Monday, September 29, 2008

He Wasn't "Cool Hand" for Nothing



It would take far too long to tell you how much I loved this man. I shed a tear the moment I heard. But, I would like to say, for the record, that I don't think Newman ever really had a self awareness in relation to what a truly great actor he was OR how incredibly handsome he was. Many of you know that I am a teacher at a University and well, I'd like to share a silly but fun story regarding Paul Newman. When discussing mise en scene with undergraduates (usually in Intro to Film, but I use this film in production courses and writing for film courses too) there are thousands of movies to show illustrative examples from with regard to what you are specifically talking about. And I do just that. One of the examples I often use when tying character to surroundings is the opening (credit sequence) to Newman's Harper (1966). William Goldman's credit sequence takes great care in revealing a wealth of information about Newman's down-on-his luck private investigator. He is already wide awake when his alarm clock goes off (Insomnia) and the white noise of the television has kept him company (Lonliness). He lets fly the window shades and is literally assaulted by the daylight (Hangover). To compound this and dramatize it further - he fills his sink with ice and dunks his face to make sure all mental cobwebs are brushed away... While getting dressed we see the lovingly placed 8x10 of his ex-wife (Janet Leigh) whom he nods to and then comes the best part... Newman appears to be out of coffee - what to do? He opens the trash-can and sees yesterday's filter and grounds and.... and... yes decides to brew it again. When it has percolated, he pours and takes a tentative sip: his look of disgust is, in a word, PRICELESS. Mind you, not a word of dialogue yet.

Students readily and immediately grasp the importance of props, wardrobe and blocking in direct relation to this scene and mise en scene in general. So much information has been transmitted VISUALLY. We then move on to about a good dozen other clips from other movies that show us classical, expressionist and mannerist mise en scene and then, of course, screen a film in its entirety that is recognized for its achievements in this category.

I used to just assume that students know (knew) who Paul Newman is (was), but - after all, we are dealing with (at the very least, or should I say most?) 18 year olds... Well, about 5 years ago, when I first screened the beginning of Harper to a class, I had about 10 or 12 girls waiting to talk to me. Wow, I thought, you really must be in your Harrison Ford "Dr. Jones" mode, apples in their hands? LOVE.... YOU... painted on their eyelids perhaps? I mean, wow, this is crazy. JUST GIRLS (no one else) swarming me??? ME???

With big eyes, and big smiles, they all said - "Uhm, so hey... who in God's name was THAT UNBELIEVABLY GORGEOUS GUY IN THE FIRST FILM YOU SCREENED?!?!?"

Ego bruising (still to this day, I mean, this happens evrery time I show it), I smile back and say, "That my dear students, is...... PAUL FUCKING NEWMAN. And you're right ladies. He was THE COOLEST."



JMR said...

words cannot express how sad i was when i heard this on saturday morning. i was hoping that he would do one last film with redford.

only paul newman (along with his cool contemporary mcqueen) could save the schlock of irwin allen and make the towering inferno infinitely watchable. butch and sundance is an AMAZING film featuring one of goldman's best screenplays.

Molly said...

That's a great story about the girls. I though I had Newman as a heartthrob all to myself.