Through most of my life, at various times, various people have remarked I look like others. Just a few weeks ago, during an orientation, one of my colleagues decided I reminded her of the lost Baldwin brother. Back when I used to be a substitute teacher, I’d often hear, amid a flurry of giggles, that I looked just like the guy from N’Sync. I’ve reminded people of Jack from Will & Grace and Tom Cruise, Dean Cain back when he was Superman, and even Superman himself.
My favorite, though, has always been and will always be when someone tells me I remind them of a young Paul Newman.
Because, seriously, is there, and has there ever been, and will there ever be, a cooler man?
I admit I’ve only actually ever watched an entire Paul Newman movie once; it was The Color of Money, in which he reprised a character he had played nearly twenty years before in The Hustler. The movie was directed by Scorsese and put Newman opposite Tom Cruise. Cruise was then just becoming Tom Frickin’ Cruise, just about to start his hot streak, and he had the kind of unrestrained charisma so common among newly minted (or minting) stars; there’s a reason he was so good as Maverick in Top Gun–his brash cockiness, alternately well-earned confidence and arrogant braggodocio, wasn’t much of an act.
Which I think might be why Newman was so damned good in The Color of Money (it earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting actor); there’s cocky cool that knows it’s cool and has a swagger, and then there’s Newman cool, so damned cool it comes out the other end. The kind of cool that doesn’t need to try, a Zen cool, really. While Cruise did acrobatics with a pool cue and spiked his hair and chomped his gum and boasted all over the joint, Newman instead went with the kind of slow smolder that’s been cool so long it doesn’t really know how to work otherwise.
Similar to the famous fight scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in which Newman, challenged to a fight for leadership of his small band, dispatches his opponent with a single, swift kick to the nuts. It’s a calm, collected, get-business-done sort of move.
And if his facade never wavered, it’s in fact because he never put one up.
I read a lot of magazines, ostensibly because I figure I may one day write for them but also because I like them, and what men’s magazines say about masculinity and its definitions thereof fascinate me. There’s always a dressed up guy with a name brand and a smile, and you just know every picture is perfectly lit and the guys are perfectly groomed.
Newman always seemed the opposite. He never seemed at home in his clothes (no matter the outfit) so much as at home in himself. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t try; he just does, and is, and he works. His oft-noted crystal blue eyes weren’t nearly so a signifier of his character as his easy and unrestrained smile; when Newman smiled, you knew he meant it. No matter what he did, in fact, Newman meant it, and that’s why, when I think of an archetype of cool, I don’t think of Sinatra or the Boss or Elvis or anyone else.
When I think of what it means to be cool, what it means to be a man, and what it means to be a human being, I think of Newman. Why?
From his obituary in the New York Times:
But the movies and the occasional stage role were never enough for him. He became a successful racecar driver, winning several Sports Car Club of America national driving titles. He even competed at Daytona in 1995 as a 70th birthday present to himself. In 1982, as a lark, he decided to sell a salad dressing he had created and bottled for friends at Christmas. Thus was born the Newman’s Own brand, an enterprise he started with his friend A. E. Hotchner, the writer. More than 25 years later the brand has expanded to include, among other foods, lemonade, popcorn, spaghetti sauce, pretzels, organic Fig Newmans and wine. (His daughter Nell Newman runs the company’s organic arm.) All its profits, of more than $200 million, have been donated to charity, the company says.
Much of the money was used to create a string of Hole in the Wall Gang Camps, named for the outlaw gang in “Butch Cassidy.” The camps provide free summer recreation for children with cancer and other serious illnesses. Mr. Newman was actively involved in the project, even choosing cowboy hats as gear so that children who had lost their hair because of chemotherapy could disguise their baldness.
The usual thing to say at this point is that he is in a better place, but I’m not sure I believe that. Because I believe so much of life is connected with both one’s place in it and one’s understanding of one’s place in it; sometimes, some people just get it. Not life so much as their lives; they’re just so good at being them that the world changes around them.
Whatever, wherever, I’d wager one thing: Paul Newman is comfortable. He always was, after all, and I simply don’t think that his shucking of his mortal coil could possibly change that.