A laudable legacy

The Baltimore Sun

Film fans may sometimes forget how lucky they are to live in a time when they can pop almost any movie, any time, into their home-theater systems. Paul Newman's death brought that truth home, as movie lovers put together their own tributes to one of the great actors of the past half-century.

Newman, who died Friday after a bout with cancer, left behind a startlingly vibrant legacy of captivating performances in popular films made by visionary filmmakers, and film fans already are lining up to reap the cinematic dividends. As of yesterday, four of his movies were among the 25 best-selling DVDs on amazon.com. Among classic films, 12 of the top-20 best-sellers (including 11 of the top 15) starred the actor whose piercing blue eyes, on-screen charisma and self-effacing off-screen persona made him a favorite of just about every movie audience imaginable.

It should come as no surprise that the top-selling title among Newman's 60-plus films is George Roy Hill's utterly engaging 1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (20th Century Fox, $19.98, blu-ray $39.98). A true product of the '60s counterculture, Butch, the story of two charming, easygoing and even honorable bank robbers, is the film that made it OK to like and even admire cinematic bad guys.

As if it weren't enough to cast Newman as Butch, Hill upped the ante by enlisting Robert Redford to play Sundance and Katharine Ross to play school-teacher Etta Place, who takes a fancy to both men (a shared bond that doesn't seem to bother either of them). It's hard to imagine any film with a more attractive cast. The result didn't have much to do with the real Butch or Sundance, and was, at its heart, an odd marriage of mid-century sensibilities to turn-of-the-century iconography. But nearly 40 years after its release, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid remains the buddy movie that defines and celebrates the genre.

Next up among the best-selling Newman titles is Stuart Rosenberg's 1967 Cool Hand Luke (Warner Home Video, $19.98, blu-ray $28.99), yet another in the long line of committed nonconformists Newman so relished playing.

Luke Johnson, sentenced to too many years on a Southern chain gang, refuses to kowtow to anyone or anything. He's part renegade, part champion of the human spirit. That's a lot for any one character to symbolize, but Newman manages to make him both believable and accessible - even if he is far cooler than any of us could ever hope to be. That, and he eats hard-boiled eggs like nobody's business.

In third and fourth place for sales within the Newman catalog are two films from 1958, Martin Ritt's The Long Hot Summer (20th Century Fox, $14.98) and Richard Brooks' Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (Warner Home Video, $19.98). Both take Newman into the Deep South, where the heat serves as a metaphor for passion both surging (Summer) and somnolent (Cat).

Elizabeth Taylor's smoldering, lustful Maggie the Cat may have proven more notorious, but it was Summer that seemed to have had the greater effect on Newman. He married his co-star, Joanne Woodward, less than three months before the movie's April 1958 opening.

Some others

Other films in the Newman canon that are worth a look include Robert Rossen's 1961 The Hustler (20th Century Fox, $19.98), for which Newman should have won an Oscar (he'd win 25 years later for playing the same character, hapless pool hustler Fast Eddie Felson, in Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money); Ritt's 1963 Hud (Paramount, $9.98), with Newman as one of filmdom's least heroic heroes, a drifter who cares about no one outside himself; and George Roy Hill's 1973 The Sting (Universal, $26.98), where he reteamed with Redford in this Oscar-winning and crowd-pleasing tale of a couple con men looking to even the score with the crime lord that killed their friend.

From later in his career, there's Sidney Lumet's 1982 The Verdict (20th Century Fox, $19.98), with Newman as a drunken lawyer with an unexpected shot at redemption; and Robert Benton's 1995 Nobody's Fool (available as a double-feature with Fat Man & Little Boy, Lionsgate, $12.98), with Newman in top form as an emotionally crippled loner given the unexpected chance to reconcile with his son and grandson.

For sheer value, fans of Newman's work should check out two collections: The Films of Paul Newman (20th Century Fox, $29.98) includes The Hustler, Butch Cassidy and The Verdict. The Paul Newman Collection (Warner Home Video, $59.98) includes seven films: Harper (1966), The Drowning Pool (1975), The Left-Handed Gun (1958), The Mackintosh Man (1973), Pocket Money (1972), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) and The Young Philadelphians (1959).

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