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Thursday, June 29, 2006 10:29 pm

Newman's own

A look back at some of the veteran actor’s best work

Paul Newman recently announced that he would star in one more movie before ending his extraordinary career. What a relief! No screen legend should end his career as a cartoon voice. He’s upped the ante of expectations by wanting Robert Redford to co-star. The greatest pairing in movie history made only two films, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973), and both are classics. The one missing ingredient is the late director George Roy Hill, who helmed both films. Butch and Sundance is a fictionalized account of the real-life outlaws who led the Hole in the Wall Gang. Butch (Newman) was the leader, and Sundance (Redford) was his quick-draw gunslinging sidekick. Katharine Ross co-stars as Etta Place, Sundance’s girlfriend, whose actual identity remains a mystery to this day. The Old West was changing fast, and Butch and Sundance were well past their time in the early 20th century. They fled the country to South America, where they found temporary success for their criminal exploits. The movie dramatizes their reported demise, a famous story that may not be factual. Sometimes it is better to film the legend. Butch and Sundance finds the perfect balance between comedy and drama, which is heightened by the transcendent chemistry of the two actors.

Lightning rarely strikes twice, but The Sting proved to be a bigger bolt. Newman is a master con artist who helps a young thief (Redford) set up an elaborate sting against a mobster who is responsible for the killing of Redford’s partner. Newman is never given much credit for his comedic abilities, but here he is a hoot as a drunken has-been. David S. Ward’s brilliantly constructed screenplay is a glorious creation that should be required study for all budding screenwriters. No other “movie” displays such wit and intelligence, but these days pure entertainment must resort to some form of dumbing down.

Prison movies have a bad rap thanks to the persistent cliches or the maudlin idealism of The Shawshank Redemption, but Cool Hand Luke (1967) safely glides through the troubled genre. Newman stars as a petty criminal who is sent to a prison work camp run by the quotably eloquent Strother Martin. There is a definite failure to communicate with authority, and Newman gives one of his great rebel performances. Newman finally won an Oscar for his return as Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money (1986), the sequel to The Hustler (1961), but he should have won for The Verdict (1982). Newman literally lives and breathes alcohol as a drunken lawyer who is given one last chance to redeem himself with a major malpractice lawsuit. Newman’s career is one of many triumphs. He rarely made a bad movie decision.

Coming Tuesday (July 4): The Matador and The Libertine.

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