The Newcomer: 1954-1960
1. The Silver Chalice (1954)
For anyone who wants to see Newman’s very humble beginnings: The actor had just made his Broadway debut in William Inge’s Picnic when talent scouts from Warner Bros. signed him to a long-term contract. His first assignment was the role of a Greek sculptor enslaved in the early days of Christianity (he’s billed fourth, with the credit ”Introducing Paul Newman”). The result: a shoddy-looking, clumsy, and hilariously unconvincing Christians-and-Romans spectacle. Years later, when Chalice aired on TV, Newman famously took out an ad apologizing for it.
2. Somebody Up There Likes Me ESSENTIAL (1956)
Newman got his second chance at stardom when Warner loaned him out to MGM after the sudden death of James Dean, who had agreed to play middleweight champ Rocky Graziano. He never looked back. Even as he labors under a putty nose and thick (and intermittent) Noo Yawk accent, Newman delivers an unmistakable star-is-born performance in Robert Wise’s sentimental but effective biopic, bringing effortless physicality to the boxing scenes, openhearted vulnerability to the romance, and camera-ready charisma throughout. Some critics carped that his work as Graziano was ”chock full of Brando mannerisms” and wondered whether he was ”doomed to walk forever” in Brando’s shadow. No worries: With this cocky, lively-eyed, light-footed turn, he began to forge his own path. (FYI: Blink and you’ll miss an uncredited Steve McQueen as Rocky’s street-gang buddy.)
3. The Rack (1956)
As a Korean War POW who returns home only to face a trial for collaborating with the enemy, the baby-faced actor is at his most open and wounded, despite the Psych-101-with-a-sledgehammer script (based on a TV playlet by Rod Serling).
4. The Long, Hot Summer (1958)
Fox’s deep-fried rip-off of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a very loose adaptation of some William Faulkner stories that was greenlit when the studio couldn’t get the rights to Tennessee Williams’ play, marked the start of two of Newman’s most fruitful collaborations — with director Martin Ritt (for whom he made six films) and with Joanne Woodward (whom he married soon after this wrapped). As a troubled bad boy who wanders into a Mississippi town ruled by a bullying big daddy (Orson Welles), Newman is still a bit too green to hold the film’s center, and his naturalism seems at odds with Welles’ bulldozer hamming. But Woodward’s poise and chilliness pair well with her husband-to-be’s moody reserve.
5. The Left-Handed Gun (1958)
Newman had a taste for cutting icons of the Old West down to size, and his first try was as Billy the Kid in Arthur Penn’s directorial debut, shot cheaply in 23 days, then snatched from Penn by Warner Bros. and given a new ending. Unfortunately, the actor, by this point a twice-married father of three, was 15 years too old to play the Kid, and the script’s ’50s-Freudian notion of Billy as an ”alienated” hair-trigger nutjob gives him little to play. Dismissed by U.S. critics at the time — and promptly embraced by the French — this isn’t a dud, but it’s not an entirely coherent revisionist Western either. (Incidentally, Gun was based on a Gore Vidal one-act that aired in 1955 on Philco Playhouse, also starring Newman.)
6. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ESSENTIAL (1958)
If you cut the repressed homosexuality from a play that’s all about repressed homosexuality, is anything left? Surprisingly, yes. The Production Code forced writer-director Richard Brooks to omit the real reason that Brick, the hobbled hero of Tennessee Williams’ 1955 play, drinks all day and won’t touch his hungry, hot wife. But Newman, staring into his highball glass with sorrow and terror, solves the problem simply by playing Brick as if the inner truth is still the same; he’s matched by Elizabeth Taylor at her near-best. This textbook example of how star voltage can electrify compromised material brought Newman his first of nine Oscar nominations for acting, and vaulted him to the status of an idol. ”I think you’ve even gotten better-looking since you went on the bottle,” Taylor’s Maggie the Cat insists. Looking at her newly trim costar, it’s hard to disagree.