My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.
There was rumbling in Fort Apache, The Bronx.
It was back to my choice, and so finally I chose The Color of Money so we could end Paul Newman season and move on to Tom Cruise. Right?
It occurred to me that we really couldn’t finish a hefty Neman season and not tackle his big break. His first film was The Silver Chalice, which apparently was so bad that he took out adverts apologising for it (and now I reaaaaaaaaaaallllllly wanna see it). But the film that catapulted him to widespread acclaim was boxing biopic Somebody Up There Likes Me. Would somebody round at Tim’s flat like it? We’ll find out.
Somebody Up There Likes Me and me
I knew a little about this going in. The lead role was originally meant for James Dean, but his untimely death paved the way for Paul Newman. I’m sure Newman’s break would have come soon enough anyway, but it’s a curious twist of fate that his star rose in such a tragic way.
And as mentioned above, it’s a boxing biopic. I don’t like boxing. I don’t like it at all. I haven’t seen Raging Bull (though I did see Jake Lamotta playing the bartender in The Hustler…). I have only seen the first Rocky film. I haven’t seen The Fighter, Cinderella Man, Million Dollar Baby, When We Were Kings or any of the other notable boxing films. But here we are with an almost-guaranteed Newman-half-naked movie and an important one in his filmography, so I felt it was unavoidable.
Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956): Boxer Rocky Graziano’s biopic, based on his autobiography, from childhood to his World Middleweight Championship title win at age 28 in 1947. 7.5 stars.
Welp, it’s definitely a boxing movie! Fortunately most of the onscreen pugilism is saved for the climactic bout, and instead we spend most of the film following Newman’s bad boy who just can’t seem to turn a corner as he tumbles from the streets to juvie to prison to the army back to prison.
After a few minutes spent getting used to the thick Bronx accent, Newman’s pretty strong in the lead, gamely helped by some great make up as his chiselled face gets slowly puffier when his boxing career takes off.
There’s not a lot in here that’s going to surprise anyone – Newman’s Rocky Graziano doesn’t play by the rules, and falls into boxing purely to earn a quick buck (while on the lam, to bribe an army officer he lamped – he’s not the smartest cat). There’s an abusive father, a doting, distraught mother, a collection of hoodlums (including an excellent Sal Minoa looking for all the world like a young David Krumholtz).
There’s a girl, and wouldn’t you know it, she doesn’t like boxing. And then, much later than I expected actually, there’s the pressure to take a dive and all the fallout you might expect and might have seen in any number of sporting biopics.
Without Newman in the centre of it, this would be fairly dull stuff, but his energy is always up and he dominates the screen. His face, still beautiful when the black eyes and puffiness starts, was absolutely made for film. It’s strange to see his break coming in a role that’s not quite aligned to many of his classic performances – he’s all instinct and muscle here, not like the lightning-witted Hud, Butch, Gondorff and Mussburger. But Paul Newman could do it all, really. He was the likeable bad boy, the stand up guy, the man who relies on his wits in the moment, and the man who has a hundred long-term plots running in his mind at once. It would be fascinating seeing the intended James Dean version of this, but I can’t see how he could have held the film together more assuredly than Paul Newman does.
This is the second best boxing film I’ve ever seen! And while that also means it’s by default the worst, that’s not to say it’s bad. There’s nothing that’ll surprise you, but a great central performance an plenty of game support from the rest of the cast makes this more than just a celebration of people hitting each other in the face.
I mean… maybe it’ll be more Paul Newman? Who can say? Funnily enough, Steve McQueen has a very brief supporting role in Somebody Up There Likes Me, and appeared opposite Newman again in The Towering Inferno. So we could go off on a McQueen tangent and then wind up back with Newman. Just spitballing, y’know…