Near the end of the marvelous 1994 film, Nobody’s Fool, an aging handyman, quasi-alcoholic, and failed husband and father named Sully (Paul Newman) walks into the dilapidated Victorian house in which he grew up. Sully hasn’t been inside that house for some 30 years, even though he drives by it all the time, and even though its weight has been bearing down on his soul for every hour of those 30 odd years. The house, a beauty once, has been boarded up for decades, and inside there’s the dusty, half cluttered, unnerving sense of a building abruptly abandoned during some ancient world war. A blitzkrieg fell here. Sully hesitates in the doorway, as if his heart has just skipped a beat, and then he walks into his father's house, which is a thing he wasn’t planning to do when he woke up that morning. Sully walks in and though he doesn’t say a word, you can see him do a kind of internal sway, as if this were a horror movie and a swarm of ghosts has just rushed him (which is what going home is all about). He takes a couple of steps, and then he just stops and stands there, frozen. Sully halts, and director Robert Benton and cinematographer John Bailey move in for a super-tight close-up of Sully’s face — arguably the last true close-up of Newman’s career — and though Sully doesn’t move or blink you can see the ripple of history that’s suddenly playing across his mind’s eye — his beginnings in that house, and the rush of good memories (the laughter of childhood maybe), and then the bad ones, the ones rooted in slights and misunderstandings that were probably overemphasized, but which led him, he's realizing in that moment, to squander away his best self. In a hair's breath of time, Sully figures all this out, and then grows angry and not a little disgusted with himself, the way a man will when he finally has no one to blame but himself.
Watching this scene for the first time, back in ’94, I was flooded with feeling because it occurred to me that I’m probably carrying around (to no avail) a haunted house of my own. But I was mostly responding to the exquisite artistry of Newman, who’d clearly brought to that scene, and to that emotional beat, everything he knew about acting, which must also have meant everything he knew about living. That close-up taught me all over again about the specialized acting art of doing absolutely nothing and doing everything, all at once. At this, Newman was an absolute master, and in watching the scene again tonight, it occurred to me that standing still enough to let life and it attendant feelings find you in all their terrible fullness takes enormous courage, whether you’re an actor standing alone in front of a camera or a regular person being buffeted by a sudden turn in the day. Onscreen and off, as an actor and as a man, Paul Newman, who died yesterday at the age of 83, showed us how we too could become more fully human. (Chuck Wilson)