The Self-Styled Siren on the late Paul Newman and his "effortless" charm:
But the Siren is here to talk about Newman's acting, and to remind us that charm does not follow naturally from being handsome, nor does possessing that quality in life mean you can bring it to the screen. […] Newman seems to have been a wonderful man in real life, but that's irrelevant to his talent. The things he was able to bring to the screen came from his dedication to acting, not the Good Fairy Merryweather hovering over his cradle.
For further evidence, you don't have to sit in a dark room with Newman's entire filmography on disc. All you have to do is watch The Silver Chalice, his first movie, from 1954. It is neither, as Newman variously described it, the worst movie ever made, nor the worst movie made in the 1950s. It is bad, however. And Newman, as he would tell every interviewer for the rest of his life, is terrible. […] [W]hat leaps out at you is this: Newman isn't charming. […] He is anticharm, in the sense of antimatter. When Pier Angeli looks at him, it isn't with love, but with wonderment that this gorgeous man has the personality of a just-caught red snapper, with lifeless eyes (can you believe it?) and ungraceful movements.
Well, that was his first role. He was never that bad again. Two years later he took the part intended for James Dean in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Boxer Rocky Graziano was a well-loved figure, but many's the character beloved in real life who comes across far differently in a biopic. This is, after all, the story of a guy who starts out more familiar with jails and reformatories than schools, a member of the Greatest Generation who declines to contribute to the struggle, instead repeatedly going AWOL from the Army and eventually earning a dishonorable discharge for striking an officer. That this selfish, immature delinquent becomes quite lovable is due in part to a screenplay that takes care to show the roots of Graziano's behavior, but even more credit is due to Paul Newman. Some will take this as heresy, but the Siren doubts very much that the intense, fiery Dean would have been as sweetly tentative in the love scenes (again with Pier Angeli, looking as though she can't believe her costar's improvement) or as sympathetically big-lunkish when behaving badly.
What was he doing for the two years between roles? Some television, some theater, classes at the Actor's Studio. What flicked the switch? Hard work, definitely. Accretion of experience, I suppose, and perhaps the knowledge that the movie was a do-or-die second chance. Not to mention the fact that Graziano, a street tough who was about as close to the real-life Newman as Rosalynn Carter is to Sandra Bernard, was nevertheless a part far more suited to the actor's ineffably modern sensibility than some silly Greek slave. Somebody Up There Likes Me was the first inkling of Newman's unique talent for playing antiheros, an ability to burrow down into the lives of the small-time and hard-luck cases and find what could bring the audience to the character's side.