Cool Hand Luke ★★★½

I’m currently halfway through Paul Newman’s chronological filmography, and here I’ve landed on my introduction to him, some nine-odd years ago, and one of my first exposures to classic cinema, ever. Before I sought out more of his work many, many years later, this was always the version of Paul Newman I’ve had in my head—blue-eyed, rough around the edges, impossibly beautiful. He’s an open book, but I couldn’t seem to quite get a hold of what his acting was exactly about. His Actors Studio contemporaries included the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean, but Newman seemed a class different to them; instead of “natural” and explosive, his efforts seemed forced and stifled in comparison. I never once thought of him as a bad actor, but there seemed to be limitations to his performances that I couldn't put a finger on and recognize.

Watching and rewatching so many of his films back-to-back—along with reading his biography—I now have a handle on his acting in a way I didn’t before. His own words in 1986 sum it up best: “When I look at my old movies, I get gloomy because I can see myself consciously working to create the character… I was working too hard to find the emotions." And, in 1998, "If you go back and see the early films, you can always see the machinery and the disconnection between me and the character. You see the actor working." That’s exactly it. In all his early films, he tries so hard. You can physically see all his hours of preparation (he always pushed for two weeks of rehearsals, and he always incessantly pestered directors with questions about his character and the script), and how much he’s straining for the right emotional note for a scene. He even sites the beginning of his 80s movies as the noticeable shift in his acting style. While this may be true in a way, I think Cool Hand Luke is the interesting intersection between the young, Actors Studio alumni and the seasoned professional.

And the thing about these early Newman films I’ve learned to love is exactly what may characterize him as a “tryhard” to some. I like seeing the machinery. I like seeing him work at these emotions in real-time, where the naturalism is there but still somehow out of reach. It lends a sincerity to his performances, because you know you’re watching an actor completely immersed in his craft. That’s not to say he hasn’t had some slip-ups— when he’s not happy with a script or a film, it almost always shows in his performance. But when he’s happy, you can sense the excitement around him, like in Luke, The Hustler, or Hud. He’s such a fun actor to watch.

Luke itself is not as good as I remember. Newman is fantastic in it, but Stuart Rosenberg’s direction isn’t exactly subtle. I guess it doesn’t matter in the end though, because this film will always be tied to the Paul Newman persona. It will always be his film.