Me and Paul Newman

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Posted by pancho from ? ( on Thursday, April 25, 2002 at 9:26PM :

I can think of two major influences in my life that involved sculpture, though by themselves they didn't do anything for me at the time except register somewhere in what passes for an adolescent's mind.

First incident happened in Ann Arbor Michigan around 1959 while I was a Stupid at Tappan Junior High School. At lunchtime they used to show movies when the glaciers made playing outside impossible. The one that stood out in my mind then, and years later, was about an old blind sculptor. They showed him in his studio doing a portrait of a pretty looking model. He'd run his hands all along her face, pausing here and there, going back, lingering, probing...then working on the clay. My pimply self couldn't help but notice there were full nude statues of young women, and only young women...all around his studio. I don't think it meant much at the time...but later I thought, that sly fox. That didn't make me want to be a sculptor, though I did want to run my hands all over a model... and got my chance soon enough.

The other incident actually happened a few years earlier in Kuwait. There was a Tennis Club for the British, they always had one, where we could get in the front door and see first run movies. In 1956 Paul Newman was in a dog of a film called The Silver Chalice, in which he played an achingly beautiful young Greek slave who happens to be a good sculptor too. The story is about St. Paul or one of the boys, who is old and decrepit he was coherent before then...who buys or rents Paul to make small portraits of Christ's disciples before they all get barbecued in Rome. They rush around Utah looking for survivors and just happening to run into Virginia Mayo who is about as good as she should be...and all of them wind up in Rome, just barely in time to get a likeness of the last Disciple before the Romans wring his neck.

This brings us down to the "Big One"...Jesus himself...and 'Ol Paul, gorgeous blue eyes, cocktail dress and all, says he can't sculpt someone he's never seen. At that point the last fellow who'd seen Christ starts to go blind and we end with Virginia almost naked...and Paul standing in bewilderment in front of a lump of clay on a pedestal...looking stage left for a vision or a way back to the Village...or any place else but in that movie.

Night falls and so does Paul, onto his knees (at that point you know he's gonna convert) and looks straight up at the ceiling for inspiration...a light bulb comes on somewhere we can't see, casting 6000 watts of Heaven onto Paul who sets to work immediately...with that far way look Actors get when they haven't worked in a long time. All the time he digs and gouges he never looks at the clay...just keeps staring up to about where they're dangling the paycheck.

Fade to morning and the Tabernacle Choir has arrived by bus to greet the dawn with that inhuman warbling and shreiking that we're supposed to look forward to for an eternity...the sun rises and bathes everything in blood orange while Virginia Mayo...God did we want to HOLD THAT MAYO!writhes in unfulfilled twitches. Paul meanwhile has collapsed at the foot of the pedestal and from that moment on we never see what he stayed up all night doing...though by the look on Virginia's face...a blind sculptor he ain't.

Either the last Old Christian gets his sight back as a miracle, or I couldn't take my eyes off of Virginia and only thought he must have been blind not to notice...all of a sudden he sees what Paul has done in the night. He comes over, all Holy like and trembling...Virginia still stare in mute wonder at what Paul has done in the night...and Virginia is about as pissed as she can be because of what he didn't do.

Paul meanwhile collects himself and rises stiff and Virginia writhes some join the Old Christian in gazing at what he's if he'd been in a trance from which he only just awakened. By then I've lost interest in Virginia and figure Christ must have been one fine looking fella so my attention too focuses on what I can't see except in the reflected "passion" of Paul's blue eyes and the Old Christian. Virginia in the distance you see shadows of Christians being led to slaughter marching like ghosts along the wall of the marble palace they spent the night in. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir screams itself into hysterics...the music rises...Paul looks like he's seen Christ and the Choir falls off the podium.

When I was in New York in 1977, they released a new print of The Silver Chalice. Paul Newman took out a full page add in the New York Times and apologized to everyone for ever having been in that film...said it was the last time he would consent to act in a up the part of Ben Hur to Charleton Heston.

I always wanted to write to Paul and tell him not to feel too badly...that at least one kid who saw the movie had been moved without knowing it by the vision of a sculptor so enraptured, so captivated that he didn't even have to look at something tangible to make a portrait...just "felt" it the blind old sculptor...who could have done Christ AND Virginia in one night easily.

Of course I never wrote the letter...never told him that years later in my tractor shed of a studio in St Helena I had found myself in exactly the same attitude...trying to conjure up an image of what Hamlet or Lady Macbeth or Coriolanus COULD have looked I'd been startled by a memory rush of that black and white film and Paul staring up at "Jesus"...when he was in him all along.

I wanted to console him a little, he seemed to take it so hard that he'd had a part in that film all those years before. It seems it really is possible to be that moved, that you see inside of yourself...what can't possibly exist outside.

-- pancho
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