The Gospel According to Cool Hand Luke

With the 80th annual Academy Awards this Sunday the focus will be on the latest and greatest, and of course the slinky numbers on the red carpet, and how the caring celebs have toned it down so tastefully in recognition of the global economic calamity. There will be another moment of grace, when they do a smash-up retrospective of the screen legends who passed on last year. However well-done, I can't see how they'lldo justice to Paul Newman's career. After his death last September, the Vatican's official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, even gave the actor a fineappreciation, writing:"In his films he was the tough guy and the braggart, the rebel and the conquistador. In reality Newman was a generous heart, an actor of a dignity and style rare in Hollywood quarters."

Newman--Silver Chalice.jpg

Religion News Service's man in Rome, Francis X. Rocca, gave his entry on the Vatican appreciation one of the better headlines ever: "Peter praises Paul." The Catholic News Service write-up is more straightforward but has a nice roundup of appreciations from Catholic reviewers.Both RNS and CNS note that L'Osservatore Romano praises Newman's first big screen role, in "The Silver Chalice," in which he plays an artisan who crafts a silver chalice to hold the Holy Grail. Newman himself hated the role, and when it ran on television in 1966, he took out an ad in a Hollywood trade paper apologizing for it and asking people not to watch.I've never seen that movie--and doubt I will at this point--but I couldn't begin to enumerate the many other fantastic Newman films, from the all-time best buddy movie, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," to "Nobody's Fool" and so on. (See a filmography here.)But I'll highlightthe one that the Vatican paper, oddly, did not, namely: "Cool Hand Luke."Not only does it have as many great lines and great performances as, say "Casablanca," but it is also a Christian allegory of sorts--as the CNS story says, "a Christ figure coming to the nasty world of the prison and sacrificing himself for others--not in a very conscious, churchy way but in a subtle, very intelligent way."Besides, there is that scene:Newman pluckingthe tune to "Plastic Jesus" and singing quietly to himself after he learns his mother has died. There are many versions, many lyrics, but here's the best I could find:

I don't care if it rains or freezeslong as I've got my Plastic JesusGlued to the dashboard of my car,You can buy Him phosphorescentGlows in the dark, He's Pink and Pleasant,Take Him with you when you're travelling far.I don't care if it's dark or scary,Long as I have magnetic Mary,Ridin' on the dashboard of my car,I feel I'm protected amply,I've got the whole damn Holy Family,Riding on the dashboard of my car.

You can buy a Sweet MadonnaDressed in rhinestones sitting on aPedestal of abalone shell,Goin' ninety, I'm not wary'Cause I've got my Virgin Mary,Guaranteeing I won't go to Hell.

Better yet, watch it on YouTube:[youtube]

David Gibson is the director of Fordham’s Center on Religion & Culture.

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