A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
So proclaimed the fictional character Lucas Jackson - better known to us as Cool Hand Luke.
In my mind's eye I see Paul Newman barking out that line, delivered with a visage that was half grin and half smirk. His face was sardonic, sarcastic, challenging, and joyful all at the same time. It was acting in the greatest sense of the word; an indisputable talent that held the power to move us. Those five words and that one look defined the character of Cool Hand Luke.
I was saddened yesterday to learn of the death of Paul Newman; Academy Award winning actor, race-car driver, businessman, entreprenneur, and husband. Working in an industry populated by the world's most desirable women, he could have had any one of them with little more than a nod. Despite this, he lived in lifelong fidelity to the wife of his youth; his marriage to Joann Woodward a marital lighthouse to an industry of foundered vessels. I was further saddened to think it has been forty-one years since the release of Cool Hand Luke. Where did THOSE years go?
Paul Newman was huge. He possessed what the actors and actresses of Hollywood's Golden Era had - presence, charisma, size. Does anyone believe any of today's "A-list" leading men, while perhaps matching Newman's striking looks, could even THINK about pulling off a role like the Cool Hand? Russell Crowe - perhaps. Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, or George Clooney - please. Newman practiced his craft at a time when Hollywood had left behind its Golden Age and was transitioning to the modern world of American entertainment. "Cool" is something we can't really define, but know it when we see it. Newman had it, and along with Steve McQueen, epitomized Hollywood cool in this era.
He appeared in over seventy films, with Hud, The Verdict, Slap Shot, and Absence of Malice listed as my favorites. But I believe his defining work, a film that has entered into the iconoclastic halls of our popular culture, is Cool Hand Luke.
It was remarkable on many levels. Directed by Stuart Rosenburg, it had an incredible number of actors who used it as a springboard to roles in film or television, like George Kennedy, Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, JD Cannon, Harry Dean Stanton, Joe Don Baker, Ralph Waite, and others. It firmly cemented the prison film as a major genre in Hollywood. Lastly, it was a pivot point for leading-men roles, as it entrenched the concept of the "anti-hero" in American cinema and popular culture.
The title of this piece is taken from what I believe to be the foundational scene of the movie. It comes just past the the film's half-way point, where Luke had become a cult figure in the prison and was locked in mortal combat with the warden over his refusal to "get his mind right", to conform to the "Boss". His fellow prisoners clearly began to look at him as a savior figure, and Luke was pressured to achieve increasingly outrageous acts in order to hold their rapt attention. So while lazily reclined on his cot, he issued this challenge, which immediately became the subject of furious prison wagering. His first lieutenant George Kennedy (Dragline), said, "Luke - no one can eat fifty eggs" - and the bet was on.
The scenes of Newman eating the eggs (in one hour) ranged from hilarious to wrenching. The scene of him at the end of the gluttonous fest, arms outstretched on the table, abdomen distended and feet together, was an unmistakable caricature of crucifixion, and a clear foreshadowing of Luke's ultimate sacrifical death to free the men.
So many scenes and so many lines from that film remain ensconsced in our minds and our daily parlance, and none more so than the infamous, "What we have here is a failure to communicate".
It is a tremendous film, full or heartbreak, humor, and humanity; revealed to us by a great actor at the height of his craft.
Watch it again, or for the first time.
And tip your hat to a Hollywood legend as you do so..