The Movie Star: 1961-1969
7. The Hustler ESSENTIAL (1961)
The case for Newman's greatness starts here. As Fast Eddie Felson, the way-down-but-never-out pool shark of Robert Rossen's jazzy American classic, he gets to work all sides of his born-to-lose persona: He's irresistibly engaging but full of self-disgust, cocksure but haunted by the possibility of defeat, almost beyond redemption but aching for it. Every frame feels true to its milieu, and there are essential contributions from Jackie Gleason (as Minnesota Fats, a fictional character whose name was soon appropriated by a real pool player), Piper Laurie (heartbreaking as Eddie's crumbling alcoholic girlfriend), and cinematographer Eugene Schuftan, shooting in stunning black and white that dissolves from one scene to the next in a haze of cigarette smoke. But it all pivots around Newman, and he makes every shot. This is the role that brought the actor his second Oscar nomination, and finally won him the prize it just took another 25 years and some help from Martin Scorsese.
8. Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man (1962)
Newman is almost unrecognizable in Martin Ritt and A.E. Hotchner's adaptation of Hemingway's Nick Adams stories. As a brain-damaged ex-boxing champ now living in the woods, the actor, on screen for just 15 minutes, stows his natural charisma and gives an impeccable small performance in a flabby feature but that's why the DVD ''scene selection'' was invented (go directly to chapter 8).
9. Hud ESSENTIAL (1963)
Rebuilding Larry McMurtry's debut novel, Horseman, Pass By, around a minor character, Ritt and screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. gave Newman his third Oscar nomination, and his richest, most complex role yet: a selfish, sexy, and cruel cowboy watching his youth and capacity for human decency disappear in the dust of a present-day Texas ranch. Decades later, Newman criticized himself for not playing Hud's moral rot more directly, but he makes full use of the anger and soul-sickness that always seemed to simmer just beneath his handsomeness and charm. After audiences watched him shatter the lives of both his aging father (Melvyn Douglas) and the only woman he ever cared about (Patricia Neal), the actor was defined for a generation as a hard-hearted bastard, sometimes headed for salvation and sometimes, as here, beyond its reach.
10. Harper (1966)
When critics saw Newman's take on novelist Ross Macdonald's SoCal private eye Lew Archer (renamed Harper to piggyback alliteratively off the hits The Hustler and Hud), they griped that he was no Humphrey Bogart a complaint the filmmakers may have brought on themselves by casting Lauren Bacall as the tough dame. Didn't matter: Newman's amusing turn as a scruffy gumshoe hunting for a missing millionaire clicked with the public, and reestablished him as Mr. Cool. William Goldman's rambling script hasn't aged gracefully it indulges in some easy misogyny and homophobia but Newman's occasional tendency to stand slightly outside his lesser characters works perfectly here.
11. Hombre (1967)
At first, it looks like a sight gag Paul Newman as a blue-eyed Apache in the Old West? But Martin Ritt's thoughtful variation on Stagecoach effectively blends social consciousness with the storytelling chops of Elmore Leonard (on whose novel the movie is based). Newman's character turns out to be a white man who identifies more with the Indians who kidnapped and raised him than with white society; when he leads a group of bigoted coach passengers into the badlands, his double-outcast status comes to the fore. While Hombre's racial progressivism thunders a bit too loudly it was 1967, after all the film is gripping throughout.
12. Cool Hand Luke ESSENTIAL (1967)
In one of his greatest antihero roles, the 42-year-old Newman, playing a road-gang prisoner who bucks the system, looks about 28. (Nobody ever gave him more of a glow than cinematographer Conrad Hall, who also shot Harper, Butch Cassidy, and Road to Perdition.) As the memorable scenes stack up (Luke refuses to give up in a fistfight, Luke freaks out the guards by getting every inmate to work even harder, Luke takes a dare to eat 50 hard-boiled eggs), Newman powers through the showy stuff on pure magnetism. But he's also in top form in the quieter moments (especially one in which Luke sings and weeps after learning of his mother's death), which helped earn him a fourth Oscar nomination.
13. Rachel, Rachel (1968)
Newman and Woodward really clicked professionally when he stepped behind the camera and made his directorial debut, showcasing her as a shy, constricted middle-aged schoolteacher haunted by fears and regrets. Although dated now, this innovative, indie-ish character study came as a welcome antidote to Hollywood slickness, winning a Best Actress nomination for Woodward and a Best Picture nomination for Newman (who also produced).