Nonconformity, Individuality, and Ethics: The Style that Represents Paul Newman

*Contains plot details and some spoilers from The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), Cool Hand Luke (1967), The Verdict (1982), The Color of Money (1986), and Road to Perdition (2002)

Paul Newman’s career was diverse and spanned over forty years. Throughout his vast resume, he had starred as rebels and anti-heroes with charisma and determination. These characters often challenged the system they were subjected to, daring to break the rules and defy the odds that were set against them. There was pressure for these characters within their respective movies to conform and blend in with the crowd. Individuality was discouraged, treated like a virus, to which his characters often threatened those who sought to control the environment around them by implementing norms. Yet what differentiates Paul Newman’s characters from other iconic rebel actors like James Dean or Marlon Brando, is that the character doesn’t actively embark on a mission to disrupt the system, but rather his very existence threatens those around him. Paul Newman’s roles focused on individuals who were open about their individuality, all of whom were fueled by aspects of ambition and determination to be who they believed they ought to be. They didn’t want to settle for what was expected of them by others in order to fit in. What they sought was to be someone on their own. Therefore, nonconformity and individuality in order to be someone was the primary motif Paul Newman embodied in his roles.

Being something is only ever achieved by standing out, being recognized, but also by never glorifying oneself in the process. Oftentimes people are threatened by individuality, typically diminishing a person who doesn’t want to blend in with everyone in the crowd. This sentiment could not be more apparent in Cool Hand Luke (1967) with the prison environment functioning as a blatant system of norms and rules that all are expected to comply to. Rather than be complacent in a structure where all men behave the same out of fear of being punished, Luke chooses to be different. This gains the admiration and appreciation of his fellow inmates, specifically Dragline (George Kennedy), who assumes the role of Luke’s facilitator. What Cool Hand Luke perfectly conveys is the fascination and respect many have regarding individuality, but lacking the courage to do it themselves. Instead, they live vicariously through their idol, finding solace that he will continue to provide them with daily inspiration. As Dragline says at one point about Luke, “He’s a natural born world-shaker,” yet he himself does not know how to be individualized. To Dragline, actions and rationales have to make sense. Someone like Luke, who always gets up when he falls, defies any sense of rational thought. “Stay down, you’re beat,” he tells Luke during a boxing match after he has beaten Luke repeatedly. Rather than staying down, Luke always gets up. This ultimately becomes the mantra of Cool Hand Luke, which becomes even more apparent when Luke begins his various attempts of escaping prison.

With his boyish grin, Paul Newman’s earlier movies portrayed him as the everyday man who strives to be something more. He is a smooth-talker whose charisma makes it nearly impossible not to like him. It’s that very charm that permits believability in Cool Hand Luke, but it is also functions as a vulnerability in his movies too. Cool Hand Luke emphasizes the ramifications of individuality within a structure that demands conformity, to which it becomes more impactful that Luke never admits defeat, even when he’s down. That is precisely why the famous quotation from the prison warden, “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” is such an impactful moment. The dialogue is ironic because “communication” is adhering to the expectation, thereby being a subordinate to an authority figure.

Newman was particularly smart with his roles, staying within the confines of a character-type but always manipulating it to give it freshness. In The Hustler (1961), however, Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie Felson blinds himself due to his individualism. He stands out in a room, but he does it by glorifying himself in the process. He knows he is a spectacular pool player, but fails to recognize that sets himself up for failure. He is cocky and uses his street-smart savvy to charm a room, but he cannot ever win respect. It’s not about being the best, but about being someone others can admire. It’s a reckless attitude that provides him with nothing. Characters view him as reckless and he is, not knowing when to stop and allowing his determination to blind him. As a result, those around him don’t see him as talented, but “lucky.” At one point of the film, Eddie begrudgingly admits, “Yeah, I shoot lucky,” realizing he lacks the admiration needed to propel up the ranks of pool playing. This makes him more desperate, causing him to fail to see the various warning signs that those around him are using him. Even more unsettling is Eddie gets exactly what he wants by the film’s conclusion, but it’s empty and devoid of the satisfaction he believed he would gain from it. By this point of the film, he has lost all that is valuable to him and he is left with his ambition that has done nothing other than single him out and ostracize him.

The characters Paul Newman portrays in his films are all fueled by ambition to be someone, thereby stand on their own. Newman was strategic enough when choosing his roles that ambition can be admirable, as it was in Cool Hand Luke or as a weakness as in The Hustler. However, ambition can fuel rage and vilify a person if they believe themselves to be entitled. That is precisely the type of role Newman provided in Hud (1963), starring as the selfish and arrogant title character of the film. What particularly made the film a stunning achievement is that Hud is surrounded by pure morality and ethics, all of whom have failed to touch Hud and enable him to be a good person. His father a hard-working and honest man. Their housekeeper, Alma, is the moral epicenter of the film. Hud’s nephew, Lonnie, is the representation of innocence of the future and what Hud could have been had he not succumbed to alcoholism and his egoism. Instead, Hud is uncouth and lacks any morality. He is fueled by his ambition to be someone, but he seeks to achieve it by stepping on others. Just like Eddie in The Hustler, but under different circumstances, Hud gets precisely what he seeks by the film’s conclusion. However, he is left with nothing other than his goal met and nobody to share it with.

Paul Newman’s later work, in many regards, built off of his previous performances from his youth. The characters maintain their smooth, street-smart demeanor, but they took more of an authoritative role, like that of a father figure. Often these characters are introduced as defeated, has-beens, or washed-up. Yet they are reawakened and through the revelations they have recently experienced, these characters become determined to be something that they once were in the past. It’s not to relive the glory they once felt, but to cease being something they know they are not supposed to be. This was plainly obvious with Newman’s performance in The Color of Money (1986), which was an unofficial sequel to The Hustler with Newman reprising his former role as Fast Eddie Felson twenty-five years later. This was perhaps one of his most impactful movies, deserving of the Oscar he won for the performance. The reason for this is because Newman built off of his former performance by having the character matured as a result of his mistakes in The Hustler, thereby being more confident in his actions. The blinding determination of the character from before is gone in exchange for someone who is sure of himself and aware of the realities of the system. This is especially notable with Eddie telling his protégé, Vincent (Tom Cruise), “Sometimes you lose, you win,” which is a mature rationale of thought in contrast to Eddie in The Hustler, whose only ambition was to win.

Eddie’s rational between The Hustler and The Color of Money is due to a differing perception about playing pool. It is about the art of the game opposed to the money, which is where Eddie has dramatically matured since The Hustler. However, what makes the performance special is Eddie being awakened to the reality that he’s never lost his passion for pool playing and realizing he has to swallow his pride if he wants to get back into the game. This stems back to his statement to Vincent, saying, “Pool excellence is not about excellent pool. It’s about becoming someone.” This is an extraordinary piece of wisdom, detailing that being someone is not necessarily about being the best, but having the best morals and ethics regarding the game. That is what makes someone an individual in a mass of pool players. That is why Eddie is a character audiences admire and care about, because he has an ethic to him that is uncompromising. Eddie’s protégé is strictly in it for the money, like he himself was in The Hustler, losing sight that the glory comes by being able to charm those watching. To Eddie, it’s about playing a stellar game and experiencing the adrenaline from that. This is why audiences tend to clap and cheer when Eddie proclaims boldly at the film’s conclusion, “I’m back!” It is because he has finally achieved the goal he has always wanted and has done it in the right way with the right intentions.

Intentionality was a critical component of Paul Newman’s later movies, like The Color of Money. It is additionally evident in The Verdict (1982), another film that focused on the concept of the comeback. The plot of the film is somewhat standard as far as court films goes, but what makes the film different is the representation of Paul Newman’s character. Like Eddie Felson in The Color of Money, Frank Galvin is a has-been who seeks to return to who he once was. The character is introduced as an alcoholic, desperate ambulance-chaser. The Verdict is about redemption and doing the right thing, even against the odds, for someone without a voice. This connects with the vast majority of his roles, which is that of persons who strip themselves of personal glory and satisfaction, and instead want to represent something genuine. “If I take the money, I’m lost,” Galvin says when he is offered a hefty settlement at the beginning of the film, emphasizing the crossroads he is at in this point of his life. He can either remain who he is, which is a desperate yet comfortable existence, or take a chance and be the type of person others look up to. That is what separates a leader from a follower, and by being a leader, one must have strict ethics they abide by.

Sticking with one’s ethics is something Paul Newman would later revisit in his career, but in a different aspect. In Newman’s final on-screen film, Road to Perdition (2002), he stars in the supporting role of John Rooney, a fictional mobster boss during 1930s Prohibition. The character is one who recognizes exactly who he is in the scope of right versus wrong. He doesn’t delude himself to the reality that he’s a bad person. “There are only murderers in this room…There is only one guarantee, none of us will see Heaven,” he tells Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) in a pivotal scene in the film, emphasizing his ability to see the truth about himself and what he does. Due to this, Newman’s role in Road to Perdition is arguably one of his finest performances because it challenged and channeled every motif Newman typically applied to his characters. John Rooney is charismatic, to which Newman instilled tremendous humanity into the character, who is a father figure to the film’s main character, Michael Sullivan. When Rooney is forced to turn his back on Michael in an effort to protect his son that he knows to be corrupt, it provides Newman’s most vulnerable performance. It is a performance that shows him unhinged, distraught, and emotional. Yet his firm stance within the film is still his own decision, much like the various characters he portrayed in previous films. He chooses his course and stays with it even though it breaks his heart to do so and places him in an emotional conundrum. What Newman achieves by expressing this emotional pain through his eyes is stunning and perhaps some of the best acting of his career. In his final scene, he looks to Tom Hanks in the pouring rain and conveys extreme sadness and apology in his eyes before he utters the heartbreaking sentence, “I’m glad it’s you.” The level of emotion he conveys in his eyes at this moment is astounding. He was able to achieve much emotion before he spoke, which is the sign of a truly talented actor. It is why Road to Perdition was a poignant and perfect conclusion to his on-screen film career.

As evidenced by the movies described in this feature, Paul Newman represented characters who sought to be their own entity. They chose not to conform to the dominant crowds, but to be their own person. His acting showed both the successes and the failures of such ambition to be someone, but he also emphasized in his roles that age is immaterial when one wants to be something. It’s about the drive within oneself and the determination to take a chance even if the odds don’t seem in one’s favor. More importantly, it’s about having one’s own ethical system and never deviating from it. Paul Newman once said, “A man can only be judged by his actions, and not by his good intentions or his beliefs.” In many regards, that perfectly captures the essence of what his acting style and characters represented. They functioned as individuals who strived to be something, but it was more about the path taken that made them memorable, not the end result.

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