Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) ****
Directed by Richard Brooks
The Verdict (1982) **1/2
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) ****
Directed by George Roy Hill
Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) ****1/2
Directed by Robert Wise
As I think about these four films, maybe with the exception of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the best aspect by far in each is Paul Newman’s performance. Without it, I doubt any of them would have the stature and respect they have today, and that includes Butch Cassidy. The Verdict has nothing worthwhile in it except Newman’s acting. Sweet Bird of Youth and Somebody Up There Likes Me are both fine films, but they’re certainly not “must sees” in themselves. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is an important film that is almost universally revered. For that reason, more than for the quality of the film itself, everyone who loves cinema must see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at least once in their lives.
My Paul Newman Marathon was just about through when I decided that I wanted to expand it. With the exception of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which I believe Newman was miscast, I’ve been wowed by the power of his performances in film after film. After watching so many movies from 2007, most of which didn’t affect me in any emotional way, I felt like I ought to continue watching this screen legend do what he does best—act. Perhaps I will continue to be wowed. Hopefully so, considering that’s what makes all this film watching worth something.
Newman’s performance in Sweet Bird of Youth is his most overtly sexual that I’ve seen so far. After all, he is playing a boytoy to Geraldine Page’s Alexandra del Lago, a fading starlet whose life has become ravaged by addiction. Newman is shirtless and sweaty in one scene doing situps that go beyond a 90 degree angle. In another, he’s laying down on a bed while Alexandra unbuttons his shirt and neatly exposes the right side of his chest. Yet, the story isn’t ultimately about their relationship, which is great because if it was, then Newman might not have had the chance to shine in the way that he did. Geraldine Page is a truly glorious actress giving the film’s best performance, even better than Newman’s. Yet, she’s a supporting character which allows Newman’s Chance
What I’m starting to see in Newman’s performances is a refreshing sense of humility that follows him from film to film. In his scenes with Page, I’m sure Newman could have been bigger in order to steal the scenes for himself. Instead, he allows Alexandra’s larger than life persona to take center stage. That was a smart decision on Newman’s part because I don’t think anyone could have successfully overshadowed Page as Del Lago. Newman doesn’t even try to match her presence. He’s understated during these scenes which presents the perfect balance between the two. The sequences with the two of them together are the very best in Sweet Bird of Youth.
The rest of the film is fine overall. Chance returns to his hometown after gaining and losing noterity as a stage dancer with Alexandra del Lago who is passed out from the alcohol and drugs that are in her system. Chance learns that his mother has died since he’s been away. That’s not the most shocking news. Newman’s childhood sweetheart Heavenly Finley (Shirley Knight) procured an abortion shortly after he left. Things are made more complicated by the fact that Heavenly’s father is a famous conservative senator named Boss Finley. He’s played terribly by Ed Begley. Sweet Bird of Youth is a Tennessee Williams play, so Boss is very similar to Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I couldn’t help compare the two performances, and Burt Ives’ tremendous acting makes Ed Begley’s Boss Finley seem like a French poodle. Boss Finley, with the help of his pathetic menacing son Tom Finley Jr. (Rip Torn), makes it very clear to Chance that he is to stay away from Heavenly and leave town or else he will face serious consequences.
There’s not a whole lot more to say about Sweet Bird of Youth besides the fact that the film is very good, containing Williams’ signature Southern dialogue, and that Newman and especially Page are superb. Williams is unarguably adept at telling stories showcasing how much life can suck This one’s no different.
I’m going to dismiss The Verdict fairly quickly. Newman is great, if not perhaps a bit miscast, as a down on his luck lawyer named Frank Galvin. Galvin attempts to get an out of settlement court deal in a medical malpractice lawsuit against a Catholic hospital. Ultimately, he decides that taking the case to court is the just thing to do. Yes, I realize that Law and Order didn’t debut on television for almost another decade; however, a good episode of that show is a more fulfilling watch than The Verdict. I’d even go so far as to say a great episode of Matlock is better than this tired, predictable film.
One of the first films I watched after I decided to tackle all of the films on the American Film Insititute’s List of the 100 Greatest was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. There were scenes I enjoyed quite a lot, including the sequence that looks like we are witnessing sexual abuse when in reality it’s a twisted consentual sex game, and the hilarious bank representative who refuses two times to let Butch and Sundance pilfer his boss’ money only to receive massive injuries when dynamite is used. Otherwise, upon first viewing, I found the film to be downright boring.
Granted, this is before I watched great Westerns like Stagecoach, The Searchers, High Noon and Shane. The dialogue free horse chases in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which are a staple element in most Westerns, took me by surprise and not in a good way. Watching this film over a year ago felt more like a homework assignment than entertainment. Therefore, I concluded that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a good film, but it certainly wasn’t as good as I thought it was going to be.
After watching it a second time with a more informed eye, I still conclude that it’s a good film, but it certainly isn’t as great as many people say it is. Yet, I enjoyed it a great deal this time. Both Newman and Redford seem to be having the best times, and few on screen duos in history have more chemisty than these two.
Personally, I felt like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was trying to be another Bonnie and
I found it somewhat interesting but ultimately unfulfilling that the law was represented as a Wyoming policeman wearing a white hat that almost has a supernatural ability of pursuit—always knowing where to find out where Butch and Sundance are hiding. It felt almost manipulative that his character was never really shown on screen. Further, The Graduate’s Katherine Ross is about as bland as plain yogurt from beginning to end. I can only imagine feminists cringing when Ross’
For some reason, I recalled this film’s running time to be over two and a half hours. Maybe it just felt that long. Therefore, I was surprised to find out that it’s only a bit over one hundred minutes. Time absolutely flew during this viewing. It felt crisp and fast moving, which is ironic considering that I felt the complete opposite only a year ago. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid feels like a good film trying to be great that happened to stumble upon a perceived greatness that it doesn’t deserve.
After Hud, I think Newman’s second best performance comes from his breakout film Somebody Up There Likes Me as Rocky Graziano. His performance injects an incredible amount of energy into this poignant melodrama. Though this isn’t Newman’s first film role, it’s the one that got him noticed, and you can see why. He adopts this aggressive
Interestingly enough, this is the very role James Dean was supposed to tackle next when he died in a car crash. I can only imagine Dean thrusting himself into this role and riding this film right off the rails with his overacting. In no universe anywhere can I see Dean doing a better job than Newman.
There’s a feel to Somebody Up There Likes Me which at first comes across as if it might have been made in the late 1930’s. There’s an almost over the top, manic pacing that belongs in a James Cagney gangster pic. Literally, it took me about an hour to settle into its momentum and then from there, I found the experience exhilirating. Rocky Graziano, whose memoirs are showcased, was a good man at heart, even though he spent time in prison and was dishonorably discharged from the army. Newman does not hold back in making Rocky extremely unlikable at first.
Then things change for Rocky as he focuses on his natural boxing abilities. Refreshingly, his progression from hopeless street kid to local celebrity and family man unfolds organically with a great deal of believability. Also, there was more than one instance when I felt sure that I knew what was going to happen next, only to be proven wrong. In such a formulaic picture, that’s quite a feat. Ultimately, Somebody Up There Likes Me is a heartwarming, inspirational film that clearly inspired Stallone when he wrote Rocky almost two decades later.
With a career as long as Newman’s, not every film is going to be great. None of these four are masterpieces by any stretch of the imagination; however, it seems that Newman’s acting remained consistently excellent throughout his career. The producers of all four films better have thanked God for the fact that Newman agreed to appear in them. Not only did he make all four better than they should have been, but his legacy sustains the legacy of many of the lesser films in which he’s appeared. Another example of Paul Newman’s greatness.
(Label notes: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Verdict were both Best Picture Oscar Nominees)