway affability endears us to the character, and yet something darker crosses his face in the scene where, in an attempt to go straight, the pair has to kill a kindred band of Mexican bandits. The movie toys with our perceptions of "the outlaw," showing that these guys are as scared as the rest of us. This goes right to the heart of what attracted Newman to a role. Unlike many movie stars today who are fiercely protecting their heroic brands, Newman was always eager to show us his character's flaws.

THE STING // 1973

In The Sting, Paul Newman was meant to be passing the torch to the leading man of the next generation, Robert Redford, but instead he steals the movie as Henry Gondorf, "the best inside man in the business." It's a nesting-box of a role, as Henry himself plays a variety of characters to set up the mark. Redford's Johnny Hooker is taken in by a corrupt ingénue, while Henry Gondorf has a comfortable middle-aged, grifter marriage with the world-weary madam played by Eileen Brennan. At age forty-eight, and before the age of Nautilus, Newman still looks great in a muscle shirt and demonstrates how fine a line it is between fedora and foreplay.


It's a rare film that has a sixty-nine-year-old leading man, but Newman makes it look easy in Nobody's Fool, playing Sully, a sardonic, unsentimental working-class guy in upstate New York, who pieces together a living from jobbed-in construction work and stolen snow-blowers. In the scenes with his boss's wife, played by Melanie Griffith, Newman's Sully is ruefully aware of their age difference at the same time he knows that she'd be better off with him than with that cocky Bruce Willis. Sully does his best to take care of the people around him-his elderly landlady, his grandson, his hapless buddy, and his estranged son Peter. (There's poignancy to watching Newman's scenes with his onscreen adult son, knowing that the actor lost his only son to suicide.) Although Paul Newman is an unlikely Everyman, after seeing Nobody's Fool, you start seeing Sullys everywhere.