Saturday, September 27, 2008

Echoes of a Movie Legend in the World of Mad Men

It’s been a week of certifiable madness.

Stock market insanity; bank and company failures on an epic scale; the dollar amount of 700 billion said with a straight face.

And now the maddening reality of the loss of Paul Newman, who embodied the sea change of generational sensibility that is rocking Don Draper’s world.

The gang at Sterling Cooper don’t drop many film references. Do none of these New Yorkers go to the movies? By 1962 they should have all seen Someone Up There Likes Me, The Long Hot Summer, Cat on a Hat Tin Roof, Exodus, and The Hustler. Paul Newman was in his early powerhouse years.

There are lots of interesting intersections here. Jon Hamm as Don Draper has that old school, classic movie star handsome look. Paul Newman did too, especially in his early roles. But he also was the energy and charisma of the new generation that was sweeping into the culture, the antiheroes of Butch Cassidy and the defiance of Cool Hand Luke. Newman did not win an Academy Award until 1986; many people thought Hamm was robbed of the Best Actor Emmy last Sunday.

The character of Don Draper and Paul Newman were born around the same year, served in WWII, and came to power in the changing postwar culture.

Draper has some of the detached cool of Ben Quick and Fast Eddy, and he has reinvented himself like Rocky Graziano and Ari Canaan did. Still, he is conservative in his worldview, except where his mistresses are concerned. They speak to a piece of him that wants to be freer. When his wife buys a yellow beach ensemble at the country club, he tells her it’s “desperate” of her. The wife/mother role is inviolate for many, but that’s still a pretty square thing to say.

This week’s episode is “Six Months Leave.” When last we saw Don, Betty had told him not to come home. Maybe she is giving him a six-month leave from their marriage. Come over to newcritics as Tom Watson and I live blog the unfolding story, Sunday night at 10.