I'm 21 years old. I shouldn't be in love with Paul Newman.
Heck, I should just barely know who he is. He should be one of those legends to me who, until recently, was living in well-deserved quietness. He should have been one of those actors that my parents raved about, saying, "They don't make movie stars like him anymore," and I would shake my head and go rent the latest Will Farrell movie. He should have been so far off my radar that when he died in September 2008, I should have furrowed my brow and said, "He looks familiar," before turning the page of the Life section to read about what Amy Adams wore to the latest premiere.
Instead, I lived that day in a sort of a haze. On the 25th of September, I watched The Sting with a group of friends. On the 26th, I woke to find Paul was gone.
I blame one person for my pain. Mr. Charbonneau Gourde, high school English teacher. One of the hardest and most fair teachers I've ever had, prone to go on rants and to dismiss whiners. After our class took the AP Language test in my Junior year, he allowed us to watch classic movies for the rest of the year - movies that he said we needed to see. Unfortunately, we often had to write papers in response, not any high schooler's idea of fun.
In that classroom, I saw Paul for the first time: eating eggs, holding up trains, robbing those who deserved it with those sparkling blue eyes and trademark smirk. I was smitten. At a time when Justin Timberlake or Chad Michael Murray decorated the binders of my classmates, I scoured the Internet for black and white pictures of Paul: Paul with Robert, Paul with George C. Scott, Paul with Goerge Roy Hill, Paul with Joanne. Paul in a race car, Paul with children from Hole-in-the-Wall Camp, Paul picketing. Paul.
It wasn't just his clear blue eyes and sharp jaw that caught my eye. It was his dry wit, the intelligence in his eyes, the trademark voice that got scratchier as the years passed. It was his organic salad dressing that wanted to make food and this earth healthier in all ways. It was his roles as the tortured soul with a smile on his face, the cynic, the cocky broken son. His ability to make waves, to make jokes, to make enemies. His desire for the joy of sick children. His lack of care for his image as the years went on. His love for Joanne, 50 years strong, as strong at the end as the beginning.
I'm not naive; I know the man had faults. I don't agree with all that he argued for and against. I don't agree with some of what he said or did, or how he said or did things. But I loved him for what he was: himself, as far as I could tell. He died at 83, an old man, a full life.
So I'm watching his movies. All of them, if I can. Starting with the common ones, going to the uncommon ones. His best movies, his worst. Ones where he's charming, ones where he's despicable. I don't know what I'll learn, who I'll find, if I'll see myself in them. I know most likely, he chose them for a reason, especially at the end of his life when he had the luxury to do so. Maybe I'll find out why.
I like to name things. And so I'm calling this the Paul Newman Project. It sounds so official, like the Wade Robson Project or the Human Genome Project. It gives this simple whim an air of purpose, of reason, of import.
The Paul Newman Project: Walking Through 52 Years of Movies
Let's go, shall we?