28 September 2008

Paul Newman talks like e.e. cummings typed.

He starts slow, dawdles, draws out his thought, twinkles, but he knows how to get the most from a simple handful of words. Even if "Where The Money Is" wasn't the amiable, modest heist caper-character comedy that it is, you'd want to see it for one fine reason: Newman, princely yet also a kind of everyman. At 75, he still possesses unintimidating good looks and his serene self-confidence, whether on screen or across the table from you, seems limitless.

In "Where the Money Is," Newman plays Henry, a famous bank robber who's had a stroke. When he's transferred to a nursing home where disaffected former prom queen Carol (Linda Fiorentino) works, his ruse is soon found out: he's only playing possum, much like Carol and husband Wayne (Dermot Mulroney) have in their small town lives. A low-key caper ensues, but it's the by-play among the three that make Marek Kanievska's film the small, solid charmer that it is.

On a sunny Sunday morning, Newman enters the room with cup and saucer, glasses and sunglasses tucked into the V of his sweater. "How was the movie? Did people get up and go for coffee?" He settles into a chair with a smile.

Because he doesn't work as often as he used to, I wondered why this script (co-written by "Something Wild"'s E. Max Frye) clicked for him. "Well, larceny is always a very attractive and wonderful thing to play," he says. "The hustle is always attractive as well. I like the fact that the actors had to carry the film and not the special effects guys. We didn't mutilate any children, there wasn't any blood, no one got shot, no one got killed, nobody got stabbed, there wasn't any profanity in the film and it's still, I think, funny and suspenseful. That's unusual today."

The movie keeps the older man-younger woman dynamic at a low boil. Was that important? "There should be the promise of something down the pike." He grins.

Linda Fiorentino has said that she was charmed to work with Newman each day, and if he weren't happily married, she would be happy to be his lover even if he were in his nineties or hundreds. "Holy smoke! What a compliment."

Does that kind of sex symbol talk still make him roll his eyes? "I ain't talkin'." He grins. "When you're making a film that's really cookin', it's really a community affair. If it's working well, it's like a family. It works best if there are no restraints, if it's a group that is beyond criticism. Where exploration can go any place and in any direction. So there are a lot of free-floating ideas out there." So personal chemistry plays a part of that? "Sure. That exists with all the actors and actresses. If it's not there, the film's not gonna work."

Even with his stature, Newman finds it difficult to find challenging material at his age. "Well, it's a young person's business. It's very dry out there for us older antiques. But who knows what's around the corner?" Rather than working on a regular basis, he says, "I'd like to find a film I could bow out on."

What kind of film would that be? "I don't know. Anything that had some serious aspiration to it, some exploration of the human experience."

Why? "Because it's time."

To stop? "Yeah."

Why? "Because I don't want to go out on my knees."

Do you feel like you have a body of work that needs a coda? "No. I just think if you're gonna have a swan song, it might as well be a pretty melody." Worry about a legacy? "It's out there. It's gonna be whatever it is."

"Money" wouldn't be that film, would it? "I think there are a lot of good scenes in it," he says, adding, "I don't break a film down into scenes, I just look at the whole thing and figure out if it works or not." So you're analytical? "I used to be very analytical. I'd go through the day like I was an emotional Republican. But since I've become more liberal emotionally, I don't have that problem. I go much more quickly to where I want to get."

Newman's Own products have, since 1982, given tens of millions of dollars to charity. "I never expected it to outgross my films. It's a constant surprise. I'm puzzled by the fact that I went into the theater because I could not find the romance in business, which is what I would have done in Cleveland. Thirty years later, to go back into that business world and discover there is wonderful allure and romance to the selling and marketing of product, including the cutthroat aspect." So you get off on the dynamics as well as the charity? "It's nice to be on people's radar now. I can only say if someone had told me twenty years ago I'd have my face on a bottle of salad dressing, I could have gotten them committed. But it's turned out in a way we never, ever, ever expected to."

He's still racing cars as well. Do accidents give him pause? "Oh, I think if you think about that, there's no sense getting in the car."