Paul Newman: The Man Who Defined Being a Man
Credit: Terry O'Neill/Getty Images
Bursting onto the movie scene in the mid-1950s, after first making a splash on Broadway, Newman was one of a generation of young actors who represented a new kind of American man. Before him, the traditional male film stars – Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, Jimmy Cagney, John Wayne – weren't cool; they were actually kind of square. But what they lacked in diffidence, they made up in command. As Joan Didion once wrote of Wayne, but was equally true of them all: "In John Wayne's world, John Wayne was supposed to give the orders." These men asserted themselves – in romance, in war, in work, in society – because that's what men did then: be tough and uncomplicated. Wayne and company weren't racked by self-doubt or tormented by their shortcomings. Alpha males all, they exuded certainty and power. In a sense they were pre-Freudian, even pre-psychological: streamlined manifestations of American confidence. They couldn't be stopped.

Newman's generation was different. Where John Wayne was big, hard, stubborn, self-assured, and self-righteous, boldly lumbering into action, Newman and his confederates were small, soft, malleable, self-doubting, and ironic (about the last word one would use to describe Wayne), sliding their way edgewise into a scene. This attitude was identified as cool, and it was. Where the previous generation of actors always seemed to be on a mission, these young actors were disdainful toward everything – everything, that is, except themselves. They certainly didn't believe in missions, and their contempt was a large part of their appeal to other alienated young men in the 1950s and early 1960s. What they had was a sense of superiority, as if they had understood something that the John Waynes hadn't; namely, that nothing was worth the kind of energy Wayne and the others expended, nothing was worth the sacrifice or the risk or the faith. Not anymore.

In their cynicism, these were new men for a new age – a less arrogant, more anxious nuclear postwar world in which Freud was very much in evidence and you faced down danger not by vanquishing it, as John Wayne did, but by denying or ignoring it. In any case, they felt that the greatest dangers weren't outside them; they were within them in their own roiled psyches. That's why Newman and his contemporaries even felt compelled to adopt a different style of acting. The old stars worked from the outside in – makeup, accents, body language – which was perfectly appropriate when the threats were external and you were going mano a mano with the world. The new stars were proponents of the Stanislavsky Method, which taught one to work from the inside out, and which was more appropriate when the threats were internal and you were wrestling with yourself.

Competing against them for roles, Newman would inevitably and repeatedly be compared to two other stars of this generation, James Dean and Marlon Brando, whom he physically resembled. Newman once told a reporter that he had signed 500 autographs "Marlon Brando" and quipped, "Two years ago they thought I was Jimmy Dean." Like them he was regarded as another young, moody, misunderstood, tormented rebel who challenged the stultifying social order of 1950s America, and he seemed to underscore the affinities when he was arrested for drunken driving and resisting arrest in 1956, just as his film career was taking off.

But even then Newman sought to dissociate himself from his two rivals, and the differences he cited would speak to his popularity and durability as an icon. Brando, he said, had a "rebellious attitude, which I don't believe I had." Brando and Dean were bent and angry. They conveyed the sense that they had been wronged, victimized by hypocrisy. Newman's characters, on the other hand, were not so much wronged as they were wrong – internally warped and defective. In some of his greatest roles, as the conniving Ben Quick in The Long, Hot Summer, as pool shark Eddie Felson in The Hustler, and as the amoral cad Hud Bannon in Hud, Newman is less disaffected than he is corrupted, a word he often used to describe his characters. These men are antisocial, like Brando's and Dean's alter egos, but they are also self-absorbed and narcissistic – seemingly irredeemable. As Newman said of Hud, "He didn't give a goddamn what happened to anyone else."

This would have made Newman less than likable, a rat, were it not for something else in his characters that became as much a part of his persona as his indifference: In the course of his films the Newman narcissist turns out not to be irredeemable after all, invariably arriving, after some shock, at a realization of the limitations of his selfishness. His characters aren't searching for anything except self-satisfaction, but they come to discover the awful price of their own self-interest, and they come to understand the need to consider others or remain imprisoned by their venality. From his star-making role as the middleweight boxing champion Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me, in 1956, this transformation became Newman's brand, and it lifted him above the bohemian maunderings of other 1950s icons. Virtually alone among stars, he showed the way toward normality – one of the few stars, Pauline Kael observed, who operated "in a normal emotional range." He taught America how to be both iconoclastic and socially engaged.