It's an unfortunate coincidence that I happened to watch Cool Hand Luke for the first time just after hearing of Paul Newman's death. When you witness a remarkable performance by any artist, you immediately want to seek out more from that artist. Newman leaves behind a remarkable legacy on film, and yet, his death means that we'll never get just one more performance from him.
Then again, we'd probably been at that point for a while; his last major on-screen role was as a chilling mobster in 2002's The Road to Perdition. Reading about him in Entertainment Weekly's tribute issue, you realize just how little he worked throughout the last few decades. It sure seems as though he learned how to make the most of the ultimate star luxury–being able to pick your roles carefully, instead of letting your audience or your industry pick them for you.
After Cool Hand Luke, I imagine there was a lot of pressure on Newman to play more of that kind of role–the quiet defiant rebel, taking the piss out of society at every turn and seeking a freedom of purpose that's not really possible in the modern world. As far as I know via my limited grasp of film history, he never repeated himself in that way.
As a performance by Newman, Cool Hand Luke may very well live forever; as a movie, it's a product of its time. Released in 1967, the film lathers on the Christ allegory pretty thick, even depicting Luke posed on a table as though on a crucifix. Yet along with the Christ allegory comes a spirit of rebellion and nonconformity that must have struck a certain percentage of the film's audience as reflecting their own philosophies. Cool Hand Luke hit theaters in the heart of the sixties revolution, and takes a story of a defiant prisoner in a chain gang and infuses it with the spirit of free will and disrespect for authority that defined the popular culture of that era.
It's of its time, and I don't know if it ever rises above that status. As I watched, I couldn't help but think of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, another book adapted into a film that seems to reflect the worldview of the sixties counterculture. In both stories, the central figures of rebellion are cyphers to a degree, and that's what makes Newman's performance so remarkable; based on the dialogue and action, it's hard to imagine much of the details in his work appearing on the page.
He fills Luke with everything, and yet with not much at all; in his obituary for Newman, Roger Ebert pulls the perfect line from Cool Hand Luke, spoken by Dragline (George Kennedy) in reference to Newman's character: "You wild, beautiful thing. You crazy handful of nothin'." Newman's Luke truly is a "crazy handful of nothin'," in the sense that we never really get much beyond his veneer of rebellion and attitude. Luke's response to that comment, "Sometimes, nothing can be a really cool hand," speaks volumes too; there's something unmistakably cool about Luke, and Newman himself.
But it's hard to imagine exactly what Luke's rebelling against, not that he needs a reason. Maybe his quest for a reason is what does him in; there's a scene near the film's end set in an abandoned church, where Luke pleads with God to somehow, someway, justify the directions his life has taken: "You made me like I am. Now just where am I supposed to fit in?" Luke never really finds out, and neither do we.
Sometimes, nothing is a pretty cool hand. At the right moment, a blank canvas can be potent art by itself; devoid of image and meaning, it's not just what it is, but whatever you want it to be. That's Cool Hand Luke, for better or worse, and for creating that blank canvas, Newman will justly be remembered for many years to come.Powered by Sidelines