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Being Butch: Revisiting Paul Newman's definitive role

There’s a wonderful moment in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It comes relatively early in the film as the eminent cowboy Butch Cassidy returns to his Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, where the prospect of a knife-fight awaits him. Recognising that he can’t take Harvey Logan down by brute force, he distracts him with poetry before tackling his opponent. 

It’s played with effortless cool by Paul Newman, who uses his words before weapons, making it one of the trendiest performances of the late 1960s. His onscreen chemistry with Robert Redford is infectious, making a second collaboration one of the industry’s safest bets. And so it paid off, as The Sting brought the two men back together again for an as compelling film, albeit darker, than Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. 

But however admirable he was as Henry “Shaw” Gondorff, the role didn’t fit him as nicely as Butch Cassidy did. But then again, neither did Eddie Felson, a role he played twice: first for Robert Rossen in The Hustler, and then for Martin Scorsese in the gently lyrical The Color of Money. And then there’s Cool Hand Luke, a performance that many regard as the beginnings of Butch Cassidy. To his credit, Newman provided admirable performances in all of them, but none feel as complete as Butch Cassidy, a role that inhabits Newman as much as he inhabits it. 

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Only Sean Connery made another role so much his own in the 1960s, which might explain why the Edinburgh actor struggled to find meaningful work after breaking away from James Bond. But Newman was always a stronger actor than Connery, which meant he could never be typecast as Cassidy caricatures. Unlike Connery, it’s impossible to discern the flavour of his 1986 Oscar from a performance he committed to screen seventeen years earlier; such was the extent of his talent. 

And yet the role of Butch Cassidy still feels like one only Newman could play. It’s virtually impossible to imagine anyone else performing bike tricks with such a degree of casualness, safe in the knowledge that a maiden’s breasts await for him at the end of the jump. While Redford plays his character with heavy hammers and wiry steel, Newman holds a more lethargic approach to flirtation, capably shrugging off the threat of his competitor, even though they are both sleeping with the same woman. 

In the context of the 1960s, this type of louche dexterity was revolutionary in its outlook, as Newman’s cowboy prefers celibacy to the more instantaneous gratification of a quick, throwaway snog. There is no anger, fury, or frenzy when Cassidy approaches his opponent, but simply good wit. “You’re a romantic bastard,” he chuckles, avoiding the temptation to look back at the camera for a cheeky wink. 

But the steadfast love story is between the two men, one of them sharp on wit (Newman), the other on the blade (Redford). Naturally, there were dissenters who felt that the partnership bordered on the homoerotic, but it’s more so the picture of two men recognising the value in their companion. Director George Roy Hill certainly never intended it as anything grander than what an innocent viewer might find. “What about that Pauline Kael accusing me of emphasising male relationships with Redford and Newman?” he said. ”What am I supposed to do, stop the action in an action picture just to drag some women in?”

Redford recognised the importance of their collaborative efforts. “It was just that connection of playing those characters and the fun of it that really began the relationship,” Redford said. “And then once the film started, once we went forward, we then discovered other similarities that just multiplied over time, a common ground that we both had between us, interests and so forth, and differences.”

But no matter how well he comes across, Redford himself must have realised that Newman was the true star of the picture. Whether it’s speaking pidgin Spanish in a Bolivian bank or thrusting himself forward to fight off an army of soldiers, the performance is one of constant defiance, cemented by good humour and bravado. 

Newman died in 2008, which makes that final scene all the more devastating to watch, but the performance lives on in the hearts of artists who have followed Newman. Although he has yet to admit it in public, I have no doubt that Matt Berry had Cassidy’s death in mind when he wrote the final episode of Toast of Tinseltown. I also suspect Daniel Craig, who worked with Newman on the underwhelming Road to Perdition, modelled his incarnation of Bond on Butch Cassidy. 

In the hands of a lesser actor, the death scene might hold some pathos, but it wouldn’t hold the towering effect that it has, but for Newman’s unflappable portrait. There’s not an ounce of ego, only sorrow as he pushes himself onto the one force that could bring down a legend. And with the thrust of a gunshot, it is ended. 

No quips, no cycle jumps — just sheer broken nerves. It’s rare that a family movie should allow someone so much space to show their emotions, least of all a Western, but Newman delivers one of the steeliest performances in a script that didn’t necessarily entertain such a calibre of work. And although he didn’t win an Oscar for the performance, it is the one that he is best known for. As well it should be, and well it should remain.