The Paul Newman scene I keep replaying in my head.

Reading and lounging and watching.
Sept. 29 2008 11:00 AM

The Paul Newman Scene I Can't Get Out of My Head

It's from The Verdict, but it's not the one you're thinking of.

Also in Slate, read an appreciation of Paul Newman by Dana Stevens and an obituary by Dahlia Lithwick.

Paul Newman and Charlotte Rampling in The Verdict.
Paul Newman and Charlotte Rampling in The Verdict

Paul Newman was blessed with abnormally good looks and abnormally good scripts, but also something more: that magical quiddity that makes you celebrate someone for his strokes of good fortune. On the evidence of dozens of performances, he possessed no inclination to self-celebration, and so inspired no inclination to resentment. My two favorite stars, after the untouchable Cary Grant, are Newman and Nicholson. But if it's Jack's world and we just live in it, Newman always seemed happy to live in ours. He was inclined to "ordinary happiness," as a professor of mine once beautifully put it, or the prerogative of the celebrity to freely choose the parameters of normal human satisfaction. His channel to godliness paved by good looks, charisma, and infallible instinct in front of a camera, he nonetheless married long, loved well, and did good works. (If there is more to this story—aside from racing cars—then I don't want to know.) Who could begrudge him that twinkle? It was always on our behalf, never his.

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Paul Newman made better films than The Verdict, a booze-soaked bit of Boston gothic from 1982, but it was this performance I kept replaying in my head after I heard he died. Newman's charms were abundant, of course, so it was remarkable to watch him keep them so completely in check. As a redemption narrative and courtroom drama, The Verdict is nothing more than solid, but it is that, and through and through, with David Mamet writing the script and Sidney Lumet directing. (It's a wee bit overplayed: The Verdict is bathed in so much whiskey and lace curtain, it's a wonder it doesn't break into "Danny Boy" midway through the second reel.) But Newman brings Frank Galvin, the standard Hollywood cliché of the wash-up, to life. Fans of the movie are quick to cite Galvin's jury summation, a bravura piece of restraint, to be sure, and a short scene in which Galvin, the night before the trial opens, shuts himself in a closet and begins to suspire madly in the throes of panic.

But the scene I kept coming back to sets up the whole film. It's hardly noticeable. Newman is intent on bedding a fellow barfly played by Charlotte Rampling. He buys her dinner the night before voir dire, and for the first time in the film, we come up close to Newman's face. The deep-set mask of middle-aged failure softens. Watch Newman here, ye who would be actors; study him. Where does this come from? "See, the jury believes. The jury wants to believe." The lines are almost inconsequential. But Newman is giving us evidence that Galvin is still alive. "It is something to see. I have to go down there tomorrow and pick out 12 of them. All of them—all their lives—say, 'It's a sham, it's rigged, you can't fight city hall. But when they step into that jury box … you just barely see it in their eyes. Maybe, maybe …" Rampling leans imperceptibly forward. "Maybe what?" And Newman exhales—just a little—putting a lifetime of defeat into that exhale, and suddenly Frank Galvin is talking about himself. "Maybe I could do something right."

Paul Newman reminded us—with a smile, a twinkle, a total economy of gesture—how infrequently the beautiful are comfortable in their own skin, how infrequently the elect are gracious. He enters, and immediately, the pantheon of Grant, Tracy, and Stewart, for reminding us of that magical Emersonian place, of America in its own imagination of itself, where the superhuman and the all-too-human become indistinguishable.

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.