COOL HAND LUKE plays tomorrow (Friday) night at the Stateside Theatre (next door to the Paramount) at 9:30 p.m. Here are my film notes for one of my all-time favorite movies.
The late Paul Newman, in addition to being one of the greatest American film actors of the last fifty years, was also a true renaissance man. In addition to acting, Newman was a director, entrepreneur, humanitarian and auto racing enthusiast. Was there nothing this extraordinarily gifted man could not do? But it was on the big screen that Newman captured our hearts. Impossibly handsome, Paul Newman could have been just another pretty face. But in addition to that grin and those incredible blue eyes, Newman had the acting chops to play both comedy and drama and excel at both. Ladies loved him. Men wanted to hang out with him and we all wanted to see what unforgettable character he would bring to life in each film.
Newman, like so many other actors of his generation, had his first exposure to working in front of a camera in the live television programs of the 1950s. He made his Broadway debut in Picnic in 1953. Hollywood soon called and his first film, The Silver Chalice (1954), was almost his last as Newman felt his performance was so bad that he took out an ad in the trade papers to apologize for it. He fared much better with his next effort, Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), in which he played boxer Rocky Graziano. Newman’s performance this time drew rave reviews, and his career was off and running.
Paul Newman was one of the few actors to successfully make the transition from the cinema of the 1950s to the new breed of films that came about in the 1960s. His rebellious persona translated extremely well to audiences of the sixties. Beginning with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1958 (in which he co-starred with the supra-luminal Elizabeth Taylor), Newman made a series of films that enjoyed both box-office and critical acclaim including: Exodus (1960), The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), Harper (1966), Torn Curtain (1967), Hombre (1967) and Cool Hand Luke (1967). He teamed with Robert Redford twice for the enormously popular Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973).
In the course of his career, Newman appeared in more than fifty films, worked in several highly acclaimed television productions and lent his voice to the delightful animated feature Cars (2006). He received eight Best Actor and one Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nominations for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Absence of Malice (1981), The Verdict (1982), The Color of Money (1986), Nobody’s Fool (1994) and Road to Perdition (2002). Newman’s only Oscar came for his work in The Color of Money. But it was in the sixties that Newman did some of his best, career defining work as the film on display here so unforgettably demonstrates.
“What we have here is failure to communicate.”
That memorable line of dialogue became the tagline used to promote Cool Hand Luke, a leading candidate for the title of “sweatiest movie ever made” (the other nominees include Ben-Hur and Body Heat). Luke (Newman) is a rebellious prisoner on a Southern chain gang who refuses to have his spirit (and his sense of humor) broken. His standing among his fellow prisoners achieves mythic status for his card playing ability, his knockdown, drag out fight with fellow prisoner Dragline (Kennedy), his consumption of 50 hard-boiled eggs in one hour and his repeated escape attempts.
As in his other “H” films (The Hustler, Hud, Harper and Hombre) Newman defines the anti-hero, a man outside of the system living life on his own terms. As Luke, he’s at his devil-may-care, laid-back best as he butts heads with the brutal prison camp overseers, memorably played by the immortal Strother Martin (who delivers the line quoted above) and Morgan Woodward as the sinister boss, “the man with no eyes.”
Cool Hand Luke is studded with a veritable who’s who of character actors, many of whom went on to become stars in their own right, either in films or on television. You’ll spot many familiar faces including Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Joe Don Baker and Wayne Rogers, among others. The film is full of raucous humor, great dialogue, terrific performances and memorable scenes. It’s one of Paul Newman’s best films and one of the great American films of the 1960s. Cool Hand Luke received four Academy Award nominations including: Best Actor (Newman), Best Supporting Actor (Kennedy, winner), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Music Score.