In Memoriam: Pauline Kael's thoughts about Paul Newman

When she wasn’t panning Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (!?!), New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael appreciated Paul Newman’s rapport with his audience in her groundbreaking review of Hud (1963):

Somehow it all reminds one of the old apocryphal story conference—“It’s a modern western, see, with this hell-raising, pleasure-loving man who doesn’t respect any of the virtues, and at the end, we’ll fool them, he doesn’t get the girl and he doesn’t change!”

“But who’ll want to see that?

“Oh, that’s all fixed—we’ve got Paul Newman for the part.”

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.

Later, in 1977, when reviewing Slap Shot, Kael enthused at length about Newman’s “casual star-acting at its peak” (all quotes taken from For Keeps, Dutton, 1994):

What holds the picture together is the warmth supplied by Paul Newman. As Reggie, the player-coach of the Chiefs, a minor-league ice-hockey team, he gives the performance of his life—to date.

Newman is an actor-star in the way Bogart was. His range isn’t enormous; he can’t do classics, any more than Bogart could. But when a role is right for him, he’s peerless. Newman imparts a simplicity and a boyish eagerness to his characters. We like them but we don’t look up to them. When he’s rebellious, it’s animal energy and high spirits, or stubbornness. Newman is most comfortable in a role when it isn’t scaled heroically; even when he plays a bastard, he’s not a big bastard—only a callow selfish one, like Hud. He can play what he’s not—a dumb lout. But you don’t believe it when he plays someone perverse or vicious, and the older he gets and the better you know him, the less you believe it. He likableness is infectious; nobody should ever be asked not to like Paul Newman…

The essence of his performance as Reggie is that Reggie has never grown up; he’s beautiful because he is still a child. Reggie is scarred and bruised, and there are gold rims on his chipped teeth; you don’t see much of his eyes. But with Newman leaner, and his bone structure more prominent, this childlike quality is inner, and the warmth comes from deeper down. He makes boyishness seem magically attractive…

But this is the kind of breakthrough that doesn’t often happen with movie stars. And when a star grows as an actor, there’s an extra pleasure in it for us. We know Newman so well in his star roles—he is so much a part of us—that we experience his developments as if it were our triumph. Newman proves that stardom isn’t necessarily corrupting, and we need that proof as often as possible.