This Summer We Are Channelling: Paul Newman in Sweet Bird of Youth

Paul Newman and Geraldine Page in “Sweet Bird of Youth”, 1962 | Roxbury Productions Inc.

I have been thinking and thinking about how they would adapt a Tennessee Williams play for the big screen today. And I can not imagine it. Tennessee Williams’ plays are among the most successfully adapted for movies, covering a complexity of issues, from sexuality, Southern culture, raciality and the misfortunes of Hollywood (all very current in today’s world), and the performances in those films are among the best in cinema. But those films belong to the likes of Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh. There are so many good actors today and I admire them tremendously, but that spark in the eye of the classic actor is forever lost. That undone elegance, that lack of vanity, that natural style, too.

“The quality of stardom has been absolutely debased. These days, all celebrities look the same. There’s no one like Ava Gardner, who was incredible looking and didn’t need a posse of stylists fluttering around her. And there’s never been a greater looking guy than Paul Newman. Stars then were individuals. Now it’s like they all come out of the same factory,” said Terry O’Neill, who has refused to write his autobiography explaining that he doesn’t want to sell a story and that he’d rather let his photographs tell a story. He has always considered his subjects’ privacy, he would never demean them and his discretion is what earned him their trust a long time ago. O’Neill also admitted he has never worked with stylists because he liked to photograph people as they were (I use the past tense, because O’Neill says there is nobody he wants to photograph now, not as great as the people he used to photograph) and that he would never have thought of asking Paul Newman to change his clothes for the sake of a photo. Exactly. Men today are so self aware, they place such importance on looks that stems from vanity rather than a strong sense of self.

That is exactly the distinction between the actors of those days and the contemporary ones. The ones of today are largely dressed by stylists, the deliberate image created by an entire public relations team. If the “stars” of today are mere celebrities, the STARS of yesterday were celestial beings. The photographic quality and the rarity of the images of the actors back then also contribute to their enduring appeal. Photographers had to be granted permission to take their photos, especially in the intimacy of their homes. How can you explain that to the selfie generation? That people, famous or not, fought for their privacy back then, that they were esteemed for their discretion, that they were preoccupied with living their lives and doing their jobs, and that the job was not the job of being famous. I want to scream every time I hear or read the word influencer. Influencers exist because there are so many imitators these days, people who are made to think alike and look alike by the social media culture.

There are many actors of today who look good, elegant, put together in publicity shots. But is that a reflection of themselves? You are never sure. And even if it is, it’s worth nothing when you see a photo of them in flip flops getting coffee or boarding a plane in sweatpants. Would Paul Newman’s image have endured to this day in a paparazzi-fueled world, where every possible photograph of him was available? I doubt it. But then again, he demanded too much respect from himself and from the others to ever leave the house inappropriately dressed. So let’s pay due credit to the man himself. He valued his privacy and was just as dedicated to his family as he was to his acting, car racing and philanthropy. He had plentiful talent and personal note, possessed of that innefable quality categorised as cool. Understated and humble, naturally masculine and handsome. His beauty however was never a quality his roles were based on, but rather an element that complicated his characters’ lives. He wielded his beauty with the grounded self-awareness of a man who completely lacked vanity. He was aware of his good looks, yes, but he took it as a constant challenge to prove himself beyond the superficiality of appearance.

Paul Newman as Chance Wayne in “Sweet Bird of Youth”, 1962 | Roxbury Productions Inc.

He often played the nonconformist, in the form of failures or outcasts, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, from 1958 (a film that left out the homosexuality theme from Tennessee Williams’ play, to Newman’s disapproval), Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), The Hustler (1961), outlaws in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Sting (1973), he introduced us to a new type of detective in Harper (1966), marking the transition from the hard-boiled, trench-cladded, tilted-hatted private eye of Humphrey Bogart and paving the way for Steve McQueen’s Bullitt and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, and he took on diverse roles throughout his entire career.

He could have played the heartthrob in a tuxedo, but found a real pleasure in playing characters who were controversial and who lessened his looks. It didn’t matter to him, because he had the confidence of someone who was unassumingly wearing whatever made him feel good. And that quality came across whether he wore a sharp suit, Ivy League attire or double denim. He made looking stylish a matter of attitude. He always looked like himself. The look shown above is from Sweet Bird of Youth. He plays Chance Wayne, who returns to his hometown after having failed to make it as a Hollywood actor and after having repeatedly left his youth sweetheart in search of his dream. It is a look that has Paul Newman’s personality and his youth roles stamped on it. Eschewing authority and rules, his white shirt with rolled up sleeves and knit tie are unconventionally classic, imbued with individuality and very summer appropriate.

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