Paul Newman was a very handsome young man and a theater kid, so he spent the ’60s getting Oscar nominations for playing maladjusted ne’er-do-wells in moralistic social dramas, rebelling against middle-class America, and also looking cool. You know the pictures: The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, among many others. What luxury, to complain about the state of society all the way to the top of the celebrity pyramid!
By the time he became an old man, Newman had changed considerably. He still had a twinkle in his eye and a boyish rebelliousness, but the cruelty typical of youthful passions was replaced by a certain resignation, a humanity obvious in his comic touch—he became a better actor, too. America still loved him, but now he turned his attention to America with an eye to forbearance and even forgiveness.
Newman’s best work in that period came when he was about to turn 70, and it’s my recommendation for Thanksgiving viewing: Nobody’s Fool (1994), which got him one of his late Oscar nominations. Robert Benton, who had won three Oscars in the ’80s for writing and directing Kramer v. Kramer and Places in the Heart, made Nobody’s Fool from a 1993 Richard Russo novel about the problems of a Rust Belt town in upstate New York—and got another Oscar nomination. Russo later won the Pulitzer for another novel, Empire Falls, also about a post-industrial small town, but in New England, and the antics that enliven the place.
Nobody’s Fool is all about Newman’s Donald "Sully" Sullivan, a construction freelancer in North Bath, upstate New York, a small town reeling from a generation of deindustrialization. Sully is a loveable rogue, but he embodies the anger of the town; indeed, he seems to have a problem with everyone around. He’s suing his former boss, local contractor Carl Roebuck (Bruce Willis in a hilarious turn as a self-satisfied scoundrel). Sully also flirts with Carl’s wife Toby (Melanie Griffith) and steals his snow blower as payback. He’s angry with his one-legged lawyer, too, who can’t win him his back wages or at least disability; he hurt his leg, he claims, working, but workers’ rights are out, I guess. North Bath is a small town, however, so they still all meet regularly for poker night—you have to get along with people.
Sully’s also inexplicably angry with his landlady, Miss Beryl (Jessica Tandy, who died soon after production completed). She’s his eighth grade schoolteacher and accordingly embodies the old Puritan virtues. That’s slightly comic, but also admirable, because those virtues survived so much personal and perhaps national disappointment, unhappiness, and failure. Sully’s just like us—he doesn’t like being judged and found wanting, but he’s a lot worse off than most of us. Then there are lots of other small, funny quarrels that complicate the lives of the townspeople, from his younger friend and coworker Rub (Pruitt Taylor Vince) to the local overbearing officer, Raymer (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in another comical bit of overacting).
Sully, by the way, is not just a failure at work, but also at home, or would be if he had a home. He left his wife and son (a lovable Dylan Walsh, as soft and hesitant as Newman is rough and ready); she remarried, he went off to college and is now coming back for Thanksgiving, with his own wife and kid, his own family falling apart, since he lost his teaching job. This is why we have a story, a chance at redemption.
Thanksgiving is a very American holiday, a family holiday, but people don’t go to church much these days, so it’s not exactly about faith. It’s easier to see Thanksgiving clearly if you look at a character like Sully, who seems to have nothing for which to give thanks, being a loser. That’s what Nobody’s Fool is all about. Sully gets a second chance, to grow old by becoming a grandfather and a father and putting aside his suffering. All his anger turns to comedy, and he even learns to laugh at himself a little. His small success is also America’s success; it’s somehow about learning to deal with disappointment.
Newman makes the quaintness as well as the suffering of North Bath come to life. What starts as a caricature of Tocqueville’s New England township turns into a community, where people help each other, if grudgingly, and gather for ceremonies like a funeral, though some of them have to be let out of jail for the occasion. The bitterness of losing jobs and hope for the future is sweetened by the families and friendships we see tested and proved in the story. And Sully turns out to be almost a leader, not just a malcontent.
American character, in this kind of comedy, shows its connection to the English origins, as individualism turns from entrepreneurship to eccentricity; a kind of contentedness one often sees in New England towns replaces the restlessness that won the West. Something of the quiet pride of the English, conversely, also shows up in these modest people and makes them worthy of drama—they’re not helpless, they’re not giving up, their past turns out to be full of resource especially when the future doesn’t look too bright. Ultimately, that’s what they have to give thanks for, and you get the feeling they enjoy even the hijinks and troubles of the town because they bring everyone together. You might find them as charming as I did, and you might find their story reassuring, too. Happy Thanksgiving.
Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation and a film critic for Law & Liberty, the Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty, and the Free Press.