Phallus idols

Nobody's Fool and Legends of the Fall peddle icons of masculinity

Paul Newman is our most complex living movie icon. The man and his image are loaded with contradictions--he is an actor of fairly limited abilities, but at least a dozen of his performances from a 41-year career have been burned into our consciousness with the force of genius.

Newman's appearances are often in consciously commercial fare, but his resume as a director (including Rachel, Rachel and the moving, underappreciated The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds) is dotted with quirky, ultrapersonal choices; he has infused subtlety into macho swagger, projecting a lethal masculinity--with a core of near-feminine beauty. (Musing on their first film together, 1958's The Long Hot Summer, Newman's wife, Joanne Woodward, said she couldn't help noticing that "Paul was prettier than me.")

Such dynamics might lead you to expect the actor to take a pitiful stand against retirement (he could easily pull a Jack Nicholson and keep stealing roles way too old for him), or choose to take it early and decay in the privacy of his own home. Newman's relatively low profile in recent years was a conscious decision, the actor recently told Newsweek's David Ansen. He was determined to meet advancing age gracefully by taking second-string, crusty-old-man parts.

Yet even at 70, Newman doesn't seem ready for the celluloid old folks home, a place of endless character roles from which actors like Jessica Tandy, Don Ameche, and Ralph Bellamy created thriving late careers. Newman's humility aside, his weather-beaten face--which has only caught up with his age in the last five years--is more capable than ever of sly surprises. Perhaps because, like that other sublime American screen beauty--Elizabeth Taylor--we half-expect Newman to stay young forever.

Since even the camera can't grant this wish, we settle for youthfulness, and Newman supplies this commodity in spades. All it takes is one of his familiar I-dare-you-to-love-me smiles, a tilt of that sculpted head, or a flash of those cobalt-blue eyes, and no feat is beyond reach for a well-written Newman character. Long ago he discovered the role of the endearing outsider, the rogue made hero by accident. And wittingly or not, he has made it his life's work.

None of this should imply that Newman coasts through his role in director Robert Benton's latest heart-tugger, Nobody's Fool. All the actor's familiar tricks are in plentiful evidence here, most notably the way he blurs the line between characterization and charisma. Yet the same darker, richer element that made Newman's The Verdict and The Color of Money such sour triumphs has come to full realization here. He taps powerful wells of bitterness and self-deprecating humor to play Sully, a broken-down construction worker whose frequent brushes with the law, hard drinking, and even harder womanizing destroyed his family decades ago.

With only a handful of barroom buddies to help him, Sully drifts through a debt-ridden, hand-to-mouth existence in the same upstate New York town where he was born, renting a room from his eighth-grade teacher (Jessica Tandy, endowing one of her last roles with a marvelous withered dignity), sparring with his deceitful boss (Bruce Willis), and maintaining a deliberately chaste flirtation with the boss' wife (Melanie Griffith).

He expects to drift unnoticed into a drunken death until his college professor son Peter (Dylan Walsh) reenters his life by chance, bringing with him a taciturn pre-schooler (Alex Goodwin) from the son's own rocky marriage. Peter helps Sully come to terms with the specter of Sully's abusive father even as he develops affection, during a series of sweet, loosely connected misadventures, for the salty, mischievous, but still breathing figure who rejected him at an early age.

Lest all this sound like another exercise in trendy pop-psychological exorcism, readers should remember Nobody's Fool was directed by Benton, a Hollywood craftsman whose seamless forays into 35mm soap opera (Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart) have taught him a major truism of popular entertainment: once you find a good story and assemble talented actors to dramatize it, don't interfere. Too many directors feel the need to qualify hard-luck stories with gratuitous passages that attempt to explain the misfortune of the characters involved. But Benton isn't interested in dissecting an individual's ego. Concepts like "dysfunctionalism" don't apply here--yes, most of the characters are trapped in unsatisfying relationships, but even from these they gain sustenance.

Benton retains the tattered yet intricate sense of community in Richard Russo's novel, and cranks up the charm quotient by employing consummately professional box-office names who remain in perfect step with the ensemble (Willis and Griffith, in particular, have never seemed more relaxed and effective).

The final effect is compelling and lovely, full of memorable moments that wash over you like warm water. The interaction between Newman and Tandy is particularly poignant. In a coincidence both eerie and appropriate, the soon-to-be-deceased stage and screen luminary portrays a proud woman who knows she must soon sacrifice her independence to illness and death. Sully is there to keep her distracted, intrigued (yes, both performers spike the scenes with a shrewd hint of sexual tension), and willful through vexing encounters with a stroke and an ungrateful son.

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