I’m continuing to reprint a few articles from my website, to keep them available after a redesign.This was originally published in First Draft, the SinC Guppy chapter newsletter.
CLASSIC OR CLICHE — a brief meditation on the death of Paul Newman–and what his roles say to writers
Remembering an actor who got the details right.
When Paul Newman died, I was reading Empire Falls, Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about life in small-town Maine. I’d very much enjoyed the HBO series – rented on DVD – featuring Ed Harris as the protagonist, Miles Roby, and Newman as his father, Max. Newman so embodied the role that as I read, I pictured him every time Max appeared. It’s a classic role – the charming reprobate, a sometime-house painter who abandoned his wife and young sons for months at a time but always seemed to expect them to be waiting – and they were. Now that his wife is long dead and his sons are grown, he treats them no better. Without a car and always short on money, he bums rides then rummages in Miles’ glove box for cash. He pitches in at the café his sons run, cheering up his teenage granddaughter and enjoying wreaking unnecessary havoc. He knows exactly what buttons to push on his hyper-responsible oldest son. You want to smack him. But when he and the town’s senile, retired priest run off to Florida in the parish car, the moment is so unexpectedly perfect that you almost cheer the old guys on.
Then I remembered Newman’s performance as Frank Galvin in “The Verdict,” the washed-up alcoholic lawyer who takes on a loser of a case and then discovers that buried in the boxes of medical records is evidence of appalling hospital malpractice and a cover-up by the Catholic church. Galvin cleans up, dries up, falls down, falls off the wagon, and eventually redeems himself – and wins the case. Along the way, he’s seduced by a beautiful woman, sent to set him up and trick him up – and it almost works. A classic story that goes all the way back to David and Goliath.
Classic – or cliche? What makes the difference? Newman’s performances – and Russo’s writing – demonstrate that it’s the details that make the characters come alive. Russo’s Max Roby is a retired house painter, and he never had much use for the Catholic church that gave his wife comfort. His son Miles is combining penance and community service by painting the church for free – but he hates ladders and that peeling siding of that spire terrifies him. Max pokes and prods Miles about his fear of heights, not very nicely. But he knows that Miles has constrained his own life in part out of fear, and needs to push through it. The author doesn’t spell that out – it’s in the characterization. Eventually Miles does stand up to Max, he does go high up on the ladder, and he gains the courage he needs to pull off a pair of rebellious acts that enable him to save his daughter and change his own life. Small actions, tiny steps that lead inexorably to redemption – not of Max, who isn’t looking for it, but of Miles, who needs it to fully live his own life. The devil may be in the details, but so is the glory.
Newman described himself as a character actor who looked like a leading man. I think he meant that he liked to lose himself in the details and become someone else – he wasn’t always playing himself. As writers, we need to give our characters those same opportunities. What I particularly like about Empire Falls – and Russo’s latest novel, The Bridge of Sighs – is that most of the characters are ordinary people dealing with ordinary problems, but the writer is willing to go beneath the surface and explore each individual character’s particular thoughts, feelings, motivations, and reactions. To go beyond cliche. And that’s what makes a classic.