Harry & Son: Paul Newman’s Most Personal Film

In the six-part HBO documentary The Last Movie Stars, chronicling the careers and marriage of film icons Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, director Ethan Hawke provides a warts-and-all account that doesn’t shy away from infidelity, alcoholism, and regret. Hawke frames discussions of the couple’s films around these revelations. In this way, 1982’s The Verdict becomes a film about Newman tapping into his own struggles with the bottle, while 1986’s The Color of Money becomes a film about a 61-year-old Newman still proving that he’s got it. Interestingly enough, The Last Movie Stars omits discussion of the film Newman made and released between these two classics, 1984’s Harry & Son. 

The omission is understandable; there’s plenty in Harry & Son that doesn’t work. At the time of its release, Roger Ebert awarded the film only a single star, and Vincent Canby called it “a rather drab mess of a movie.” 

Despite its flaws, Harry & Son may just be the most personal film Paul Newman ever made, and for that reason, it merits discussion. In addition to starring, directing, and producing, Newman is also credited with the screenplay (along with Ronald Buck, adapted from a novel by Raymond DeCapite). In a career that spanned sixty years, it is Newman’s only screenwriting credit. Undeniably, he invested a lot of time and effort into the project. This is a story he clearly wanted to tell. It’s a story he needed to tell – not for the audience, but for himself.

Newman plays the eponymous Harry, a blue-collar, south Florida widower who finds himself at odds with his twentysomething son, Howard  (Robby Benson). Harry values hard work. Howard, an aspiring writer, would rather be doing anything other than working. Like writing. Or surfing. Or drinking (Harry and Howard share that particular pastime).

Late in the film, Howard meets up with his father at a diner to celebrate Harry’s birthday. The celebration, however, is short-lived. By this point, Howard has gotten himself fired from a factory, and he quit his job as a repo man after just one night. At the diner, Harry tells Howard he wants him to move out and find a place of his own. “Maybe if you get out and feel the heat, you’ll see the light,” Harry says, dispersing some tough love. He adds, bluntly, “I left a suitcase in your room.” 

Harry does not face Howard. His shame is too great. His failure as a father to instill a sense of responsibility in his son is too great. Howard exits the diner, leaving behind the wrapped gift he brought for his father. The camera stays on Harry. On his face. His eyes. Newman is very still here; Harry is not a Cool Hand Luke or Butch Cassidy. He doesn’t talk first, think later. Harry spends a lot of time in thought and Newman is not afraid to let us see him thinking. He lets the silence—and his face—do the talking. After a couple beats, the camera pulls back to a two-shot with the waitress moving in next to Harry. She opens the gift and is impressed with the blazer inside, draping it over Harry’s shoulders. Rather than staying in a two-shot, the camera pushes in until we are back close on Harry. At first, his countenance is downcast, but as the camera comes to a halt, he raises his gaze. Newman allows us to see his face. Harry may not be brave enough to face his son in these tough moments. Newman, though, is brave enough to face us. The camera doesn’t cut away. We see the lines etched in Harry’s face. Newman’s face.

The film reflects some of the parenting struggles Newman faced in his own life. He fathered six children, five girls and one boy, yet he once remarked, “I didn’t have any talent to be a father.” In 1978, six years before the release of Harry & Son, Newman’s son, Scott, overdosed and died in a Los Angeles hotel room. He was 28. Newman’s friend, A.E. Hotchner, wrote about the strained relationship between Newman and his son in the 2010 book Paul and Me: Fifty-Three Years of Adventures and Misadventures with My Pal Paul Newman. Like Harry & Son’s Howard, Scott had trouble keeping a job. His ambition was to act. To pay the bills, he bounced from job to job, working as a skydiving instructor, a bus driver, a waiter. When Scott died, as the book relates, Newman called it “a hurt beyond tears.” According to Hotchner, Newman felt guilt for not being close enough, for not doing enough to be a good father to his son. After Scott’s death, Newman asked Hotchner, “How do you make amends for something you can’t make amends for?” 

Harry & Son is Newman’s attempts to make amends. It is his attempt to find healing through his filmmaking. In the film’s final reel, tears form in Harry’s eyes as he reaches out to embrace Howard. We get the sense this is Newman reaching back in time to embrace his own son. In this moment, Newman rewrote the ending to Scott’s life, giving his son the happy ending onscreen that proved so elusive offscreen.

Darren Aronofsky has called the close-up the greatest invention of the twentieth century. “You can stick a camera right in the face of Paul Newman, right in those beautiful blue eyes,” Aronofsky said. “You can go right into his soul.” Newman had a reputation as a private person, abandoning the glitz of big city life in Hollywood or New York for a more quiet life in Westport, Connecticut. In public, he grew self-conscious about his eyes and took to wearing dark sunglasses. ”To work as hard as I’ve worked to accomplish anything and then have some yo-yo come up and say, ‘Take off those dark glasses and let’s have a look at those blue eyes’ is really discouraging,” Newman once told the New York Times. With Harry & Son, Newman took off the sunglasses. He put the camera close to himself and allowed us to look into his eyes. He granted us access to his soul.

“Harry & Son” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Paramount+, and is available for digital rental or purchase.

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