I hadn’t missed the fact that Paul Newman died of cancer this weekend. I always admired him, not for his screen presence, but for his off-screen decency: a fifty year marriage to the same woman and a twenty year commitment to children’s charities. As for his on-screen presence, I too admired his unusual good looks, but I never made the mistake of being unable to separate the man from his roles.
I was thinking of that in connection with this picture, which surfaced as part of all the obituaries about Mr. Newman:
It’s a great picture, isn’t it? Anyone other than a child recognizes it as a scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Don’t they look cool? Running through a shootout with their own guns blazing. Talk about heroes (or, in the case of this movie, anti-heroes).
Except that’s not what the picture shows at all. What this picture really shows is two grown men playing at dress-up and “let’s pretend,” with fake guns in their hands. They aren’t brave, they aren’t cool. They aren’t doing anything meaningful at all. If you saw your neighbors do this on the street, your first thought would be “what pathetic geeks.”
Of course, unlike those hypothetical geeky neighbors, Newman and Redford are doing one thing: they’re providing entertainment. I happen to believe that entertainment is a wonderful thing. I really like being entertained. But I never make the mistake of thinking that our current crop of studly little actors, such as Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise, are anything but short men (they’re always short) who work out a lot with trainers to create pretty but useless muscles, and who pretend on screen to be cool. These guys don’t do anything. They don’t fight for their beliefs, they don’t protect the innocent, they don’t push around bad-guys. They put on costumes, and hold fake guns, and prance around to someone’s direction.
And when it comes to these hot-shot actors (not just Brad and Tom, but all of them), their off-screen lives range from the banal to the disgusting. None of them are exemplary in their lives. Indeed, that’s what makes Newman’s death truly sad. Not the end of his screen presence, but the end of a life that was lived with true decency and meaning despite, not because of, the pretence of coolness and “meaning” that Hollywood foists on the American people.