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.

Nobody's Fool ends with a dedication to Tandy. Alongside this graceful note, you can't help but feel the film's a tribute to Newman as well, still very much with us but in need of a new guise suitable for his septuagenarian status.

He has found it in Russo's character and Benton's movie--an old-timer who can still call on his charm, wit, and virility as life approaches last call. In short, the kind of man found only in the movies. But that's why we need legends like Newman--to embody our romantic visions at every stage of life.

No other young actor in the last five years has capitalized on his looks the way 25-year-old Brad Pitt has. Indeed, after surveying the blur of magazine covers, you're startled to recall that Pitt made his first (and rather brief) film impression less than four years ago as the skinny hitchhiker stud who conned Geena Davis out of her panties and pennies in Thelma and Louise.

On a rapidly accelerating cafeteria line, moviegoers have been served endless Pitt. We've seen him emoting through a series of mediocre star-maker projects--as the ironic pouter (in the little-seen, edgy comic trifle Johnny Suede); as the aw-shucks, ne'er-do-well, fly-fishing pouter (A River Runs Through It); as the pouting, spitting hayseed serial killer (Kalifornia); and as the noble, effete, pouting bloodsucker (Interview With the Vampire, a film that used far too much anemic Pitt and far too little Cruise).

The problem is, Pitt doesn't emote nearly as well as he pouts--even though the two are, for him, often inseparable. Still, to be fair, snide insults about the young man's acting ability are premature. He has the raw materials to develop into a talented leading man--a lanky, good-natured ease with his own body, and a big-hearted enthusiasm for scenes that require him to express powerful feelings.

But as Interview With the Vampire demonstrated painfully, he doesn't know how to handle the quiet moments. He can capitalize on his bubble-lipped, preadolescent face only so much longer, and then Pitt's going to have to find some nuance in his roles to justify the time and money we spend watching him parade through so many vanity flicks.

The silly, one-dimensional Legends of the Fall only adds to the overriding impression given by Pitt's career--too much, too soon.

There's nothing wrong with star vehicles, providing they service a star of proven ability. But director Ed Zwick is shameless and clumsy in his adulation of Pitt's character, a reckless-as-the-dickens, wild-souled wanderer who shares an intense attachment with his brothers (older Aidan Quinn and younger Henry Thomas) and his father (Anthony Hopkins) in early 20th-century Montana. Pitt gets no less than three full-orchestra entrances--two of which, for those dim audience members who didn't catch how at one he is with nature, occur amid a herd of wild horses.

He falls in love with his youngest brother's fiancee (Julia Ormond), also the object of Quinn's more veiled affections. Presiding over this predictable (and, by film's end, extremely bloody) triangle is patriarch Anthony Hopkins, bestowing the bluster of a benighted Great Actor to mediocre material.

All four male leads share an affinity for American Indian philosophy that bludgeons us with its good intentions. Gordon Tootoosis, the actor who plays Hopkins' faithful, non-English-speaking sidekick, is used as a handy repository of wisdom, but never voices an opinion about anything. His name might just as well be Tonto for all we get to know about him.

Indeed, Zwick and company can proudly say they've contributed to contemporary cinema its first American Indian version of Steppin Fetchit--in one scene, Tootoosis dances around the corpses of two of Pitt's adversaries, swinging his blade through the air to the delighted laughs of his Anglo comrades. The narration goes: "I wanted so bad to collect scalps that day...but they were not my kill."

Legends of the Fall has all the worst narrative contrivances of a TV mini-series, most notably the rushed, hysterical quality given to each turn of the plot. The artistic reasoning seems to be this--because these are the highlights of a whole lifetime, every single moment must be made a revelation. It doesn't help that James Horner's gelatinous musical score is heaped on every scene like layers of fat, and the viewer must constantly cut through it.

Another false note is the actors' uniform good looks. It's a fact someone discovered early on and used as an excuse to coif and manicure them into mannequinhood. They look too scrubbed in their costumes, too composed to be enduring the constant hardships thrown at them by the screenplay. Pitt, Quinn, and Thomas end up looking as strained and corseted as Julia Ormond, who's forced to weep a lot and stand by helplessly while all the vaguely homoerotic fraternal power struggles play out.

The many problems that sink Legends of the Fall can't all be attributed to overzealous star-making. Ed Zwick cut an impressive balance between battlefield action and camp-fire intimacy in his Civil War tear-jerker Glory. But Legends of the Fall covers a much wider space geographically and emotionally. Zwick is unwilling or unable to shift moods, so he delivers everything from a kiss to an angry confrontation at a stampede pace.

He's so eager to entertain, you almost feel guilty the first time you laugh when you weren't supposed to. Once you discover that's the only pleasure to be had in Legends of the Fall, you'll indulge enthusiastically.

Legends of the Fall. Tri-Star. Brad Pitt, Aidan Quinn, Anthony Hopkins. Written by Susan Shilliday and Bill Wittliff, based on the novella by Jim Harrison. Directed by Ed Zwick. Now playing.

Nobody's Fool. Paramount. Paul Newman, Jessica Tandy, Bruce Willis. Written by Robert Benton, based on the novel by Richard Russo. Directed by Robert Benton. Now playing.

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