Junior Bonner (1972) Directed by Sam Peckinpah & Paris Blues (1961) Directed by Martin Ritt

So here we are in the land of the posturing macho male. The second-tier-method-era brooding against the minimalist brawn of iconography. Paul Newman and Steve McQueen paved the way in the 1960's so that the 1970's would see them as SUPERSTARS – too cool for New Hollywood realism (or so they thought). Of course the 1970's would herald all kinds of male superstar presences (Eastwood, Pacino, Hoffman, Nicholson, Redford, Reynolds, De Niro etc.), but none had their roots so cemented by the previous decade as Newman and McQueen. It could be that Paul and Steve were just waiting for that day to come around where they would argue about top billing in The Towering Inferno

McQueen's 1960's saw steady growth of the iconic, silent presence that reached a peak with Bullitt (1968), that presence being honed through such fare as The Magnificent Seven, Hell Is For Heroes, The Great Escape, The Cincinnati Kid and The Thomas Crown Affair. Newman's 1960's displayed deeper material with less focus on action, with The Hustler, Sweet Bird Of Youth, Hud, Torn Curtain, Hombre, Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid all capitalising on the late 1950's promise and a natural heir to the mantle of disaffected as patented by James Dean. 

McQueen in Junior Bonner
By the time McQueen rolled into two Sam Peckinpah pictures in the early 1970's, he was with Ali MacGraw and smoking serious amounts of pot on set. Both those Peckinpah movies (The Getaway being the other) still managed to tap into a screen persona that was new to McQueen, an unbridled honesty and sensitivity. Junior Bonner may be the most understated McQueen performance ever (and that's saying something!) where every nuance in the performance is the wry smile or raise of an eyebrow that McQueen omits. Nothing really happens in Junior Bonner other than some rodeo and a saloon brawl, but Peckinpah still manages to squeeze in moments of  his trademark slow-motion (a demolition is brutal). Yes, again this deals with old ways coming to an end (the cowboy life?) but Peckinpah or McQueen were never this gentle again, with firm support from Robert Preston and Ida Lupino, Junior Bonner displays a charm and vagueness that verges on documentary. McQueen is subtle and fine as Junior Bonner, an almost invisible triumph. 

Newman in Paris Blues
Paul Newman was just burning up the screen when he made Paris Blues. He is in Paris playing and composing jazz along with his trusty sidekick Sidney Poitier (in an early role where the race handle that defines his career is as prominent as ever). Both Newman and Potier are away from home and happy with Parisian life until two women arrive to town (played by Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll). Heads are turned, 'should I stay or should I go' becomes the theme. The music is lean and the right shade of jazz blue (courtesy of Duke Ellington) with Louis Armstrong even providing a neat cameo. Paris Blues, in a rather naive way, deals with expatriatism and racism (both depictions would have been radical for Hollywood at the time), but come across as quite lame today. Still, Newman is sultry, moody and intense as the musician who doesn't quite know if he's good enough to cut it with the best. Paris Blues, although dated, still entertains. Newman shows early angst and a more methody disposition in Paris Blues. As the decade wore on, humor and a wink would suffice (he always looked great) and he would bring more versatility and range to his work. Paris Blues displays the seed that led to the architect pitting wits against the fireman

Some kind of altruism mixed with self-loathing that manifested itself in not caring made me say yes to watching Junior Bonner some weeks back. The plan was that my entire movie review would consist of a picture of a bullet hole. No words needed. But of course I would leave way too much for your interpretation that way and you might think that I disliked the movie. Yes, sure I did not enjoy the film, but I need to be more specific here: I have a problem with Steve McQueen.

The iconic silent type, the white rodeo cowboy, the real-life superstar who was too cool for emotion and too high to care. The boring straight guy. That Steve McQueen I just don't get. He puts me to sleep. He does not turn me on in any way — he does not even intrigue me like Clint Eastwood does. There has never been any inkling with McQueen that behind his 'acting' he might be something interesting – intelligent, different to his roles, gay...I don't know...something more than motorcycles and bags of weed and meat and potatoes. So here's my line about Junior Bonner: don't waste your time unless you have a burning love for said male actor, or you love to watch a semi-doc about rodeo in the 1970s.

McQueen in Junior Bonner
Somehow, in my mind Junior Bonner relates to Paris Blues. Although I can tell you straight away that I liked Paris Blues as much as I disliked Junior Bonner. There is a decade between the two movies, but they depict young people who have made choices that do not conform to the general Western norm of the time. Junior Bonner stayed in his home country, but did not stay put and did not fit in, even with his own family. He was a kind of drifter – at least for a period of time. Paris Blues offers up the usual commitment issues of the young and talented musicians. This time in Paris, where life is famously more free, more sexy, more fun and adventurous (and I have never been to Paris). Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman are cute as the freedom-hungry tunesmiths, who contemplate giving it all up for love. There is an innocence in Paris Blues, but it is contrasted with some rather open discussions on the dangers of drug abuse, and the enjoyment of sex outside marriage!

Mainly though, Paul and Sidney are fun to watch and the love interests Diahann Carroll and Joanne Woodward are equally good. The point is that Paris Blues is fun to watch as light entertainment, but also as a depiction of the changing attitudes towards what life in the cities can mean for young people. A picture of the 1960s. And yes, while McQeen does not do it for me in the least, I do like me a little Paul Newman. How romantic is it that he always stayed with his Joanne Woodward? Very.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward


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