“You make a bad enough mistake, you gotta deal with the Man.”

This ticket booth of mine has paid respect to many classic films, and I’ve certainly fawned over the amazing women of the silver, black, and white screen. Reality, in all her harshness, points out that I have overlooked some of Hollywood’s equally bewitching fellas. Undeniable is my love for Garbo, Garland, Davis, and of course Hepburn; a few times I’ve tipped my hat to Bogie and Tracy (and then wrote about theirs), but when it comes to these talented actors, I must apologize for the inexcusable neglect. Impertinent pens notwithstanding, trust me there’s been no failure to communicate on my part . . . especially with Mr. Paul Newman. I assume that for most of us, rarely is there a character of his with whom we don’t fall in love; Luke Jackson, however, really snaps the head off my parking meter.

Based on the novel by Donn Pearce (who had firsthand experience with chain gangs due to unsuccessful livelihood as a burglar), Cool Hand Luke follows its title character through his two-year stay at a Florida prison camp in the 1940s. The film opens with Luke stumbling around a small town in the middle of the night, beheading the streets’ parking meters with all the charm and grace of a dashing drunk. There’s an early strip of Bill Watterson’s comic Calvin and Hobbes with a smiling Calvin shown hammering nails into the family’s coffee table. His mother comes running in and screams (in bold, capital letters) “Calvin! What are you doing to the coffee table?!?” He looks down at his unfinished project, puzzles over Mom’s question for a moment, and replies “Is this some sort of trick question, or what?” When the arresting officers find Luke leaning up against one of his decapitated meters, the scene freezes on his adorable smile, and softly in the background I can hear Calvin hammering away. With that smile, my friends, the lifelong list of anti-authority heroes continues to grow.

As expected, Luke doesn’t take kindly to orders, despite the fact that he’s revealed to be a decorated veteran of World War II. Much to the surprise of his prison captain (the communicative, Truman Capote-voiced Strother Martin), Luke admits he was “just passin’ time” in the war, with an apathetic tone that echoes that of Benjamin Braddock. He’s nearly beaten to death in a boxing match with another inmate (George Kennedy in an Oscar-winning role), but after an eye-opening visit (and tear-jerking scene) from his mother, Luke’s attitude adjusts slightly. When they reflect briefly on a girl Luke was going to marry, his mother recalls her son’s demeanor during that time: “Tryin’ to be respectable . . . you was borin’ the hell out of all of us!” You knew I had to sneak her in somewhere — rumor has it that Bette Davis was offered the role of Luke’s mother but turned it down since it was hardly the “above-the-title” part to which she had grown accustomed. Now and again a movie makes its way to the “favorites” shelf not for the name above the title but for the sprinkling or two of unforgettable minor characters. Ultimately the role of Luke’s mother went to Jo Van Fleet, and willingly I allow her to break my heart every time.


At one point or another, the few people to whom I’ve introduced Luke made the same remark: “Oh that’s where that’s from!” Yes indeed this where Paul Newman assures us that he can eat 50 hard-boiled eggs in less than one hour. Far be it from me to ruin the outcome, but I will say that Mr. Newman was one of those incredibly well-built guys whose stomach muscles could expand and provide an authentic bloated look . . . that man remained gorgeous in any shape! In addition to a musical score that was partially used later by ABC ‘s Eyewitness News, the film also houses the notorious line, “What we’ve got here is . . . failure to communicate.” As the Napoleon-completed Captain, Strother Martin nails this “warden” role — just the kind of authority figure whose eyes you’d love to scratch out with your dirty fingernails. Leave it to Paul Newman to give us two versions of a single famous line — later in the film the famous line is delivered again, but this time by Luke who adds an “a” before the word “failure.” I guarantee that someday you’ll overhear an argument about this line, so consider yourself armed — you could stop a bar fight! Oh dear me, and then we come to “Lucille.”

While our beloved, shirtless men are working on the side of the road and half-dead from the Florida heat, out comes this buxom blonde in a dress believed to be held together by a single safety-pin. Barely yards away from the lonely, lustful men, she begins to wash her car, and George Kennedy’s character swears that “anything so innocent and built like that just gotta be named ‘Lucille.'” That name conjures up more of a grape-stomping, Nick at Nite image for me, but why deny a man his fantasy? Sullying everything from the hose to the sponge, Lucille creates a scene that I’m sure remains in the minds of girl-crazy audiences forever. The late 1960s were almost in full swing, and sexuality getting ready to burst out of its shameful hiding spots . . . and out of Lucille’s dress. But that safety-pin held it together, and once again I found myself smiling at what a film can allude to without actually showing. For our Savioring censors, I imagine this scene was of greater concern than the boxing scene when Luke is nearly beaten to death. Intriguing are the minds of our world’s decision makers!

Bombarded with overqualified, taboo busting suitors in every direction, 1968 was not an easy year for Oscar. And not just the men, mind you, but the women of ’68 put forth an equally impossible decision for Oscar and whom he’d be going home with that evening. In a single year, Bonnie, Clyde, and a recent college Graduate refused to enter the adult world of Depressions and Mrs. Robinson, while Hepburn, Tracy, Sidney Poitier, and Rod Steiger set a dinner table for a heated night devoted to intense racial issues. Oh yes, and then there was Doctor Dolittle.

With a film on practically every major issue of the late 1960s, the Academy Awards were divided up somewhat equally, with every major film receiving at least one gold statue. Rod Steiger was honored with Best Actor in a Leading Role for In the Heat of the Night, which was also named Best Picture, but had I a voter’s ballot that year, neither of those would have been checked. An amazing and important film, yes, but I’m fairly sure it would have been my first choice on the preposterously talented list. Somehow the Academy neglected to put Cool Hand Luke in the race for Best Picture, and if it were up to me, for that they’d spend a night in the box.

Academy Award for Cool Hand Luke (1968): Best Actor in a Supporting Role (George Kennedy)

Add it to your queue.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s