Sunday, August 13, 2023

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956): A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Paul Newman.

Paul Newman's first film, The Silver Chalice, was a lifelong embarrassment for him. So horrified was he by the experience, he turned down the lead in 1959's Ben-Hur by saying he would never again act "in a cocktail dress" (meaning Roman-era period costumes). His film career seemed pretty much over before it began. However, like the central character in Somebody Up There Likes Me, Newman's third film turned out to be the charm. 

Growing up unloved and abused by his father, young Rocco Barbella is forever fighting the world. Running with a group of Lower East Side New York hoods, Rocco goes from juvenile hall to reform school to Riker's Island, with only his mother (Eileen Heckart) to care and worry about him. Rocco eventually appears to finally be going straight; however, he is immediately drafted into the Army upon his release.

Rocco, still too stubborn or stupid or both to understand, gets into fights with his Army superiors and eventually goes AWOL. Remembering an old prison mate who told him he could help him out if he did a little boxing, Rocco goes to the gym and immediately impresses trainer Irving Cohen (Everett Sloane). Adopting the name Rocky Graziano (Paul Newman), Graziano's raw talent makes him a standout. Cohen is puzzled by Rocky's refusal to train and his insistence on leaving right away. Eventually found out, Rocky is sent to Leavenworth for a real and dishonorably discharged.

Rocky, however, goes back to boxing, with Cohen eager to welcome back his protege. He soon starts making a name for himself, and even marries Norma (Pier Angeli), a nice Jewish girl with whom he builds a life. Rocky, however, can't outrun his past, where his old frenemy threatens to blackmail him if he does not throw a fight. Rocky refuses, but it still costs him. Will Rocky rebuild his life and career to become the middleweight champion of the world?

While Newman forever bore a grudge against The Silver Chalice, he appears not to have held one against his The Silver Chalice costar Pier Angeli, with whom he reunited for Somebody Up There Likes Me. In a curious turn, Angeli's former lover, James Dean, was originally set to play Graziano before Dean's unexpected death. That tragedy allowed Dean's contemporary Newman to take the role. One can only wonder what James Dean would have done with the role of this volatile boxer.

I imagine that Dean would have been better than Newman. I think Newman went wildly overboard in his portrayal of Graziano, more focused on Graziano's mannerisms and cadence than in finding the man himself. Newman came across as a walking Italian American stereotype: the goombah who was always angry and quite dim. I could never shake the idea throughout Somebody Up There Likes Me that Newman was simply trying too hard to be this tough-talking, brawling, uneducated guy. In a montage between Rocky's rising career and family life, he tells an acquaintance, "Can I help it if she's pregnant?", to which he can only sheepishly raise his shoulders and give an equally sheepish look when he realizes what he said. 

As I said, Newman was forever making Graziano a total goombah. That might be how the real Graziano spoke and moved, but I found Newman's performance too calculated to be natural, which is ironically what I figure Newman was going for. 

Newman veered dangerously close to parody with his Graziano. At one point, an officer says, "I gather from your records that you are from New York City". I asked myself why Barbella's massively thick and broad "Nuw Yawk" accent did not clue him in to that fact. To my mind, it was as if Newman's physicality and mannerisms were so overt that Graziano the man got lost. Over and over again, I kept seeing a young actor playing a part, not being the character. To be fair to Newman, he was still very immersed in the Method style of acting and was still finding his sea legs in film. As such, it is not surprising that Newman focused more on his accent and body language than in a character.

This style of acting affected a few others, particularly Sal Mineo as Rocky's running partner. He too seemed more interested in affecting the Nuw Yawk accent and being a bit more deliberate in his performance. To be fair to Mineo, at least he was from New York versus Ohio's own Paul Newman. I found those who did not go all-in on the Method were more believable in their performances. A standout was Heckart as Ma Barbella. Forever worried about her wayward son, she seemed genuine in her agony versus Newman, who was acting very anguished. Sloane too did well as the confused but ultimately supportive trainer. 

Angeli did well as Norma, the woman who loves her man despite his struggles. She was more authentic than Newman, which says more about the level of Newman's Method manner with Graziano than about her. 

Somebody Up There Likes Me does well in the boxing matches and in getting the gritty world Graziano lived in. Once we get past the constant brawls Graziano got into, we got a good story. On the whole, Somebody Up There Likes Me is not bad, but it feels long. It also has a central performance that seems too calculated to appear real. Still, it is an acceptable introduction to both Paul Newman and Rocky Graziano.



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