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Newman's zone

Paul Newman as Sully in "Nobody's Fool."

NEW YORK -- I really liked this movie, I told Paul Newman.

"Thank you," he said.

There was one reaction shot you had, when she lifted up her sweater, teasing you - an old friend, but still a possible lover. The audience really loved you at that moment. You seemed kind of embarrassed and delighted and . . .

"That's what it is," he said, "adult embarrassment."

It was a scene midway through "Nobody's Fool" (opening Jan. 13 in Chicago), between Newman and Melanie Griffith, as the restless wife of his employer. Newman plays an alcoholic 60-year-old construction worker named Sully, liked by everyone except those who counted on him, like his family. He has been flirting for years, maybe, with the Griffith character, whose husband (Bruce Willis) cheats on her with local floozies. There is the possibility that maybe Sully could restore happiness to her life, and so, in a moment of play, she pulls up her sweater to let him see that her appurtenances are all in the right place. The key element of the scene is not her action, but his reaction, which is done in just such a way that the audience laughs with warmth, instead of humor.

How do you do something like that? I asked him. Can you even say how you do it?

"I wouldn't know. The funny thing is, if you're cookin', you don't have any memory of that. There can be no single emotion that could be identified with something like that. I mean, it just has to be a splash of colors, and that's all it is. It's appreciation, a surprise, embarrassment, delight, a desperate attempt to keep his cool . . . all those things." Oscar contender

We were talking in his hotel suite one afternoon last September, right after "Nobody's Fool" had its press premiere. It was originally scheduled to open in early October, but then the studio took another look at it and moved it back to December openings in New York and Los Angeles, and January in the rest of the country, because they figured Newman had a shot at an Academy Award nomination. The studio was right, I think; Newman has to be reckoned about equal with Tom Hanks in the 1995 Oscar derby.

Watching the movie, I wrote down the word "humility." Newman never seemed to be reaching for an effect, never conscious of his appearance on the screen. He seemed content to be within the character, to be Sully and to participate in Sully's life and problems. There was no movie star edge showing outside the character.

When I told Newman that, he answered indirectly: "Maybe he's a lot closer to me than I'd care to admit, so that there really wasn't a lot of digging; you know, you just have to be available. And if you just have the patience and the security of knowing that's really all you have to do, you don't have to push for anything."

I never heard a line, I never saw a gesture, that indicated you were reaching for anything.

"I think the only way that that can happen is if you have a director who is patient to wait and an actor who is patient to allow. If either one insists upon some other formula, then I don't think it's likely to happen. Benton really likes actors. He trusts the process, and so I guess it gave me the security to know that I didn't have to push something for expediency, that I could simply wait for it."

Benton. Robert Benton. He's known for collaborating with actors on some of their best work, like Art Carney in "The Late Show" (1977), Dustin Hoffman in "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979) and Sally Field in "Places in the Heart" (1984). Actor driven

"Nobody's Fool" is, more than usually, an actor's picture. There is no particular plot to drive it, no economic, criminal or romantic necessity that must be served. We sense it is not crucial that Newman and Griffith connect by the end of the picture, nor are we much exercised by Newman's pending court cases for reckless driving. We know his eighth-grade teacher (Jessica Tandy) is not well, but we doubt the final scene will be at her deathbed, either.

The crucial element in the film is the arrival in Sully's small Upstate town of his son (Dylan Walsh) and grandson (Alex Goodwin). Walsh has separated from his wife; they've each taken custody of one of their children, and now he returns to the father he never knew very well. He is suspicious. Over a period of time, he will see if his suspicions are justified. And Sully will discover that if it is too late to be a good father, it may not be too late to be a good grandfather. Rejecting the blockbuster

How did the project get started?

"Benton sent it to me."

You read it, and . . .

"And had a choice of doing a picture that was a blockbuster or to explore this vehicle."

What was the title of the blockbuster?

"Aw . . . I couldn't say."

And you took the vehicle.

"Well, I'm old enough and smart enough to do that now. And the allure of that gamble is much more attractive."

He is old enough, at 69, and for some time he has been smart enough to do what seems to be the right thing, rather than the opportunistic thing. He goes for years now, sometimes, between pictures, and his recent ones have all been decisions based on the apparent worth of the project: He did a continuation of the "Hustler" character Eddie Felson in Martin Scorsese's "The Color of Money" (1986), and then an inspired impersonation of the rascally Louisiana Gov. Earl K. Long in "Blaze" (1989). He was a sane general at the dawn of the Cold War in "Fat Man and Little Boy" (1989), which was not a successful movie, and a too-sane Kansas City banker who drove his wife mad with his probity in James Ivory's "Mr. & Mrs. Bridge" (1990), which was a very good movie.

He makes news regularly with his multimillion-dollar popcorn and salad dressing empire, which gives its profits to charity, and it is worth asking how many major movie stars would have the selfconfidence to put their picture on a jar of oil and vinegar and not give a damn what people thought.

One interesting aspect of "Nobody's Fool" is that there aren't a lot of people visible in it, except for the actual cast members. There are a few extras meandering in the background of some shots -- driving down the street, sitting in the back booths of the bar -- but not many, and not very visible. When characters walk down the street, there aren't 40 extras on the sidewalk, being choreographed by an assistant director.

"It gave it a containment, didn't it?" Newman said. "It's such a personal story; it all takes place within the circle of the characters. We were all pretty close when we made the movie."

Jessica Tandy was ill when she was shooting the film, wasn't she?

"She was OK but she was a bit fragile. You got a lot to learn from that lady; graceful and determined."

And filled with a fierce, focused energy that you sensed was pure craft, allowing the performance to happen no matter how the actress felt that day, or what she thought about her health. Miss Tandy worked until the end, leaving not only this film but also "Camilla," which opens later this month.

I asked Newman about his earlier hint that the movie might be somewhat autobiographical.

"Not so much in specific events," he said, "as in the trajectory of the character. He was aloof and distant and mistook that for independence. He became . . . available. He wasn't so stuck in cement that he couldn't be alert to the potential that exists in change. That's the real miracle of that character; some primordial instinct in him that says, when his son and grandson appear, `Hold it, this could be worth something.' That's the part of that character that touched me."

Do you feel you've learned to be more available over the years?

"Yes . . . but see, everything in this business demands that you keep your distance -- because if you don't, you get eaten alive. That's the only way you can protect your privacy and your identity. At least that's the way it affected me. There are people who are comfortable being public figures. They bathe in it. The second the light gets turned on, suddenly they blossom like a bed of spring flowers. They've got a much easier time of it than someone who is private by nature. And I envy that."

It is well known that Newman's son, Scott, died in a drug-related incident. I wondered if the movie character was perhaps able to say things that the actor, in life, did not get the chance to say. I didn't have the courage to bring up the subject directly, but . . .

There's a nice line in the movie, I said. The son says, "You never were a father. Why did you decide to be a grandfather?" Your character says, "Well, you have to start sometime."

"Yeah," Newman said. "What was it that Oscar Wilde said about never apologizing and never explaining?"

He reached for a glass of mineral water and seemed ready to change the subject.

"How are the Bears going to do?" In September, it was a good question. "The Bears won the championship the year that we shot 'Color of Money' in Chicago, and I can remember with such clarity . . . we were in the Whitehall Hotel, and I remember looking out the window . . . we had shot late that night, and an assistant cooked dinner, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Tom Cruise and a bunch of actors came over for ham hocks and beans. And we looked out the window at midnight and could hear all the distant cheering and noise and stuff and coming down that street -- was it Chestnut? -- there was a guy splayed out on the hood of a car, leaning back against the windscreen, the car was going conservatively 50 miles an hour, this guy had nothing to hold on to, and you knew if that driver tapped his brakes, that guy would simply propel himself off into the future with little or no means of support or protection. I always wondered what happened to that guy, whether he survived that."

When the Bears won, it was the first time Chicago had won anything in ages.

"Yeah. Do you often go on these publicity things? It's kind of an . . . well, not an ordeal, exactly, but doing so many interviews is like double parking in front of a whorehouse; scant satisfaction to both parties."

But it's worth it when the film is good, I said. It's nice how it ends; I like the last shot, the repose, as the camera rests on your face, and you're asleep . . .

"Fade to black."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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