Somebody Up There Likes Me (Robert Wise, 1956)

Rocky Graziano, Somebody Up There Likes Me

Somebody Up There Likes Me is the remarkable story of boxer Rocky Graziano, based on his autobiography of the same name. It stars Paul Newman as Graziano, who spends his youth indulging in mischief and thievery of all kinds, eventually landing himself in jail, the army, and back in jail again, until he finds salvation in the boxing ring and a girl.

Somebody Up There Likes Me, Newman’s second feature film, essentially put him on the map as a major actor. Criticisms comparing him to Brando plagued Newman for much of his early career. The similarities were superficial: akin appearances, their mutual Method training, and personifications of youthful rebellion. In The Silver Chalice, Newman’s disastrous film debut, the critics claimed he looked like Brando in Julius Caesar. Upon the release of Somebody Up There Likes Me, they again criticized Newman for imitating Brando’s Oscar-winning performance of an ex-fighter in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. (What better performance to imitate? Honestly.) The comparison was unfair.

When questioned about his preparation for Somebody Up There Likes Me on the inaugural episode of Inside the Actors Studio, Paul Newman recalled that he essentially lived with Graziano for two weeks, absorbing all of his mannerisms, from his boxing stance to his voice inflection. He shared the following anecdote:

“Rocky said that at one point he noticed this guy in Stillman’s gymnasium, was always standing around, watching him and listening to his conversation and was sidling up and watching his movements and his mannerisms and chatting in the locker room and everything. And finally this kid walked up to him and says, ‘How would you like to see this play that I done?’ And Rocky said, ‘You sing?’ He says, ‘No,’ he says, ‘It’s a play.’ He said, ‘What’s the name of the play?’ He said, ‘Streetcar Named Desire.’ So I’d always like to think that Marlon and I were working off the same guy.”

Touché.

Paul Newman & Rocky Graziano
Newman and Graziano. Dig the pencil. 

I must admit, though, part of me cringed at Newman’s performance in the first quarter of the film; I saw validation for the criticism. It seemed as though Newman were trying to imitate Brando–and trying too hard. I was grossly mistaken, though, as Newman’s performance utterly encompassed me as the film progressed. Newman was Graziano; he played the role (which was initially intended for James Dean, who died before filming began) perfectly. He is ruthless and kind, tough and sensitive, a simpleton yet acutely aware of the world around him and how it works.

The film was heavily marketed as a sentimental romance (the original tagline was: “A girl can lift a guy to the skies!”), which does play a central role, but I found the character of Rocky, his humor, his insecurity and ultimately determination far more compelling.

Rocky & Norma Go to the Movies
FAVORITE SCENE: Norma and Rocky go to the movies

When Edward Murrow interviewed Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward, settling into their New York apartment, on his program Person to Person (which Murrow loathed), he questioned Woodward about her Oscar she had won earlier that year for Three Faces of Eve, whether it was yet on display despite the chaos of moving. It was–and next to her Oscar was a Noscar. (“No Oscar”–get it? Haha.) It was given to Newman by Somebody Up There Likes Me director Robert Wise and producer Charles Schnee, who felt Newman should have been nominated for Best Actor. (Newman would be nominated nine times in his lifetime, finally winning for 1986’s The Color of Money–a sequel to The Hustler, for which he was also nominated. Newman didn’t attend the ceremony, not expecting to win yet again.) The inscription read:

“The Schnee-Wise Noscar Award to Paul Newman for best portraying a terrible, no-good blankity blank, for turning him into a charming and lovable sprite and thereby doing what Lincoln said could never be done, i.e. fooling all of the people all of the time.”

I quite enjoyed being fooled. You will, too.

P.S. Look out for Steve McQueen’s debut in this film as one of Graziano’s gang cronies.

Steve McQueen, Somebody Up There Likes Me

Always too cool.

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