- Nobody’s Fool (1994)
Nudging 60, Newman twinkles as the rascally Sully in Robert Benton’s underrated comedy. His baby blues have lost none of their sparkle, as Bruce Willis’ Carl discovers leaving his young wife in Sully’s company.
The character has spent a lifetime ducking responsibility, yet Newman’s Oscar-nominated performance is so agile that past sins sit on him like the indiscretions of a naughty schoolboy.
Most memorable moment: Showing adolescent awe at the sight of Melanie Griffith’s breasts.
- Road To Perdition (2002)
If this role turns out to be Newman’s last major screen outing, then John Rooney is a fitting valediction. His mob boss has enjoyed all the vestiges of command but is powerless to resist fate. Beneath heavy lids, Newman allows the last flames of defiance to flicker across steel-blue eyes, but Rooney knows hell is keeping a place warm for him and even his anger is bourbon-weary.
Most memorable moment: Confronted in the basement by the man he knows will soon kill him, Rooney’s voice trembles slightly before recovering.
- Slap Shot (1977)
Arguably Newman’s most concerted assault on his ‘housewives’ favourite’ image, foul- mouthed ice hockey coach Reggie Dunlop is not simply slick and sliding by on easy charm, but downright sleazy and unscrupulous. Newman gets away with it, of course – wonderfully woebegone when Dunlop is under siege and irresistibly funny when lashing out in four-letter bursts.
Most memorable moment: Fielding phone calls during his pre-game nap after putting a bounty on a rival coach’s head.
- Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958)
The script may omit some of Tennessee Williams’ less ambiguous homosexual references, but Newman’s Brick survives the most telling cuts. Beneath that beautiful and inscrutable exterior, self-loathing seethes and unspoken desires fester. Forced to hop around the marital bedroom on crutches, he’s like a wounded lion – once supreme, now reduced to a sullen roar.
Most memorable moment: Swatting away the sexual advances of Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie, as he pours himself another drink.
- Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)
Newman’s breakthrough as the young Rocky Graziano was originally intended for James Dean before a certain Porsche Spyder ended that promising career. The Actors’ Studio graduate prepared fastidiously and mumbled fashionably but his impersonation is impeccable, mangling vowels like a true Italian-American. Playing younger than his 31 years, Newman fizzes with all the unfocused energy of youth.
Most memorable moment: Rocky pays a flying visit to his father on the eve of the big fight.
- The Verdict (1982)
In all essentials. Sidney Lumet’s courtroom drama is a legal potboiler – alcoholic ambulance-chasing lawyer gets one last chance for redemption – but Newman’s Frank Galvin doesn’t simply buy a new tie and transform into a world-class orator. Playing all the grace notes. Newman allows Frank’s demons to linger just as his hands still shake. An oak-aged, full-bodied performance that should have won him the Oscar that went to Ben Kingsley for Gandhi.
Most memorable moment: Cold-calling the judge to ask for a continuance, helpless Galvin unravels.
- Hud (1963)
Cattle hand Hud Bannon (or as the original tagline ran: ‘The man with the barbed wire – soul’) is the logical extension of the loveable rogues and perpetual teenagers Newman so often charmed into life – an ambitious, ruthless heel. What makes Hud so car-crash-compelling is that we keep waiting for the redeeming Newman-esque qualities to shine through, but he stays bitter to the bitter end.
Most memorable moment: Arguing with his slowpoke cowpoke dad. Hud presses the case for the cynics: “How many honest people you know?”
- Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kia (1969)
Another study in delayed adolescence, the quality that Newman has traded upon in the bulk of his most beloved roles. Butch is the older outlaw and should know better, but somehow he’s the most flakey, goofing off and unable to take things seriously. Where lesser actors would force the big moments, Newman is nimble, knowing and nuanced – in other words, everything you could want from a star in a film where the plot is king.
Most memorable moment: On the mountain, reassuring the Kid that the fall will kill him.
- Cool Hand Luke (1967)
After bluffing his way to a poker victory, convict Luke outlines his strategy and his philosophy: “Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.” Working with terse dialogue and an impassive expression. Newman created a brick wall for the more colourful convicts to bounce off. If you actively seek to be cool you will always fall short, but Newman’s unfussy, single-minded performance is a perfect example of the old dictum that character is motive. Luke does not indulge in idle boasts: he says things, then he does ‘em.
Most memorable moment: I can eat 50 eggs
- The Hustler (1961)
That rare iconic role that also doubles as a performance of substance and subtlety, Fast Eddie Felson is Instant student-poster-cool when hunched over the pool table, but Newman overplays the cocky mannerisms just enough to let you glimpse the brittle temperament beneath the surface. The actor would revisit Felson a generation later in The Color Of Money to interesting, Oscar-winning effect, but the original Hustler remains the classic portrait of brash youth – wilfully naive yet thrillingly invincible.
Most memorable moment: On the point of collapse and begging for another chance after the first epic match with Minnesota Fats.
And the worst…
THE SILVER CHALICE (1954)
Nobody emerged from this ludicrous religious drama with much credit, but Newman was so ashamed of his movie debut that he took out a page ad in Variety to personally apologise to anyone unlucky enough to have caught it.
THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974)
Now best remembered for the stipulations – ‘diagonal billing’, equal salaries and Identical number of lines – that allowed Newman to share the screen with fellow box office behemoth Steve McQueen. His noble architect is a real snore, denied the pathos of a tragic ending.
Not even the considerable presence of Newman can save Robert Altman’s dire attempt to reinvent serious sci-fi. The plot finds Newman as a seal trapper caught in a life or death game. Abysmal.
WHEN TIME RAN OUT ….. (1980)
A disaster movie to make Towering Inferno look, well, towering. This volcano-threatens-Pacific-Island pic has Newman reprise his role as ‘expert the damn greedy fools ignore’ to diminishing effect.
Newman’s post-Oscar career has not been prolific but he has chosen wisely. His eccentric governor who falls for a stripper in Ron Shelton’s crass comedy is an exception – a broad comic turn that plays to none of his strengths.