Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (1967)

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Paul Newman received his fourth Oscar nomination for playing “Cool Hand Luke”.

Cool Hand Luke is a great film – it deserved a best picture nomination, in my opinion. It started slow, but grabbed my attention as it progressed and it really captured the harsh and brutal conditions of the prison farm. George Kennedy won best supporting actor for a really good performance, but it’s not one of those Oscar-winning turns that don’t scream brilliant to me.

I may have mentioned this before, but I consider Paul Newman one of the greatest movie stars that ever lived – he had everything, good looks, charisma but most importantly, enormous acting abilities. Seriously, I think the guy could hit emotional intensities that I have never seen an other actors achieved.

Newman has a reputation playing charming rascals during the 60s, but his brilliant characterization skills allows him to know his characters inside out, and he manages to shape them to their own unique characteristics, never making his performances repetitive. I guess that’s why he manages to differentiate his work here so well from Hud and The Hustler – these characters may be “troubled” rascals, but the root cause of their problems differ.

The first thing I noticed about Newman’s performance is how quiet it is. He doesn’t have a lot of lines, but his presence alone explains a lot about the character and his motivations. We don’t know much about Luke and his background, and he is constantly a mystery throughout the film. In a way, Luke is an almost symbolic figure in the film, representing hope and freedom for the other prisoners. Newman fulfils this role brilliantly – his presence, reticence and “give no shits” demeanor never feels forced, mainly because of how Newman fits the role like a glove.

What is so brilliant about Newman’s performance is how he makes Luke such a complex and layered character even though the script doesn’t offer him any opportunities to do so. Even though we don’t know much about Luke’s background, we can get the sense that he is depressed and has given up on life. Newman always explores this aspect differently, be it when he eats 50 eggs,or bets his money away on his losing hand – it’s all fascinating and saddening to watch, even if it’s not overtly so.

When Luke goes on a downwards spiral following his mother’s death, Newman’s performance becomes devastating. It’s amazing how he manages to convey the emotions with so little, but you can see from his overall demeanor that the man has changed drastically.When he cries while singing, or when he finally broke after being abused by the guards, or his final monologue in the church, it’s utterly fantastic. Newman always draws you in, making you fascinated with the character’s state of mind. 5/5.

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