Seasoned

Nobody's Fool (1994)

Paramount Pictures

I find myself writing a postcard to my daughter who has just left for college. I begin with the thought that I’m old enough to understand I’m not actually wiser. But this doesn’t need to be imparted nor written down. I’ve already made that mistake. I will likely make more, given the time.

I only want to say that I’m thinking about her. I’ve also already said this and everything else. It has long been obvious that she’s not the one who needs reassuring. It has more recently become obvious to me. Still, I reach for conclusions. I want to know that she knows she’ll do great. If only she could see this stage of her life from my current unbelievable vantage point. I refrain from summarizing that a lot hasand will continue tocome down to luck.

Still, I want to get it right.

Because it feels like the appropriate season, and because I’ve been told by parents with younger children that I must be a wreck, I also reach back to a movie I watched a long time ago. Not that long ago. I return to Nobody’s Fool, starring Paul Newman.

My conception of old and long ago has already started to compress. The small-town American locale of the movie lies in a distant space and time from where I am now. I have a shuffled memory of the story and other things from life in the age of antiquity, anno 1994.

I can feel the cold of the movie’s setting and the care of its interiors. I should probably ease off on the nostalgia. Maybe I’ve been writing a postcard to myself. Maybe that’s a better use of everyone’s time. There are older stories on these old ideas. There are newer empty rooms in my home.

*

It’s easy to forget a title like Nobody’s Fool. The name serves this unassuming film but has probably contributed to a fainter public recollection over the years. It’s such a catch-all that the same title was used for a wholly different story in Tyler Perry’s 2018 release. But in 1994, Nobody’s Fool was written and directed by Robert Benton, based on the novel by Richard Russo published the year prior. Benton did both jobs on other big-hearted films like Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart, and the madcap and underappreciated Nadine. Here, he dials down the drama and steps back.

Because Nobody’s Fool, in its lived-in entirety, belongs to Paul Newman. As Benton has said, more than anything he put in the script, Newman defines the principal role of Donald “Sully” Sullivan. Newman himself said that he was closer to the character than he would care to admit. By this career stage, he was such an adored living legend that Sully could’ve been playing the celebrity. We can imagine that within his universe, Sully was doing an extended Paul Newman impersonation.

Sully is a man of retirement age still restless enough to get himself into regular trouble. He walked out on his wife and family decades ago but remained in his small hometown of North Bath, New York. He never amounted to much, a reality of which everyone reminds him. He works odd jobs in construction and at a diner. He helps out his elderly landlady, who’s also his former grade school teacher. He offers a hand and a shoulder to cry on to various other idle locals, including his dear friend, who has the perfect first name of Rub. 

The boss at the construction company, Carl, is cheating Sully out of his disability pay. Carl is played by Bruce Willis, then fresh from refusing to take the fall in the ring of Tarantino’s ironic noir L.A. In this film, Willis lets his smirky charisma slip into its natural state of tried-and-true asshole, one that still deserves the mercy Sully extends when he drapes a blanket over Carl asleep on the couch, kicked out of his house.

Carl is also cheating on his wife, Toby (Melanie Griffith). Sully has a soft spot for her. They flirt in exchanged glances flush with visions of roads not taken. Sully suggests that Toby run away with him to “someplace…where they got umbrellas in the drinks.” We watch them both consider the idea, one embrace away from going through with it, yet lifetimes apart from it ever happening. 

Nothing so great happens to anyone, and nothing so awful that they can’t all meet for cards or drinks later that evening. The crucial point is that nothing much happens at all.

This alone could date the film. The immediate stakes are lowered and the narrative arc hangs loose. Watching three decades and as many waves of irony later, I wonder if this was the last time that a film with multiple major stars felt both this disarming and this plausible. The general quaintness is reinforced by a score that’s almost saccharine enough to go full ‘90s Hallmark special. But it soon becomes clear that no emotion is being forced here. The story stays low-key and sincere because these characters have chosen, grudgingly, to accept one another, and therefore have not chosen drama. Their imperfect grace in this steady stream of a story helps them to drift into one another. It helps a repeat viewer to drift back, too.

We meet Sully’s estranged son, Peter (Dylan Walsh), who returns to his hometown with marital trouble of his own. In turn, we’re introduced, at the same time Sully is, to grandson Will. As Sully reconciles with his present, he revisits his boarded-up childhood home late at night, thrown back into memories of the past abuses of his own father. 

The story winds up at the holiday season. There have been cases made to add Nobody’s Fool to the canon of Christmas movies. As though to pre-empt this debate, Sully weighs in at the bar half-strung with lights, “Sure doesn’t feel like Christmas.” 

*

I am now closer in age to Sully than to my 19-year-old self, who watched Nobody’s Fool following a visit to my central Pennsylvania hometown back for the holidays. I’d just experienced my first genuine breakup. I was especially mopey at the festive dinners. I knew I should appreciate the gathered extended family members who wouldn’t have many of these meals left. I chose instead to spotlight my own sophomore love loss.

It took a movie, not for the first or last time, to hoist my attention to broader ideas. At an evening showing of Nobody’s Fool, it occurred to me that I could become an old man. I dreamed of a jump 50 years ahead, past all my approaching uncertainty, the blind stabs at responsibility, and the recurring cycles of heartache. From the precipice, my twenties looked cataclysmic. Sully’s seventies looked arrived, uncompromised, gentle, plenty. I didn’t know he was meant to be a loser. Sully’s life choices didn’t translate to me as mistakes, either. Even the moment of the film where he’s reprimanded for one-time neglect after leaving his grandson outside for a few minutes seemed like evidence of the misjudgment of others, not Sully. He knew what he was doing. He had amounted to something good. Now if I could just skip straight to his phase.

Without an actual time machine, I could’ve used an epiphany, at least. An answer on the sweeping meaning of life had to be tucked into this movie’s snowbanks and weary, generous one-liners. The characters shared a mutual benefit of the doubt. They cultivated forgiveness and trust. I could try to imitate them. But they might not offer any revelation.

I had barely absorbed what it all meant about aging. I didn’t quite see that each generation stumbles a half-inch in the direction of being better. Here, the gradual steps ascended from the abusive grandfather Sullivan, to Sully walking out on his family, to Peter’s merely stalled marriage and career, to little Will declaring wisely as Sully lets him take the wheel of his pickup, “This is a good truck.” 

I only drew a passing connection to my own relatives. I took parents’ and grandparents’ true affection as a given even if I knew our time together would be limited. Yet I’d be surprised when the seasons changed. I’d still be amazed when something uneventful and comfortable turned out to be complex and hard-won. 

*

As is repeated a few times, Sully grows on people. He is not a hero or a role model. Nor is he a man among men, as Toby says twice, neither fitting as an insult or a compliment. He only proceeds with his own faulty grace.

The son explains to Sully that his mother’s biggest fear is that Sully’s life has been fun. “Tell her not to worry,” Sully responds. It is both an admission that his life has been rough and a word of advice that, if his ex-wife wants to make her own fun in any way, she’ll have to give up worrying. 

“You turned out alright,” Sully says as they begin to reconcile. His son replies, “So did you.” Their evening stroll comes to an end at the front door of the local jail. Sully drains his beer. He walks inside like he’s checking into a motel where he’s long had a reservation.

Nobody’s Fool gathers the best aspects of Newman’s many disobedient characters. We see his natural disdain for cops and bankers, regardless of who’s doing the punching or the robbing. We root for his con even if he’s now just stealing a snowblower. We get the same nonchalant toss of his poker chips, whether he’s winning on a cool hand of nothing or losing on 8s full. We recognize the bounce in his step on a bad knee, despite lacking the crutch he used in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. We feel the doomed attraction between Sully and Toby echoing from the crueler longing between Hud and Patricia Neal’s Alma. (Hud was the younger one there, but in both films, Newman’s men stay behind as the what-could-have-been women leave town.) His hair has gone from the gray that suited him in his prime to full white. It blends with the lasting quicksilver glimmer in his eyes that always seems to provide its own lighting. Paul Newman remains a literal star. 

And he still captures much with a very casual little. A moment of catharsis in Nobody’s Fool arrives when Sully finally enters his abandoned childhood home. Like other moments that tap surprising emotional wells, the wallop of this scene sneaks up from the nowhere of breezy banter and harmless elder hijinks. 

Sully crowbars into his old front door. Inside, he tunes out Carl’s words as he stops in his tracks in the middle of the room. Newman lets us feel a momentary flood. His posture crumples. His blue eyes redden as Sully is overwhelmed by every inch and nail of memory in this home that he knows can now only be a house. Newman gives us nostalgia, regret, loss, growing, fading, holding onto the things that will matter and letting go of all the rest in a few blinks. Newman being Sully, and vice versa, he infuses the shot with the sense that even a public figure who spent decades as one of the leading men in a glittering, century-defining industry in its heyday—even someone who would use his popularity to create a hugely successful, enduring, store-shelf recognizable charity,—even that person could still look back on his life with lament. That gentleman could, in the end, still feel inadequate.

It’s the kind of moment that even a boy in his late teens who missed the revelation the first time would carry with him.

*

You won’t have so many conclusions. You will reach beginnings mostly, constantly and for longer than you can imagine. They contain weird glowing luck if you tend to the right people and places. Decades from now, you may be reminded that those who offer grace get a deeper, eventual win.

I finish the handwritten message to my daughter on a quiet morning. I hope it elicits her better, lighter laugh at her new mailbox that she locks with her own key before hurrying out into the street. I could have sent her a text instead. I could have tried for a GIF. But I send the postcard because it makes me feel like a tourist in my own town. Plus, it lets me look older than I actually am. 

Maybe nothing much at all has happened. Or maybe everything has changed in a blink. Either way, I am probably a wreck. I also haven’t eased off on the nostalgia quite yet. Nobody’s Fool brims with more things I forgot the world had not that long ago.

*

Sully’s landlady is played by Jessica Tandy, who would pass away months after the production. The film opens in her house as she says to no one, “I think God’s zeroing in on me. I have the feeling this is the year he lowers the boom.” The closing credits roll on the dedication to the actress, then at her own late-stage high note. From the other end of the career spectrum appears Philip Seymour Hoffman, shape-shifting into a young and insecure hothead cop. He gives the small role dimension, and, revisited from the upheaval of the 21st century, a prescience. He also provides another reminder that the town of North Bath only looks more fictional in America. 

But the durability of Nobody’s Fool is confirmed with each passing year because it only ever wanted to be about standing the test of time in the first place. It holds this relevance, more than Newman’s generational sequel, The Color of Money (and with a more timeless final shot). In that movie, the hustler returns to consider passing the cue to the young hotshot. Since the community of North Bath itself is the cue, Nobody’s Fool isn’t interested in passing it. It just wants you to grow into this place, to settle into this close-knit winter with these people who could be your relations, your connections. 

It makes me trust that this is the farewell Newman himself wanted to impart.

Decades from now, once I reach Sully’s age, I may be reminded again that his grace gets its eventual win. It might be okay to believe in his luck. Like all the best endings, his fade-out will provide a place to begin again, and again. 

I don’t need to pass down the message that he drifts off in an armchair with a dog at his feet and a hint of a smile on his face. I’m not there yet. I have a day ahead of me and the luck to be still learning how to proceed.