The Newcomer: 1954-1960
1. The Silver Chalice (1954)
For anyone who wants to see Newman’s very humble beginnings: The actor had just made his Broadway debut in William Inge’s Picnic when talent scouts from Warner Bros. signed him to a long-term contract. His first assignment was the role of a Greek sculptor enslaved in the early days of Christianity (he’s billed fourth, with the credit ”Introducing Paul Newman”). The result: a shoddy-looking, clumsy, and hilariously unconvincing Christians-and-Romans spectacle. Years later, when Chalice aired on TV, Newman famously took out an ad apologizing for it.
2. Somebody Up There Likes Me ESSENTIAL (1956)
Newman got his second chance at stardom when Warner loaned him out to MGM after the sudden death of James Dean, who had agreed to play middleweight champ Rocky Graziano. He never looked back. Even as he labors under a putty nose and thick (and intermittent) Noo Yawk accent, Newman delivers an unmistakable star-is-born performance in Robert Wise’s sentimental but effective biopic, bringing effortless physicality to the boxing scenes, openhearted vulnerability to the romance, and camera-ready charisma throughout. Some critics carped that his work as Graziano was ”chock full of Brando mannerisms” and wondered whether he was ”doomed to walk forever” in Brando’s shadow. No worries: With this cocky, lively-eyed, light-footed turn, he began to forge his own path. (FYI: Blink and you’ll miss an uncredited Steve McQueen as Rocky’s street-gang buddy.)
3. The Rack (1956)
As a Korean War POW who returns home only to face a trial for collaborating with the enemy, the baby-faced actor is at his most open and wounded, despite the Psych-101-with-a-sledgehammer script (based on a TV playlet by Rod Serling).
4. The Long, Hot Summer (1958)
Fox’s deep-fried rip-off of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a very loose adaptation of some William Faulkner stories that was greenlit when the studio couldn’t get the rights to Tennessee Williams’ play, marked the start of two of Newman’s most fruitful collaborations — with director Martin Ritt (for whom he made six films) and with Joanne Woodward (whom he married soon after this wrapped). As a troubled bad boy who wanders into a Mississippi town ruled by a bullying big daddy (Orson Welles), Newman is still a bit too green to hold the film’s center, and his naturalism seems at odds with Welles’ bulldozer hamming. But Woodward’s poise and chilliness pair well with her husband-to-be’s moody reserve.
5. The Left-Handed Gun (1958)
Newman had a taste for cutting icons of the Old West down to size, and his first try was as Billy the Kid in Arthur Penn’s directorial debut, shot cheaply in 23 days, then snatched from Penn by Warner Bros. and given a new ending. Unfortunately, the actor, by this point a twice-married father of three, was 15 years too old to play the Kid, and the script’s ’50s-Freudian notion of Billy as an ”alienated” hair-trigger nutjob gives him little to play. Dismissed by U.S. critics at the time — and promptly embraced by the French — this isn’t a dud, but it’s not an entirely coherent revisionist Western either. (Incidentally, Gun was based on a Gore Vidal one-act that aired in 1955 on Philco Playhouse, also starring Newman.)
6. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ESSENTIAL (1958)
If you cut the repressed homosexuality from a play that’s all about repressed homosexuality, is anything left? Surprisingly, yes. The Production Code forced writer-director Richard Brooks to omit the real reason that Brick, the hobbled hero of Tennessee Williams’ 1955 play, drinks all day and won’t touch his hungry, hot wife. But Newman, staring into his highball glass with sorrow and terror, solves the problem simply by playing Brick as if the inner truth is still the same; he’s matched by Elizabeth Taylor at her near-best. This textbook example of how star voltage can electrify compromised material brought Newman his first of nine Oscar nominations for acting, and vaulted him to the status of an idol. ”I think you’ve even gotten better-looking since you went on the bottle,” Taylor’s Maggie the Cat insists. Looking at her newly trim costar, it’s hard to disagree.
The Movie Star: 1961-1969
7. The Hustler ESSENTIAL (1961)
The case for Newman’s greatness starts here. As Fast Eddie Felson, the way-down-but-never-out pool shark of Robert Rossen’s jazzy American classic, he gets to work all sides of his born-to-lose persona: He’s irresistibly engaging but full of self-disgust, cocksure but haunted by the possibility of defeat, almost beyond redemption but aching for it. Every frame feels true to its milieu, and there are essential contributions from Jackie Gleason (as Minnesota Fats, a fictional character whose name was soon appropriated by a real pool player), Piper Laurie (heartbreaking as Eddie’s crumbling alcoholic girlfriend), and cinematographer Eugene Schuftan, shooting in stunning black and white that dissolves from one scene to the next in a haze of cigarette smoke. But it all pivots around Newman, and he makes every shot. This is the role that brought the actor his second Oscar nomination, and finally won him the prize — it just took another 25 years and some help from Martin Scorsese.
8. Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man (1962)
Newman is almost unrecognizable in Martin Ritt and A.E. Hotchner’s adaptation of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. As a brain-damaged ex-boxing champ now living in the woods, the actor, on screen for just 15 minutes, stows his natural charisma and gives an impeccable small performance in a flabby feature — but that’s why the DVD ”scene selection” was invented (go directly to chapter 8).
9. Hud ESSENTIAL (1963)
Rebuilding Larry McMurtry’s debut novel, Horseman, Pass By, around a minor character, Ritt and screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. gave Newman his third Oscar nomination, and his richest, most complex role yet: a selfish, sexy, and cruel cowboy watching his youth and capacity for human decency disappear in the dust of a present-day Texas ranch. Decades later, Newman criticized himself for not playing Hud’s moral rot more directly, but he makes full use of the anger and soul-sickness that always seemed to simmer just beneath his handsomeness and charm. After audiences watched him shatter the lives of both his aging father (Melvyn Douglas) and the only woman he ever cared about (Patricia Neal), the actor was defined for a generation as a hard-hearted bastard, sometimes headed for salvation and sometimes, as here, beyond its reach.
10. Harper (1966)
When critics saw Newman’s take on novelist Ross Macdonald’s SoCal private eye Lew Archer (renamed Harper to piggyback alliteratively off the hits The Hustler and Hud), they griped that he was no Humphrey Bogart — a complaint the filmmakers may have brought on themselves by casting Lauren Bacall as the tough dame. Didn’t matter: Newman’s amusing turn as a scruffy gumshoe hunting for a missing millionaire clicked with the public, and reestablished him as Mr. Cool. William Goldman’s rambling script hasn’t aged gracefully — it indulges in some easy misogyny and homophobia — but Newman’s occasional tendency to stand slightly outside his lesser characters works perfectly here.
11. Hombre (1967)
At first, it looks like a sight gag — Paul Newman as a blue-eyed Apache in the Old West? But Martin Ritt’s thoughtful variation on Stagecoach effectively blends social consciousness with the storytelling chops of Elmore Leonard (on whose novel the movie is based). Newman’s character turns out to be a white man who identifies more with the Indians who kidnapped and raised him than with white society; when he leads a group of bigoted coach passengers into the badlands, his double-outcast status comes to the fore. While Hombre‘s racial progressivism thunders a bit too loudly — it was 1967, after all — the film is gripping throughout.
12. Cool Hand Luke ESSENTIAL (1967)
In one of his greatest antihero roles, the 42-year-old Newman, playing a road-gang prisoner who bucks the system, looks about 28. (Nobody ever gave him more of a glow than cinematographer Conrad Hall, who also shot Harper, Butch Cassidy, and Road to Perdition.) As the memorable scenes stack up (Luke refuses to give up in a fistfight, Luke freaks out the guards by getting every inmate to work even harder, Luke takes a dare to eat 50 hard-boiled eggs), Newman powers through the showy stuff on pure magnetism. But he’s also in top form in the quieter moments (especially one in which Luke sings and weeps after learning of his mother’s death), which helped earn him a fourth Oscar nomination.
13. Rachel, Rachel (1968)
Newman and Woodward really clicked professionally when he stepped behind the camera and made his directorial debut, showcasing her as a shy, constricted middle-aged schoolteacher haunted by fears and regrets. Although dated now, this innovative, indie-ish character study came as a welcome antidote to Hollywood slickness, winning a Best Actress nomination for Woodward and a Best Picture nomination for Newman (who also produced).
The Drifter: 1969-1980
14. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
It’s a measure of the impact of George Roy Hill’s hangin’-loose Western blockbuster that Newman and Robert Redford, who made just two films together, are still remembered as one of the screen’s great guy-guy teams. That said, this weightless, picturesque smirk of an outlaw movie is little more than montages, large doses of Burt Bacharach, and a quippy script by William Goldman, who reprocessed Jules and Jim and Bonnie and Clyde into a new genre — the buddy picture — that bred 40 years of imitators. (Of course, there is that great final freeze-frame…) Enjoy it for the generosity of Newman’s rapport with Redford, and the lightness and ease of his body language throughout.
15. Winning (1969)
One of Newman’s great offscreen passions — race-car driving — was sparked by a movie that’s just an excuse to put him behind the wheel in the Indy 500. But perhaps because his own son was 18 at the time, he brings credible warmth and, for the first time, unyouthful weariness to scenes with Richard Thomas as his teenage stepson.
16. Sometimes A Great Notion (1971)
Newman’s direction of this adaptation of a Ken Kesey novel about independent-minded Oregon loggers, filmed with a terrific sense for the physical details of men at work, is strong and original enough to make you wish he’d taken the reins more often. Despite a clueless climax, he gets good moments out of Henry Fonda and Richard Jaeckel (Oscar-nominated for a well-staged death scene) — and his own rock-steady performance anchors the film beautifully.
17. The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972)
Spotting a vehicle for his wife, Newman bought the rights to Paul Zindel’s 1970 stage hit about an abrasive, bitter middle-aged woman caring for her two troubled daughters and an ancient boarder. The resulting film is a family affair, with Newman (who doesn’t appear) directing Woodward and eliciting a gentle performance from their daughter Nell. Woodward’s unsparing take on the arch, angry harridan is, as they say on Broadway, a tough sit, but it’s affecting work from both actress and director.
18. The Sting ESSENTIAL (1973)
Newman’s only Best Picture winner is George Roy Hill’s intricately plotted Depression-era comedy about Chicago con men banding together to take down a thuggish big cheese (Robert Shaw). The movie belongs to Redford; Newman wasn’t sure he wanted to age himself by playing what he saw as a role for a ”long-in-the-tooth” actor, ”the king handing the scepter to the prince.” But he loved the script, and got top billing for a supporting role as a veteran hustler who mentors Redford through an elaborate scheme to avenge a Mob rubout. The film’s gleaming backlot look is less impressive than it was in ’73, and the ragtime score, which was almost as big a phenomenon as the movie, seems less novel, but it’s still masterful fun, and a chance to see Newman give a mature, fully rounded comic performance.
19. Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)
When Newman met Robert Altman, the result was both new and alt — a seriocomic look at the commodification of the Old West (and, by extension, decades of cowboys-and-Indians Hollywood mythmaking) that posits a showdown of sorts between Buffalo Bill Cody and Sitting Bull, who meet in a Wild West revue years after becoming legends. It’s sometimes lively, sometimes smug and leaden, but Newman meshes well with a typically idiosyncratic Altman cast (Harvey Keitel, Shelley Duvall, Geraldine Chaplin, Burt Lancaster). Playing up Cody’s vanity and bluster, he’s right in sync with his director’s rancidly contemptuous Bicentennial debunking of frontier heroism.
20. Slap Shot (1977)
One of Newman’s favorites, George Roy Hill’s genially foulmouthed, cynical recession-era comedy about a sinking minor-league hockey team drew criticism at the time for its nonstop cursing and jokey attitude toward violence on the ice. But Nancy Dowd’s pointed screenplay has some sharp things to say about uneasy masculinity in the swingin’ ’70s, and it gives Newman a very good role during a not-great period as the flummoxed coach — half macho swaggerer, half den mother — who’s on a quixotic mission to keep the Charlestown Chiefs alive.
The Craftsman: 1981-1994
21. Fort Apache, the Bronx ESSENTIAL (1981)
When Daniel Petrie’s gritty cop film about an embattled precinct in New York’s most drug-ridden, poverty-ravaged neighborhood went into production in the Big Apple, community protests forced the addition of a disclaimer acknowledging the happy side of the South Bronx. Today, the movie seems like the template for the more harshly realistic view of urban police work seen in everything from Hill Street Blues to The Wire. Newman’s vigorous, moving performance as a veteran Irish cop stands as a striking return to form. And Rachel Ticotin strikes more sparks with Newman than any costar since Hud‘s Patricia Neal.
22. Absence of Malice (1981)
Sydney Pollack’s earnest civics-lesson drama pits Sally Field, as perhaps the most inept and ethically compromised newspaper reporter in Hollywood history, against Newman, as the target of a federal investigation who’s seeking to beat the system. His close-cropped hair now white and his eyes glinting with wit one moment and rage the next, he brings a nimbleness to his portrayal that keeps the film from bogging down in self-righteousness. ”I guess I got a couple of moves left in me,” he says at the end. Audiences agreed; he won his fifth Best Actor nomination.
23. The Verdict ESSENTIAL (1982)
Newman’s indelible portait of a worn-out alcoholic Boston lawyer trying a long-shot malpractice case may be the greatest performance of his later career; it’s certainly his most fearless. Looking ashen, his voice a gravelly wreck, his neck bent in defeat, Newman’s Frank Galvin seems to be the sad punchline to all the outsiders coasting on charm that the actor had played 20 years earlier. ”There are moments when his face sags and his eyes seem terribly weary,” wrote Roger Ebert in 1982, ”and we can look ahead clearly to the old men he will be playing in 10 years.” The courtroom tactics now seem familiar, but Newman, working with fierce focus for Sidney Lumet (and aided by a sharp David Mamet script), seems to live and breathe the part — his sixth Oscar-nominated role — which he called ”foremost among the contenders” for his own favorite performance.
24. The Color of Money ESSENTIAL (1986)
Fast Eddie Felson returns, 25 years older, and perhaps wiser. Martin Scorsese’s polished sequel to The Hustler substitutes mid-’80s arena-rock swagger for the sooty majesty of the original, but Richard Price’s biting script gives Newman a chance to do some of his most pared-down work, finding a hundred shades of vanity, weariness, exasperation, and hunger as he tutors a cocky protégé (a young, hyperkinetic Tom Cruise) to become the consummate con artist that he himself never quite was. The upshot: an Oscar at last — and one earned on merit, not sentiment.
25. The Glass Menagerie (1987)
Newman returned to Tennessee Williams for his last directorial effort, shaping one more showcase for Woodward. The production’s relaxed, don’t-worry-too-much-about-the-words approach to the play is a mistake, but Newman conveys the drabness and heartbreak of the Wingfields’ lives more affectingly with every scene.
26. Mr. & Mrs. Bridge ESSENTIAL (1990)
Walter Bridge — a stoic, dry, conservative Midwestern husband and father in 1930s-40s Kansas City — is a decent man who barely knows how to express emotion. He’s a character unlike any Newman had ever played (though Woodward later told him, ”That’s the real you”). Working for director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, he burrows into the role without a moment of condescension, caricature, or overstatement. His work is underrated because of its modesty, especially beside Woodward’s star turn as his naive, devoted lost soul of a wife.
27. Nobody’s Fool ESSENTIAL (1994)
In an adaptation of Richard Russo’s gently funny character study, Newman plays a perpetually luckless reprobate approaching late middle age in upstate New York. He distills his naturalistic style so effectively that not a gesture is wasted. (He’s especially touching with the small boy who plays his grandson). As he approached 70, critics were floored by his craftsmanlike simplicity; he won his eighth Best Actor Oscar nomination.
The Grand Old Man: 1998-2006
28. Twilight (1998)
In this quiet, autumnal detective drama — a sort of valedictory sequel to Harper and 1975’s The Drowning Pool in every detail but the name of the gumshoe he plays — Newman gives an unmannered, effectively weary performance surrounded by one of his best casts (including Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon, James Garner, and Reese Witherspoon).
29. Road to Perdition ESSENTIAL (2002)
At the time, Newman said that playing Depression-era Chicago crime boss John Rooney was ”a marvelous part…of a size that was appropriate for a gentleman of my age.” And although he’s not on screen for long, the old master reveals a few new tricks, most prominently a mesmerizing, frigid stillness as Rooney weighs his remaining humanity against his vast capacity for evil. He’s particularly riveting in his scenes with Tom Hanks, as the enforcer who’s almost like a son to him, and Daniel Craig, as the vicious brute he actually fathered. Sam Mendes’ film earned Newman his ninth and last Oscar nomination for acting.
30. Our Town (2003)
Newman returned to Broadway to play the Stage Manager in an appealing, homespun revival of Thornton Wilder’s classic play. This PBS/Showtime version (shot without an audience) can be uneven and off-key; what works in a theater can seem tinny on screen. But Newman scales his performance to the camera, and his economy of gesture and undersold line readings serve the role ideally.
31. Empire Falls (2005)
Newman’s last screen appearance is, appropriately, a series of reunions — with author Richard Russo (Nobody’s Fool, Twilight), Estelle Parsons (Rachel, Rachel), Robin Wright Penn (Message in a Bottle), and, most poignantly, Woodward. Fred Schepisi’s four-hour HBO adaptation of Russo’s novel about intersecting lives in a small Maine town unfolds more like a TV pilot than a movie. But Newman has a grand old time in a smallish role as the ne’er-do-well father of Ed Harris — a fortuitous match of blazing blue eyes.
32. Cars (2006)
As he passed his 80th birthday, Newman spoke longingly about taking one last acting job — perhaps something that would pair him with Robert Redford again. But this lively, funny voice-over performance in the Pixar smash — the highest-grossing film in Newman’s career — turned out to be an appropriate swan song given the actor’s great passion for automobiles. Soon after its release, he announced his retirement.