When I was a kid I used to confuse the young Marlon Brando with the young Paul Newman at times.
Though in many ways they couldn't have been more different, when they were both initially making an impact on the movies they did seem to have some things in common.
For one, they were both incredibly beautiful young men.
Not in the contemporary plastic suregery way, or pretty boy way. But not in the historic movie leading man way either. There was something feline and feminine in their beauty that had nothing to do with androgyny—it was all male—but had more to do with their vulnerability.
James Dean was around then too and the young Tony Curtis (not to mention Elvis) all of whom had a kind of beauty that went beyond the previous idea of male handsomeness. But Curtis had nothing really vulnerable about his looks or persona, while Dean was almost all vulernability, no matter how macho some of his movie star actions might have been intended to appear.
Brando and Newman were something else, handsome absolutely, vulnerable definitely, but also broodingly inscrutable in a way that still seduced audiences into thinking they could penetrate that with their attention and adoration.
For awhile there Newman seemed to be trying to compete with Brando one on one (or catch up with him since Brando was acting in movies and making a splash first). Brando's famous early screen triumph playing a fictional ex-boxer in ON THE WATERFRONT was matched by Newman playing a real life boxer (and one Brando had studied for his ficitonal one) in SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME. The shuffling walk and dim bulb sincerity, even when seemingly arrogant, were choices almost the exact opposite of Brando's, as though Newman was saying, look what I can do to make my boxer totally different than yours even though they're contemporaries (fictional or real).
Newman also made his cowboy flick, LEFT HANDED GUN, about Billy the Kid as a brooding tormented soul, in competition with Brando's VIVA ZAPATA! or so it seems to me. Brando taking on the seemingly more difficult task of playing a Mexican hero, a famous historical figure, and turning him into something more contemporary more real and more conflicted than audiences were used to seeing in movies then. Newman did the same with his Billy the Kid, an historic figure depcited by many movie stars before Newman in the classic movie star way.
Then something changed. Maybe it was Joanne Woodward, who Brando acted with in THE FUGITIVE KIND, in which Brando met his match in the other female lead, the Italian actress famous for her own almost shockingly realistic acting a decade earlier in OPEN CITY. When I watch THE FUGITIVE KIND, I can see Brando beginning to almost sleep walk through his scenes with anyone other than Mangnani and Woodward. They were both so comfortable with the reality of their characters they almost made Brando look like he was "acting" for the first time in his early career.
Newman acted with Woodward as well, in his own angst ridden character studies, but instead of being intimidated by her seeming naturalness (in my experience the hardest thing to pull off on screen, which is why I admire actors like Redford and Woodward so much, who use almost no flourishes at all) he seems inspired by it. So much so he married her.
From then on Newman seemed no longer in competition with Brando, but rather on his own path of a klind of new movie stardom that seemed to have no ego and no self-consciousness, his beauty was just a given, his acting more and more natural and his own.
Brando went on to act like he regreted what his looks and personality had created, hiding his vulnerability inside that ever growing mass of flesh, or trying to, and his public dimsissals of his art and its place in the history of creative originality.
He had a brief reprieve in the middle stages of his decline, when he knocked out another triplet of masterworks—THE GODFATHER, LAST TANGO IN PARIS and BURN. But in the end, when I was living in L. A. and working in movies in Hollywood, partly because of how inspired I'd been as a boy by Brando and Newman, Brando was a sad figure, shopping in the allnight supermartkets at 3AM all alone and depressed looking. (I hung around with Shelly Winters for awhile—who had done the female version in many ways of what Brando had done with his youthful beauty, only she was proud of her accomplishments and Oscars—and she would often talk about "poor Marlon" and how depressed he was.)
But Newman went on to carry his beauty lightly, with grace and generosity. He seemed perfectly comfortable with it the older he got and the softer yet more striking his looks became. So comfortable in fact that he is one of the few movie stars, whose career is probably as much a result of their looks as their equally impressive talent, who would co-star in movies with an equally good looking and younger competitor—Robert Redford, in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and THE STING.
Maybe that had something to do with the fact that Newman chose to live near where I am now, in the Berkshires of Western Massachusettes (he was in nearby Connecticut) rather than Hollywood, where Brando remained—when he wasn't on his island—which is odd considering Brando ketp putting down the movies, and movie acting, and Hollywood.
Newman meanwhile stayed mostly far away from Hollywood, and treated his art not as something unworthy of comparison with other great art, nor as something superior, but instead as just his work, going about it with the confidence and comfortableness of someone who had been doing it long enough to not be intimidated by the challenges while at the same time not taking too casually the commitment needed to do it well.
His life was exemplary to me. The death of his son and subsequent involvement in charities and business projects to aid them seemed to turn his life even more toward others. From what friends who knew him pretty well tell me, what we saw is what he truly was, a man mostly unconflicted, whose only indulgence, besides a few beers, was racing sports cars.
He gave Woodward credit for keeping any star ego in check, but in fact he seemed to do that himself, with his choices (of where they lived, of who his co-stars were, of the projects he chose to do and the characters he chose to portray).
The main impression I always got from Paul Newman was that he knew how lucky he'd been, how great a life he had and appreciated every aspect of it. The key, of course, to happiness—gratitude. It made him seem so accessible on screen and off that it feels, at least to me, like a member of the family has died.
When I heard the news I felt tears instantly, which I wouldn't have expected. He was 83, lived a very fulfilling and accomplished life, with obvious hardships, like losing a child, and obvious triumphs, beyond what most of us ever experience. What more could you ask for?
I'm still gonna miss him.
[PS: In editing some typos people pointed out, I noticed I didn't make my two main points as clearly as I might have, the first one being that these two guys, Brando and Newman redefined what it meant to be a movie star, Brando through his approach to acting style and choices and in his image as the brooding genuis to whom stardom and mastery of his art came too easy so he too easily dismissed their importance, and Newman who instead of sailing on his good looks and acting chops kept working on his craft while also turning movie stardom into a force behind charitable work and successful business ventures fronting for more charity work. And the second point, I not only love their movie acting, but whatever of their non-movie star individuality and common humanity comes through the screen as well. I can watch either of them in anything any time, even their failures.)