Watching Ethan Hawke’s HBO docuseries The Last Movie Stars, I was struck by an early scene where Gore Vidal, voiced by actor Brooks Ashmanskas, recounts how he became friends with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. It was around 1954, and Newman was cast in one of Vidal’s plays written for television, The Death of Billy the Kid. At the time, New York television studios were broadcasting weekly live dramas written or adapted from works by Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, William Faulkner.
“Even Jimmy Baldwin got me to introduce him to the story editor of [the CBS program] Studio One,” Vidal recalls in his memoir. The writer spent a couple of years cranking out scripts for network TV, then headed to LA with Newman and Woodward. They had film studio contracts and a shared rental in Malibu. “It was as if we were all swimming in the navel sweat of Hollywood,” Vidal says with relish in Hawke’s documentary.
The scene is remarkable for the way it captures the confluence of an aging Hollywood studio system, the emergent medium of television, and contemporary literary imaginations. Newman and Woodward—the last movie stars, as Vidal puts it—built careers underwritten by Hollywood but indebted to American literature. In fact, most of Newman’s films were literary adaptations. Bringing Westerns, crime novels, and bestselling thrillers to the screen, as well as works by Tennessee Williams and Faulkner, Newman helped to define our cultural narratives about labor, masculinity, and success.
In Leslie Fiedler’s classic study Love and Death in the American Novel, published in 1960, the literary critic observes that the American novel is distinct from its European prototypes by its squeamishness about love, sex, and marriage:
Ever since [Rip Van Winkle], the typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat—anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say, the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage, and respectability.
The books that inform Newman’s body of work seem to bear out Fiedler’s claim. Think of Cool Hand Luke, Donn Pearce’s 1965 novel about a prisoner who escapes from a Florida chain gang or The Verdict, Barry Reed’s 1980 novel about an alcoholic lawyer on the brink of disaster. The women in these stories are representative figures—the horny housewife, the femme fatale. They destabilize the stories’ masculine worlds, but remain out of reach.
Paul Newman is an uncanny avatar of male ambivalence about cramped civilization. Offscreen, there’s the actor’s long marriage to Woodward and his well-known political and philanthropic efforts, which suggest a commitment to family and civic life.
But on screen, he projects a rogue individualism. He’s sexy, but somehow impervious to sex; he gets the girl, but he doesn’t really want her after all; or he loses her and then he does. “Well the happiness market’s crashed, baby,” he declares in his role as a glib, brooding P.I. in the 1966 film Harper. Throughout his films, Newman manifests an uneasy rapport between the sentimental dream of assimilation—into society or normative family life—and the seductions of alienation.
Shortly after arriving in Hollywood, Newman made The Long, Hot Summer (1958), based on Faulkner’s 1940 novel The Hamlet and two related works. The novel’s rural Mississippi community is unsettled by the arrival of the Snopes family, poor white sharecroppers who contract as tenants with the powerful landowner Will Varner. Rumor has it that the Snopes are barn burners. The threat of arson gives the Snopeses a nebulous clout. Soon Flem Snopes takes over from Varner’s son’s as store clerk. He installs another Snopes in the blacksmith shop, sets up a shadowy, predatory lending operation, moves into Will Varner’s house, and eventually marries Varner’s daughter.
Snopes is a usurper. His bewitching effect on the town reflects racial and class anxieties in the post-Reconstruction era South. Faulkner projects onto the Snopeses the impotence, rage, and feckless rise of the laborer class. He marks their malevolence by their violence as well as by various physical and intellectual disabilities; their intransigence by their bovine women. (To be clear, many of Faulkner’s women, including Varner’s daughter, are about as senseless as livestock.)
In the film, Newman plays Ben Quick, a stand-in for the sprawling Snopes clan. Newman brings a raffish charm to the role of usurper. While Flem Snopes is squat and reticent, Newman’s Quick is voluble, grinning—lean and athletic, as his name suggests—more of a rascal than a crook.
The film, unlike the book, is dominated by the marriage plot, reflecting an American obsession with the nuclear family following World War II. Clara Varner, played by Joanne Woodward, is bright, vigorous, and headstrong—unlike her sensuous counterpart in the book. Her hand in marriage is the ultimate reward for the clever, enterprising Quick. But the marriage plot is a decoy for the film’s central concern: the contest and camaraderie between men. Quick’s real conquest is his seduction of Varner, who sees in the younger man a version of himself, someone cunning and virile enough to secure the family line.
Clara is a pawn, part of a devilish pact between Varner and Quick. (It’s not until Quick finally renounces Clara in defiance of her father that she throws herself into his arms.) The enduring image of the film is that of two men—Orson Welles’s Varner, red-faced, sweating, a cigar clamped in his mouth; and Newman’s bright-eyed, daring Quick—sizing up one another, striking a deal in the shadows.
Newman’s take on the usurper appeals to nationalist convictions. He offers a heroic fantasy that may resonate with the viewer’s founding myths—the upstart American colonies who win their autonomy from the crown. The role also suggests an image of US post-war ascendance, as the country seized cultural dominance from Europe.
Rooted in dynastic struggle, the figure of the usurper is transplanted and elaborated for a republican context by Twain, Faulkner, Emerson (“When you strike at a king, you must kill him”). In Hollywood, the type gives rise to the anti-hero. Ben Quick is succeeded by Newman’s 1963 role in Hud: Hud Bannon, the son of a Texas rancher scheming to take over the ranch. Adapted from Larry McMurtry’s novel Horseman, Pass By, the film focuses on one of the book’s secondary characters—an antagonistic stepson. Now at the center of a generational conflict, Hud’s opportunism clashes with his father’s traditionalist approach to ranching.
Hud is a prodigal, unrepentant to the end, defending his compromising ethos: “This world is so full of crap, a man’s gonna get into it sooner or later, whether he’s careful or not.” In the book, it’s the father in a moment of resignation who expresses this sentiment. In the film, the line shifts our loyalties toward the son. Hud’s damaged cynicism appeals to us, critic Pauline Kael observes, because it seems authentic beside his father’s staid morality. The film further humanizes Hud by exploring his past trauma and tempering his violence at key moments. (It also gives us one of Newman’s all-time riveting come ons: You still got that itch?)
Reflecting on the public’s response to Hud, Newman seems mystified: “We thought [the] last thing people would do was accept Hud as a heroic character … His amorality just went over [the audience’s] head; all they saw was this Western, heroic individual.” Ahem. Obviously, Newman underestimates his own magnetism. For one thing, his physicality—his whiteness—helps transform a sinister character into one that an audience might absolve, even root for. In place of the book’s dark-haired brute, we get the fair-haired Newman, his “blue, blue eyes and his hurt, sensitive mouth,” as Kael puts it in her review.
She suggests that the character gets his heroic appeal from the actor himself:
They could cast him as a mean man and know that the audience would never believe in his meanness. For there are certain actors who have such extraordinary audience rapport that the audience does not believe in their villainy except to relish it, as with Brando; and there are others, like Newman, who in addition to this rapport, project such a traditional heroic frankness and sweetness that the audience dotes on them, seeks to protect them from harm or pain. Casting Newman as a mean materialist is like writing a manifesto against the banking system while juggling your investments so you can break the bank.
Newman’s roles often straddle the line between crude materialist and principled striver—between a world that’s throwing itself at him in hotel rooms and his inner conviction of a higher calling. This tension makes him so compelling to watch, especially in the role of the gambler or hustler. In The Hustler (1961), Newman plays pool shark Fast Eddie Felson. The film is adapted from the novel by Walter Tevis (who also wrote The Queen’s Gambit, on which the 2020 Netflix limited series is based).
Tevis’s novel is concerned with what heroism means in a post-war society. Eddie is a kid from Oakland who’s desperate to escape the “obsequious, frustrating life” of the small-time hustler. He heads east to challenge Minnesota Fats, the best straight-pool player in the country. As he learns, big time hustling requires talent and skill, but also cutthroat individualism and an overriding desire to win.
Newman plays Fast Eddie with a chip on his shoulder. He’s cocky, moody, hungry, explosive—a talented player who can’t win until he has nothing to lose. He meets a young woman named Sarah, played by Piper Laurie. Sarah offers him shelter, encouragement, love. When someone calls him a loser, Sarah earnestly appeals, “You’re not a loser, Eddie. You’re a winner.”
In the film, Sarah meets a tragic end. Her death is the instrument for Eddie’s transformation. Thrown back on his own devices, he must develop what the film calls “character.” He becomes the avenging hero, beating Minnesota Fats at pool, sanctifying Sarah’s death, ennobling competition through its tragic cost.Bringing Westerns, crime novels, and bestselling thrillers to the screen, as well as works by Tennessee Williams and Faulkner, Newman helped to define our cultural narratives about labor, masculinity, and success.
Maybe it’s tedious to point out that it’s often the women in these films who pay the price for competitive male striving. Tevis’s novel, at least, suggests an alternate path for Sarah. Rather than killing her off, the book makes her Eddie’s sparring partner, a mirror for his own self-loathing and self-sabotage. He’s projecting, of course, when he calls her “a born loser.” Her response is maybe ironic or mocking: “And you’re a winner, Eddie. A real winner.” The novel expresses skepticism about the meaning and value of winning, but its irony is missing in the film. Onscreen, we get a melodrama with outsized consequences and spiritual repercussions.
Neither the book nor the film can imagine a path for Eddie that includes Sarah—though he almost buys a ring for her, Tevis tells us. For Eddie, the role of husband or father is inconceivable, incompatible with the story’s concept of character development. Character is an individualist concern, so Eddie remains a social outlier, his longing for hearth and home and his sexual passion sublimated by a lust for winning.
Newman reprises the role of Fast Eddie in The Color of Money (1986). Departing from Tevis’s follow-up novel, screenwriter Richard Price and director Martin Scorsese developed the film’s script to fit Newman like a custom suit, according to Scorsese. Here, Eddie’s youthful swagger is hammered into something steely. He’s still hungry, but in a patient, stalking, wolfish sort of way. He’s a whiskey salesman with a white Cadillac and wads of cash who meets a brash young pool player—Tom Cruise’s Vincent—and teaches him to hustle.
The film is seductive—Newman is mesmerizing—but like its predecessor, it lacks irony. The films, which span decades of economic expansion in the US, exude confidence about what’s possible through personal striving. Their straight-faced endorsement of individual excellence—or at least the honest attempt—suggests that heroism consists of overcoming private weakness.
But by the late twentieth century, opportunities for individual advancement have begun to dry up. The hustle shifts from a special skill to a crushing way of life in a post-Fordist economy. Onscreen, the figure of the underachiever emerges in films like Slacker and Clerks. Newman plays Sully in the 1995 film Nobody’s Fool, adapted from Richard Russo’s novel. Russo’s shaggy social tableau takes the template of small-town life from Faulkner. There’s the banker, the retired schoolteacher, the pharmacist, the lawyer, the wealthy owner of a construction outfit who seems cut from the cloth of the Varners.
Sully is an aging blue-collar worker, “a case study underachiever,” Russo writes. “At sixty, he was divorced from his own wife, carrying on half-heartedly with another man’s, estranged from his son, devoid of self-knowledge, badly crippled and virtually unemployable—all of which he stubbornly confused with independence.” In other words, Sully fails the middle-class respectability test.
He’s a classic Newman character—“reckless, imaginative, contemptuous of authority and, above all, indifferent to pain,” as one of Sully’s neighbors observes. There are echoes in the book’s Sully of Newman’s other roles. Like Ben Quick, Sully is a rumored fire bug; like Hud, he battles with his old man, now long-dead, and grieves an older brother killed in a drunk driving wreck. Like “sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand” Luke, he’s a gambler who presses his luck, never knowing quite when to fold.
Other folks are betting on the arrival of a new theme park—buying up property, hoping to cash in. Sully is the outlier, the cantankerous hold-out who refuses to bet on the sure thing. Like Fast Eddie, he scorns the percentages, preferring to play it fast and loose. At the OTB, he places the same bet every day: a 1-2-3 trifecta. It’s a long shot, as one of Sully’s friends reminds him: “Triples are for lost, desperate souls like you.” But in a town abandoned by industry and tourism, luck rivals labor as a source of dignity and material support.
The theme park, it turns out, is a bad bet. Developers decide to build elsewhere, and the president of the local bank who courted investors—a man Sully derisively refers to as The Bank—skips town. Sully’s skepticism toward the man is vindicated. Sully gets a couple of breaks. His trifecta pays out. Toby Roebuck, the woman of his dreams, invites him to run off with her to Hawaii. But Sully turns her down. He commits instead to being a family man, to reconnecting with his son and grandson. For someone who prizes his independence, it’s a surprising choice, which doesn’t appear in the book.
In Russo’s novel, Toby Roebuck has a fling not with Sully, but with his son. Father and son trade places across texts, leaving an impression of archetypal strife, with the woman as a pawn, but not the prize; neither Sully nor his son want to settle down with Toby. In any case, she’s already married—to Sully’s rival Carl, who owns the construction company. As Fiedler notes in Love and Death in the American Novel, the unattainable woman is a mark of the contest between fathers and sons—an allegory for growing up:
It is maturity above all things that the American writer fears, and marriage seems to him it’s essential sign. For marriage stands traditionally not only for a reconciliation with the divided self, a truce between head and heart, but also for a compromise with society, an acceptance of responsibility and drudgery and dullness. […] There is no authentic American who would not rather be Jack than the Giant, which is to say, who would not choose to be “one of the boys” to the very end. The ideal American postulates himself as the fatherless man, the eternal son of the mother.
Sully’s assimilation to collective life centers his male relationships—with his son and his friend Rub, who feels displaced by the son. Reconciling with Rub, Sully hassles him about the size of his dick, then makes amends: “Peter’s my son. And you’re my best friend. Okay?”
When Nobody’s Fool was released, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote that the film “has both the poetry and the authenticity of failure.” I wonder whether anyone who’s ever failed at something—or been failed by some ghoulish system—has properly appreciated the poetry of it.
The film asks us to believe in the underachiever who just once in his life comes through, not by dint of greatness or will, but through the simple logic of probability. So Newman turns out to be a percentage player after all—like everyone approaching their own end. Death, the odds-on favorite. But the critic’s comment points to something else at the heart of Nobody’s Fool: white nostalgia for the working man’s independence, the type Newman has long stood for.
Russo’s later novel Empire Falls (which won a Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a limited series for HBO starring Newman, among others, in his last onscreen role) similarly mythologizes a white working class left behind by bankers, real estate developers, greedy multinational corporations. We’re a long way from Faulkner’s hamlet, where it’s the laborer who threatens the established order.
Casting the corporation in the role of hostile newcomer is a vintage 90s move. It diverts our attention from the theft and encroachment of the founding usurper: the white settler. (The Empire Falls adaptation gestures toward the Indigenous community who once lived along the fictional river in Maine where the story is set, but it does so with a dopy settler’s gaze. You wonder why the miniseries even brings up the Algonquin, when they’re not mentioned in the book.)
The white settler embodies the dilemma between alienation and assimilation—the man on the run, moving westward, committing crimes of genocide, enslavement, building settlements, then cities and neoliberal economies before casting off again. Newman’s films and their literary sources are enamored with archetypes of middle-class striving—the cycle of conflict between owners and upstarts, the competition and camaraderie of men.
His work, reflecting a period of macro-economic growth and decline in the United States, traces our shifting cultural allegiance to winners and losers. And Newman, the sly trickster with the shit eating grin, has a way of hustling us about which one we are. Newman—the gambler with nothing in his hand; wounded, thwarted, restless, cool; the fuck up, the truth telling jester. Newman’s gift is to make us believe that if it came right down to it, we’d never side with the bank.