Among other types of essays and articles, I save obituaries and eulogies. That's because so many of the latter contain nuggets of wisdom or something thought provoking — a point that takes the reader to a new place.
NEW YORK magazine published three remembrances of Paul Newman, all of which are excellent. My favorite, though, is from fellow writer Richard Russo.
Russo wrote] when Paul’s character, Sully, and his son Peter are
sitting in a car. Sully’s trying to explain why he bailed out so early
in the boy’s life, about what an abusive father his own father was. In
the screenplay, Sully went on for about a page. Paul said, “We don’t
need all that.” I said, “How’s the viewer supposed to react to the past
if it’s not explicated?” He said, “I’ll know what to do.” So I cut it
at about half. I thought I’d done my job, until I saw it afterwards.
He’d cut it down to “He was a big man. Your mother was just a little
bit of a woman. And, boy, could he make her fly.” That was all that was
left, but with the camera pushing in on his face, all that history was
in that haunted look. Paul told me, “Don’t rob me of my memory. That’s
all I have. If you share my memory with the viewer, you’re stealing it
from me, and I’ve got to have that.”
the time, actors want more lines, juicier lines. Paul understood that
less was more. For him, the words were often so much less important
than the physicality, the gestures. He was a dream of a physical actor.
Even as he was just eating up the camera, he never showed the slightest
interest in eating the camera.
Maybe Mr Russo tells us this story for the same reason I like it so much. One of the first things you learn as a writer is to match your adoration for words with a ruthless ability to cut them. Russo was not only open to that necessity in the story he relates, he was open to hearing what Mr Newman could teach him.
There is much more here, too. The true professional retains his presence in the room not just by what he says but by what he doesn't say. One of the most distressing — and downright annoying — aspects of the new democratization of media is the amount of unedited, unfiltered drivel that gets passed around as insight. If we all apply the lesson taught by Paul Newman in this story, we will find the eloquence we crave.
Make sure to read the other two eulogies, by actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and director Sam Mendes, too. They are just terrific. And most rewarding for fans who always knew that the most attractive thing about Mr Newman's eyes were the thoughts behind them.