Happy Birthday, Paul Newman! Five films you would have made better

Today is the birthday of Newman's Own best selling product, the late Paul Newman, everyone's favorite cool-eyed and irreverent actor/philanthropist. He can't so much celebrate his birthday, being deceased, but everyone else can -- and surely they will, running some retrospective of the man and his work. We, too, feel that clinging to the past is the easiest way to ignore the future, so here's some modern pieces of cinematic art that should have had Paul Newman in them, but sadly didn't.

Public Enemies

The Part: Melvis Purvis, originally played by Christian Bale.

The Movie: Michael Mann's Public Enemies was supposed to be Heat in the early 1930s, but the results were less Heat, more Righteous Kill. Johnny Depp plays John Dillinger, criminal mastermind and outlaw folk hero, while Christian Bale plays the FBI agent tracking Dillinger to bring him to justice (kill him in the street).

The Problem: Mann's movies are always an exercise in cold technicality, not unlike the sociopathic professionals he explores in his work. The way around this is to finally hire Johnny Depp, an actor so charismatic and lovable that the audience has no choice but to connect and relate to him and his desires. Bale, however, defines his character by his distant professionalism, and he'd rather shoot something than express his fears or doubts (or utter a contraction. He does not use contractions). Thus the film becomes desperately one-sided in Dillinger's favor, becoming a story of a very nice 1930s criminal rock star being brutally shot down by the FBI, instead of the cat-and-mouse who-do-I-root-for complexity of Mann's masterpiece, Heat. Which is probably why at the beginning you were like, "Dude, Melvin Purvis wasn't even a lead in Public Enemies."

How Newman Would Fix It: Newman had already played characters with Purvis' background -- his grew-up-a-poor-country-boy-but-look-at-how-capable-he-is-now role in the Young Philadelphians was an early success -- and his inherently rebellious persona never stopped him from making movies about accepting duty. In fact, it helped with his easy relatability. It would add credence to the idea that Purvis's mission was one he thought righteous -- here is a man that seems to have the capability, if not the tendency, to break the rules, but believing in Hoover's vision, he becomes an unstoppable agent of law, willing to kill to uphold the ideal, and perfectly aware that doing so would cast him as the villain in mainstream American culture. His slide into his own morally gray hell and eventual suicide would seem like the tragic inevitability of someone who had been duped into denying their very nature. Similar to the way Dillinger thought he was untouchable and discovered otherwise (bang bang), Purvis would be forced to realize that he's not always right.

I Love You Phillip Morris

The Part: Steven Russel, originally played by Jim Carrey

The Movie: Based on a true story, Steven Russel, con artist, impostor, and thief falls in love with fellow prison inmate Phillip Morris, then breaks out of jail four times to be reunited with him.

The Problem: Jim Carrey plays the part kinda like an In Living Color sketch. While consistently better than he is in every large budget studio picture he makes, Carrey is never able to find the heart or humanity inside of Russel and connect to it the way he did in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, probably his finest performance to date. He goes big and he goes brash, leaving the emotional weight of the story to fall on the very capable shoulders of Ewan McGregor, who is inexplicably in love with someone that appears to be nothing more than a sociopath. McGregor more than delivers, making us feel the universal pain of being away from someone we love, despite that fact that his love is a lying criminal who appears to care only about his own desires, one of which happens to be the titular Phillip Morris.

How Newman Would Fix It: Take the calm confidence and capability of Newman in The Sting, the manipulative ambition of him in Slapshot, add a dose of flaming homosexual HUD and have him escape prison a lot, like Cool Hand Luke. Newman was one of the kings of expressing a backlog of completely introspective motivation, adding a human dimension to a whole mess of characters that would otherwise have been nothing more than callow and self-centered, sometimes without even expressing exactly what it is. Why does Cool Hand Luke HAVE to rebel? Is it a consequence of his relationship with his mother? The stifling southern society he existed in? It doesn't matter. Newman gives us a character who doesn't know his own motivations, but knows he has them -- and he's trying to fight against them. As each iconic moment comes up we can see in Newman's face, in his eyes, that the wheels are turning until he says, "Okay, but I just HAVE to."


The Part: Griffin, originally played by Kanye West

The Movie: The 35-minute companion to Kanye's album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an avant-garde and pretentious mess/masterpiece expression of Kanye's psyche, which is probably a mess. Griffin, who appears to be some sort of rich musician, encounters a winged woman as she crashes to Earth in a blaze. He falls in love with her and attempts to teach her about how to get along in our society, but sensing that she will be changed and judged, she returns to her world by flame.

The Problem: Kanye West ain't an actor (see how poorly he sells the few scripted moments he has, including a terrible delivery of the film's first line), but more importantly, it's impossible to look at Runaway on its own terms, as a story of Griffin, without overtly relating it to West. Maybe that's the point, but it makes the film weaker. West has become so polarizing as a persona that it's impossible to even see his face without an emotional reaction, handicapping the film from the beginning. And that persona, being rather unpredictable, has taken the opposite tack in the controlled beats and images of Runaway -- it's only in periodic, obviously non-scripted moments at the large Greek-god-styled dinner party that we catch glimpses of Kanye's natural charisma, the twinkle in his eye that reminds us he could jump on stage any moment now to yell some crazy shit and then let us finish.

How Newman Would Fix It: Kayne West has failure to communicate. The film appears to be an attempt to transform himself into a modern day Cool Hand Luke, a man that just can't seem to understand and thus abide by the normative social laws, or even reject the ones he deems worthless -- watch as he instructs the bird-girl to "Never listen to what they say on the news," during a broadcast about the forest fire her atmospheric entry caused. I saw that shit, there were flames everywhere, man. She totally started that fire. The easiest way to take that final step would be to hire Cool Hand Luke himself, and it seems more than doable considering that (other than a few pieces of imagery) the racial struggle expressed quite heavily on the album seems (sadly) to be less prevalent in the film's story of Griffin's isolation, self-imprisonment, and eventual freedom.

The Transporter

The Part: The Transporter, originally played by Jason Statham.

The Movie: The first Transporter movie was a wicked little piece of Hong Kong translated into French action movie. It had less of Statham flipping his car off a ramp while expertly ridding the undercarriage of a bomb and more of him driving fast and then kicking people in the face. The first movie is like a low-budget Hong Kong actioner. The sequels are like the lame American remakes of it. It also has an almost incomprehensible plot.

The Problem: Jason Statham is small, dude. When I see him in his little suit doing his little kicks I mostly wanna squeeze his little cheeks and say "Aren't you a cute little Transporter." And how someone would live so fastidiously for years and then suddenly break his own rules for no real reason isn't something Statham is willing to translate when he seems more like a Manchester United hooligan than a precision outlaw. Also, for years Statham has stated that he and the director played the Transporter as the first gay action hero, and while it's commendable (and something later movies tried to "fix"), I'm not sure Jason "Crank" Statham has the subtlety to communicate it without later doing interviews to tell us that's what he meant.

How Newman Would Fix It: That ol' rebellious persona means you're just waiting for this guy to break his own rules, and wondering why he didn't do it sooner (or how many times he has). You want Hud to chill with the act and just be Hud. He's already played a character obsessed with his car, in 1969's Winning, and it inspired Newman to his own real-life racing career, where he won four national championships. He kept racing until he was like, super old. Like, shouldn't-be-on-the-road-at-all old. So like Statham, he could do the majority of his own driving stunts, but unlike Statham, he actually has some expertise, and there won't be some poor stunt coordinator standing off to the side clutching his rosary. Newman was also 5' 9", which isn't especially big, but it's certainly taller than tiny little Statham. And who doesn't want to see Newman do a jumping spinning split kick? If a dude that looks like he sells stolen watches on a card table in East Side London can do it, you know Butch Cassidy can.

Eastbound and Down

The Part: Kenny Powers, originally played by Danny McBride

The Movie: Actually, it's a TV show. Powers was a hot-shit pitcher in Major League Baseball until he lost his skills and everyone realized the extent to which he was a drug addled misogynist monomaniacal racist. Cast aside, Power returns to his hometown and becomes a gym teacher, spreading havoc in his quest to get back on top.

The Problem: Okay, maybe this one is just for me. There's not a problem. Danny McBride is a genius. Everyone that works on the show is a genius. In fact, so much of the brilliance of the part is based on Danny McBride's adlibs and persona, he'd have to shoot every scene and then walk Newman through it so that Newman could mimic him perfectly, including the fact that McBride consistently, somehow, finds a tiny trace of humanity inside of Powers to express just when you start to forget he's not entirely a cartoon.

How Newman Would Fix It: Take Danny McBride's Kenny Powers, take the goatee, the mullet, and the paunch, and now put it on Paul Newman. That shit is hilarious, right? Even funnier than Danny McBride just standing there.

One could argue that in many ways Eastbound and Down is about a man rebelling against the stifling nature of society in the South; he just chooses to do so through vulgarity and narcissism and, finding success, becomes a monster. This is actually well-worn tread in Newman's oeuvre, from his parts in the works of Tennessee Williams to (guess) Cool Hand Luke. And unlike McBride, Newman has been to the heights of fame, opening the possibilities for expression within the character to something firmly outside of McBride's wheelhouse. Plus, c'mon, you guys, it's fat Paul Newman with a mullet!

Follow us on Twitter!

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tim Davids