David Thomson wrote today: "He outlived his beauty, his uneasiness and his bright blue eyes, and he came into that mixture of elegy and remorse that is the lot of most old men - if they are lucky. He was absurdly popular as a young man, and then waited or endured until that had worn off, and he could face all the abiding tests of honesty without glamour or celebrity to divert him."
I wish the Newman entry in Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film was available online; the chapter shows how it takes death to burn elegy and remorse from analysis. Newman, Thomson argues, was too reluctant to deconstruct his image, and when he tried (Mr. and Mrs Bridge, say) he backs away from the precipice, afraid of what's at the bottom. This is nonsense, and incorrect. The wonder of Newman isn't that the better actor he became as an older man didn't coast on that vinegary rasp of a voice (in stuff like For Love of the Game and Blaze, it was all we could rely on). He became the American actor's equivalent of Luis Bunuel, creator of Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie -- films created in the autumn of the writer-director's years whose superficial superficiality bespoke Bunuel's resourcefulness, wit, and command of craft. Their power rests on their simplicity of effect; they're like fables told to children, delivered by adults. Similarly, in performances in movies like Absence of Malice, The Color of Money, Nobody's Fool, and Twilight, Newman reduced his acting to the performative square root: his effects seemed larger when other actors went up against him.
I'm with Thomson on this: the early performances look gauche. The Hustler has always been compromised by the hollowness of Fast Eddie's triumph, one with which we're never sure director Robert Rossen wants us to sympathize or condemn (there's a better movie about George C. Scott's wicked Bert, a Mephisto playing with saps and frauds). Also, Newman's Method straining is most unbecoming; the part has too many Academy Award-worthy moments of exertion. He's cooler in the much inferior The Color of Money. When I want to remember Newman as a great actor, it's in seriocomic roles in dreck like Absence of Malice, or worthy minor films like Nobody's Fool or Twilight, or in part requiring delicate maneuverings between the two like Fort Apache, The Bronx or Blaze. Here's hoping that Jeff Bridges, the contemporary American actor who reminds me most of Newman, can hold his own when he's seventy.