In 1986, when Paul Newman finally won an Oscar as best actor, there was some grumbling. It's not so much that people begrudged him the honor. It's just that some people thought he didn't deserve to win for a performance in The Color of Money that was basically a reprise of what he'd already done, and done better, in The Hustler. The scuttlebutt was that the Academy voters were really giving Newman a Lifetime Achievement Award -- honoring him for his Butch Cassidy, his Cool Hand Luke, his Hud -- in the guise of a Best Actor statue. In 1986, after all, Newman had already hit 60, and how many leading-man roles could he have left ahead of him?
Well, Nobody's Fool shows he had at least one, and it's a great one. As a result, this year, Newman, soon to be 70, will likely win his second Best Actor Oscar, and it's also likely that this time around there won't be any grumbling. Here's how good Newman's depiction of Sully, the affable washout at the center of Nobody's Fool is: he makes this 60-year-old agreeable failure with a bum knee, the occasional off-the-books construction job and his former grade-school teacher as his landlady so leveled-out, so ingrained in his trappings, that you don't even notice how good-looking he is. You don't wonder how someone so handsome could have ended up not amounting to much because Newman bases the character on inner essence, not outward appearance. We're attracted to him because of his easy charm, not because he's easy on the eyes.
This easy appeal is particularly effective since the film, set in the snowy, blue-collar hamlet of North Bath in upstate New York, is a nearly plotless slice-of-life about Sully and the people who rely on him. Based on Richard Russo's novel of the same name, and unfolding with deceptive nonchalance, the movie depicts small moments in a small town, some of which are comic, some touching, some awkward, some profound. And the touchstone of them all is Sully. "Hang in there," Sully advises a friend. "That's the sum of my wisdom on most subjects." It's good advice, and something that Newman, as well as the film, adheres to.
First among Sully's circle is his landlady, Miss Beryl (Jessica Tandy), the one person who calls him by his given name, Donald Sullivan. "Hasn't it bothered you that you haven't done more with the life God gave you?" she asks at one point, and Sully, flashing an effortless smile, replies, "Now and then." When she asks Sully to explain why he keeps betting the same losing trifecta numbers and he responds that one day the odds have to improve, she turns the tables by grinning and saying, "That's exactly how I feel about you." Their relationship is one of singular affection, and Tandy is outstanding, spirited without being cute and affecting without being sentimental. If Tandy wasn't able to act one of her final roles with her husband, Hume Cronyn, it's nice that Newman was available as a second, so comfortably do the two fit.
Also in the mix is Carl Roebuck (Bruce Willis), the construction boss who sometimes gives Sully work but at all times owes him back pay. They trade barbs (which means that Willis' smirky-guy persona works) and use such mundane items as a snow blower to feud over so they can spar without really meaning it. One reason Carl is able to welsh on Sully is that Sully's lawyer, Wirf (Gene Saks), always loses his cases, so much so that Sully, coming in late to an episode of The People's Court on TV, automatically bets against Wirf on the outcome -- and, of course, wins. Another inadvertent loser is Miss Beryl's son, Clive (Josef Sommer), the town banker, who advises investment in a doomed venture to make Main Street the future home of the Ultimate Escape Theme Park. Yet one more member of Sully's circle is his less than bright coworker Rub (a very endearing Pruitt Taylor Vince), a man more faithful than he is useful.
A few other characters don't work so well, among them Sully's estranged son, Peter (Dylan Walsh). One day when Sully is hitchhiking, Peter picks him up, and in their scenes together the movie begins to stall. Peter has just been fired as a college English instructor and has driven home with his family to spend Thanksgiving with Sully's ex-wife, the difficult Vera (Elizabeth Wilson). But every exchange Peter has with Sully smacks of pseudo-psychology about resentment and abandonment rather than anything true about sons and absent fathers.
Still, even here there are some satisfactions. Sully takes to his young grandson, and it's lovely to watch him offhandedly ask the child, "Want to drive?" and then lift him onto his lap so that the tyke can steer his old red pickup. In that scene, and in one where Sully explains to the timid boy that a gift of a stopwatch is "so that you can tell how long you've been brave," we see the casual charm that makes Sully -- and Paul Newman -- so beloved.
For the most part, writer/director Robert Benton directs his movie as insightfully as his star performs. One small example can be seen in how the movie opens and closes. In the opening scene, Sully, sitting in a living room chair to put on his work boots early one morning, calls to Miss Beryl, "Still alive in there, old lady? Didn't die in your sleep, did you?" In the closing scene, Sully, asleep in the same chair and wearing the same work boots in that same chair after a tough day, is awakened by Miss Beryl offering him a cup of tea. He wonders why, since he's always previously refused. She replies that it's her hope that he might change his mind. And Sully, who's literally, but not figuratively, back where he began, is dumbfounded, but pleasantly so. The sensation is one the audience is likely to share.
Directed by Robert Benton. With Paul Newman, Jessica Tandy and Bruce Willis.
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