Most of the late, great Paul Newman's obituaries last September found room to mention the ad he took out apologizing for his big-screen debut in The Silver Chalice. In case that got you wondering how bad the damn thing could be, you're in luck. Though not exactly cause for celebration, this notorious 1954 turkey's inclusion in Warner Home Video's expedient (by and large, no extras) new "Paul Newman Film Series"—aka "We're Scraping The Vault, Since Most of his Worthwhile Filmography is Already Available”—does provide cause for wonder at what might have been. A couple more movies half as godawful, and Newman would've been lucky to end up as Troy Donahue.
With the exception of 1968's Rachel, Rachel—of which more later, as they say—none of the other titles exhumed here is likely to ring bells even for cine-heads. But with the exception of the all-star (Red Buttons! Alex Karras! James Franciscus, baby) 1980 disaster flick When Time Ran Out, whose title I decided to honor by hitting "Eject" the first time William Holden frowned worriedly, vault-scraping does have its rewards. Fans recall Newman as so reliably pleasurable that watching his rare missteps has some of the fascination of hearing an inept Beatles tune.
For one thing, I'm not sure I'd ever appreciated how acute his sense of the camera was in his mature years. The Silver Chalice is a crash course in what lacking any awareness of which of your fidgets will register onscreen can do to an actor. He's visibly got no idea how he's coming across, and at times the best way to tell him from a hat rack is that the hat rack would seem not only calmer but wilier.
In a remotely competent movie, Newman's gaucheness would stick out, but here it's just par for the course. At the time, American culture had a considerable thing for democratizing the New Testament with stories of invented people on the margins of Christ's life, including Thomas B. Costain's bestseller about a sculptor tasked with preserving one of the Last Supper's tchotchkes. Yet calling The Silver Chalice a poor man's The Robe doesn't do justice to its special brand of soporific lunacy.
As "Basil the Greek"—an ancient-world handle that unfortunately makes it sound like he's waiting for a slow boat from Assyria to bring back his cousin Herb the Fenugreek so they can open a spice shop—Newman's trapped amid gargantuan sets best described as Holy Land Bauhaus. The rest of the cast is so echt-Fifties oddball that Lorne Greene clodhopping around as St. Peter when the scene shifts to Rome rates barely a yawn. Natalie Wood is a platinum-blond Antioch (no, not the college, though you might be forgiven for thinking so) slave girl who grows up to be James Cagney's onetime White Heat costar, Virginia Mayo. Mayo's wicked-seductress eyebrows are hiked so high by the makeup man that they seem like suspension bridges for her double chin.
Fresh from Shane, Jack Palance plays a beehive-bonneted magician out to woo the faithful away from Christianity by setting himself up as the new miracle worker. That scheme's weak spot emerges once he mounts some sort of Tower of Bauhaus as a crowd presided over by Nero chants "Fly, Simon, fly!" Then Palance leaps, and—well, doesn't fly.
Newman learned what he was good at fast, though. Though still callow, he's already recognizable as "Paul Newman" in 1957's The Helen Morgan Story, a factually challenged but enjoyable bio of the Jazz Age songbird who starred in the original Show Boat before dying young of cirrhosis. Spared that fate, her pertly leaky screen stand-in, Ann Blyth, gets a testimonial dinner instead at the fadeout. Bring on the champagne!
As the heroine's no-goodnik lover/promoter, memorably described by another character as a guy who'd "shoot his own grandma in the back and lay bets on which way she's falling," Newman's taking one of his first cracks at the seductively cynical, fliply embittered persona—a smoother, sprucer Bogart for suburbanites—that defined what he brought to the party for the next decade, from The Long, Hot Summer through Hud and Cool Hand Luke. Because he was just about impossible to dislike, it was money in the bank once studio execs caught on we'd root for Mr. Blue Eyes to win that bet on his grandma.
Directed by Hud's Martin Ritt, 1964's forgotten The Outrage was one of Newman's (not to mention poor, dreary Ritt's) attempts to break the lucrative mold: an American remake of Rashomon, believe it or not, transposed to the Old West a good deal less winningly than its obvious box-office inspiration, The Magnificent Seven's reworking of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Though not quite a gaga classic of Silver Chalice caliber, the movie's another of its star's few abysmal performances. With his gift for insouciance, he was never too credible doing the kind of acting that strenuously announces itself as such—in this case, playing a Mexican bandit named Juan Carrasco who's accused of raping frantic Claire Bloom ("Ah have just been violated!") and murdering her dullard of a husband, Laurence Harvey. If only it had been the other way around, Harvey might have perked up and critics would have applauded.
Notice the sop to 1964 audiences in making the rapist non-Anglo, a racial ingredient not present in the original. Even so, Newman isn't just made up to resemble Toshiro Mifune in the Japanese version; he speaks in an approximation of Mifune's gravel-truck voice, which in combination with a surly Mexican accent may define adding insult to injury. But the whole cast is lamentable, from Edward G. Robinson in a hackneyed Greek-chorus part as a guffawing bunco artist to, so help me, William Shatner as a troubled young preacher. (Clearly not sure yet how much he can chew, Shatner looks panicked whenever another small bite of scenery ends up lodged in his windpipe.) Clinching the whole demonstration of would-be "distinguished" filmmaking gone wrong is an excess of fancy cinematography by the great James Wong Howe, who clearly had leeway from Ritt to prove he could be as mannered as anyone when he got bored.
Either The Outrage or The Silver Chalice will make your next party if you have friends good at MST3K backtalk. But the only movie in Warners' posthumous pinata whose appeal is untainted by camp is the aforementioned Rachel, Rachel, in which Newman doesn't appear. His first try at directing, it's a showcase for wife Joanne Woodward instead.
Not that this engaging study of a lovelorn, self-conscious schoolteacher who takes those broken wings and learns to fly hasn't dated. Too gentle if not unwittingly patronizing to even qualify as feminist, it was dated when it came out. But in spite of symbolism on the level of making the ruefully boxed-in heroine a mortician's daughter who still lives with her horror-show mother upstairs from Dad's old funeral home—not to mention Estelle Parsons playing a friendly, equally lonesome fellow teacher whose private torment won't come as news to most eight-year-olds—it hasn't dated badly.
Above all, Rachel stays individual. Whatever his limitations behind the camera—he had no creative fire, just an attractive desire to make a good job of it—Newman's basic decency and tact come out in his reluctance to oversell her small moments of truth as epiphanies for anybody but her. So far as Woodward goes, he was also making amends for his own greater fame. A smart man with terrific taste, he undoubtedly knew her acting went deeper than his did.
He was only the more talented movie star. The difference between them is that Newman couldn't be vulnerable without roguishly letting on that it might be a ploy—and Woodward, with her unnerving honesty, couldn't try out a ploy without showing us vulnerability. Give a loving husband credit for not only appreciating as much, but making her look as radiant as she ever did on film. Even though the glowing way Woodward's photographed doesn't quite suit the theme or her character, don't we all know how dull movies would be if everything in them had to be justified? Newman did. So did his fans, me included.