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Interview: Paul Newman biographer Shawn Levy

Posted on May 27, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Movie critic Shawn Levy, author of the superb books King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis and Rat Pack Confidential: Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter, Joey and the Last Great Show Biz Party, has a new book about one of the most accomplished and adored movie stars of all time, Paul Newman. He very kindly made time for an interview in the midst of his book tour.

Q: Newman was one of those rare performers who become icons of their eras. What was it about his style of acting and choices of scripts that seemed so particularly characteristic of the post-WWII years?

A: He often played younger than he really was, like many actors, but it was particularly his casting as the failed sons of strong fathers in such films as “The Rack,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Hud” and, in a sense, “The Long Hot Summer” and “The Hustler” that cemented him as an icon. He carried the sensitivity of James Dean into a new era when the promise of a film like “Rebel Without a Cause” bled into mainstream and prestige films. He easily segued into rebel/countercultural figures starting in the mid-’60s (“Harper,” “Hombre,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Butch Cassidy”). And because he was older than the characters he was playing (he was 38 when he made “Hud”), he also carried a savor of mature authority. He played, in short, equally well to both the establishment and the kids who threw mudballs at it.

Q: Is there a performance of Newman’s that you think is particularly overlooked or underrated?

A: His turn as the stage manager in the Broadway production of “Our Town,” which is available on DVD, is a classic bit of Americana. In movies, “Hombre” is tough and sullen and cool in a way you’d associate more with, oh, Steve McQueen than Newman. Both excellent films.

Q: What did he consider his biggest failing?

A: In acting, he felt he was too mechanical and calculating for the first 25 years or so of his career, and I think I’d agree. You see him pulling poses and striking moods quite deliberately even in such fine films as “The Hustler” and “Hud.” But later in life he ratcheted back and produced some astonishing performances. In life, I think he felt he was a very remote and arbitrary father until he reevaluated himself after the death of his son, Scott, in 1978.

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‘Night at the Museum 2’ Press Conference, Part 2

Posted on May 16, 2009 at 1:00 pm

IMG_7469-1.JPG More from the “NatM: Battle of the Smithsonian” press conference:
Ricky Gervais, creator and star of the original British version of The Office returns as the director of New York’s Museum of Natural History. He said that he loves to play an “awkward putz” and that “the most fun for a comedian is to play a man without a sense of humor.”
Robin Williams, who returns as Theodore Roosevelt, looked around the historic Smithsonian Castle and said he felt like he was at Michael Jackson’s garage sale. As expected, he kept up a running commentary on everyone else’s answers. Amy Adams answered a question about how her success had changed her life with a joke: “I’ve invested in shoes.” (She was wearing some very fetching Christian Louboutins.) Williams said, “Ah, the Imelda fund.” And he described co-star Hank Azaria’s muscular biceps: “He’s got guns that make Michelle Obama look like an anorexic.”
IMG_7472-1.JPGOwen Wilson answered my question about the special challenges of his role as the tiny-in-stature but big-hearted cowboy Jedediah. He shot most of his scenes in a separate set to make it look as though he was only a few inches tall. “I never saw Hank or Ben, but Coogan was there. Jed doesn’t see himself as a miniature little cowboy. He is larger than life. You never had to worry about Shawn saying, ‘Do less.'”
They were all big fans of the Smithsonian and the other Washington sights. Adams said the Lincoln Memorial, where she and Stiller have a conversation with the huge marble President was “just gorgeous” at night, with a full moon. And Levy said that he loved exploring the Air and Space Museum at night with Stiller, when they had it all to themselves.
Levy said his biggest challenge in making the film was not the effects but his talented cast, who improvised constantly. “Almost every day we would throw out a plan.” Co-screenwriter Garant talked about how much he and Lennon enjoyed bringing all of the historical characters to life. “All of the characters are such archetypes they represent a giant idea.” And so they were able to include a couple sweet “would have been nice” moments in the film that allowed real-life characters to have conversations and experiences that never happened, but should have, as when the Tuskeegee Airmen got to thank Amelia Earhart for helping pave the way for their own unprecedented achievements.
IMG_7524.JPGDirector Levy commented on the Castle setting, too. He said that it wasn’t until they toured the Smithsonian and saw the original building that he knew where the bad guys’ hide-out in the movie had to be located. “We were inspired by the Gothic moodiness of the Castle,” he said. And so, with life imitating art, the Castle now houses the huge pile of Smithsonian treasures that appear in the film as the loot stored there by Ivan the Terrible, Napoleon, and Al Capone. Does that chair on the top of the pile look familiar? It is the chair used by Archie Bunker on the classic television show, “All in the Family.” The one in the movie is a replica, of course. The original is on display in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, now with a special new plaque:
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