In ‘The Sting,’ Redford and Newman were on equal footing. That’s rare.

In ‘The Sting,’ Redford and Newman were on equal footing. That’s rare.

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Want to feel old? “The Sting,” the Paul Newman-Robert Redford caper classic, just turned 50.

On the other hand, want to feel young? Sit down and watch “The Sting” again.

Ironically, the Depression-era setting makes the film seem far less dated than other movies from 1973, and the binary star system at its center has lost not one photon of its luminescence. Newman left us in 2008 and Redford, at 87, has largely retreated from public life. Yet the magic of the movies is that their younger selves live on in a shared bubble of outrageous charisma.

In fact, it’s worth noting that “The Sting” and the Newman-Redford pairing that preceded it, 1969’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” are unique in the catalogue of buddy movies. For nearly the first time in Hollywood history, two male stars of the same magnitude and sex appeal shared the screen as a team.

Then and now, this is rarer than it seems, for reasons of ego, billing, scheduling and a narrative structure that’s baked into our DNA. The human yen is for stories of lone heroes: From Beowulf to Bogart, we’re drawn to solitary figures working against steep odds. Even when there’s more than one leading man at the center of a story, a hierarchy is presumed. Robin Hood and his merrie men. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Tony Soprano and his mob. One of the great pleasures of the 2001 “Ocean’s Eleven” remake is that hierarchy itself becomes the source of comedy: Try as he might, Matt Damon’s Linus will never be on the same exalted level of existence as George Clooney’s Danny or Brad Pitt’s Rusty.

In those cases when two stars have split the difference, one has almost always served as comic relief while the other sets up the jokes, sings or just looks good: Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Hope and Crosby, even Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in “Some Like It Hot.” Laurel and Hardy remain the ne plus ultra of double-idiot tag teams, and one can point to various salt-and-pepper duos, both dramatic (Curtis and Sidney Poitier in “The Defiant Ones,” Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the “Lethal Weapon” films) and comic (Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy).

What makes Newman-Redford so singular is that neither actor served as the dreamboat or the goofball. They both were both, a novel delight when the two teamed up in the saddle for “Butch Cassidy” that was confirmed four years later with “The Sting,” an instant smash and immediate contender for the best picture Oscar in 1973 (which it won, along with six other Academy Awards). The film appeared in theaters on Christmas, one day before “The Exorcist” was released. What a holiday movie season that was.

End of carousel

It’s not well remembered that “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” finally made Redford an A-list star after several years of near misses — Steve McQueen turned down the role because he didn’t want to take second billing to Newman. The movie also allowed Newman to uncork a bawdy comic talent that was closer to who he was off-screen. Newman’s run of “H” hits — “The Hustler,” “Hud,” “Harper,” “Hombre” — had established him as a gorgeous but essentially serious rascal, and “Cool Hand Luke” sealed the deal on his status as a counterculture hero. But the actor had never had the chance to play broad comedy, so much so that his co-producer and Redford’s agent were both shocked when Newman announced he wanted to play the loose-cannon Butch Cassidy rather than the laconic Sundance Kid.

That dynamic continued with “The Sting” four years later, albeit with modifications. The tale of con men who join forces to shake down the biggest, nastiest gangster between New York and Chicago, the movie had a bulletproof script by David S. Ward, “Butch Cassidy” director George Roy Hill returning to the scene of the crime, and a stone-cold villain in the person of Robert Shaw. All that, plus two of the most attractive specimens of the human male in the film industry.

Redford’s Johnny Hooker is the new kid in town, a loose-limbed rambler and gambler; Newman, 11 years his co-star’s senior, is the (marginally) more reliable Henry Gondorff, a consummate con man down on his luck. To the strains of Marvin Hamlisch’s period-inappropriate but Oscar-winning score — it made ragtime composer Scott Joplin a star over a half-century after his death — they gather a small army of fellow bunco artists for a complex grift that involves building an entire fake betting parlor. The supporting roles are straight out of Damon Runyon, the slang is back-alley accurate, but the whole thing hinges on the charm of the two men in the lead.

Newman, in particular, is having a blast. The scene on the New York-to-Chicago train where a seemingly drunk Gondorff crashes the high rollers’ poker game and taunts Shaw’s Doyle Lonnegan into a towering rage was, in the words of director Hill, “just Paul doing things I had seen him do. … [He] was gleeful — he’d never had the chance to play that sort of part before, to play his own humor.”

Off-screen, the two stars maintained a relaxed respect for each other that never quite blossomed into deeper friendship. The one time that Redford and Newman went off to spend some hang-time together, on Redford’s houseboat on Lake Powell, the vibe was ruined by party-crashing fans who pulled up alongside blasting “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” from “Butch Cassidy.” When they were on the set, Newman tweaked Redford about his habit of showing up late and Redford rolled his eyes at Newman’s endless search for acting motivation. But that engaging, indulgent impatience with each other is actually the source of the Newman-Redford chemistry. There’s just enough friction to give their banter some grit and take the edge of self-congratulation off these two godlike specimens.

“Newman was a joiner and a stirrer,” explains Shawn Levy, author of a 2009 biography of the actor, in an email interview. “Redford was reserved, cautious, withholding. … It was symbiosis, mutual admiration, genuine friendship and, of course, a game of Quien Es Mas Macho/Guapo that neither could ever truly win.”

Interestingly, the one thing this team didn’t need was a love interest. They had each other. Katharine Ross’s Etta Place was hardly necessary to “Butch Cassidy,” and, aside from Eileen Brennan’s adoring brothel madam and Dimitra Arliss as a rather unconvincing one-night stand, “The Sting” is basically a boy’s club. Hill, who directed both movies, understood the assignment. When a dubious Newman auditioned Hill for the “Butch Cassidy” job in 1969, he asked the director what his take on the script was. “It’s a love story between two men,” Hill replied. Newman was sold.

Why weren’t there more Newman and Redford movies? There could have been; there should have been. The two nosed around various properties over the years, but as Levy says, “Good scripts with equally strong parts for two leading men have never been a bumper crop.” In the 1970s, John Huston sent Newman the screenplay for “The Man Who Would Be King,” to which the actor replied, “For Christ’s sake, John, get Connery and Caine,” which Huston did. Late in the day, there was even talk of the two appearing in a film version of Bill Bryson’s bestseller “A Walk in the Woods.” (It was ultimately made in 2015 with Redford and Nick Nolte. Spare yourself.)

What’s the equivalent to Redford and Newman today? There isn’t one. Maybe DiCaprio and Pitt in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” Probably not. As Henry Gondorff tells Johnny Hooker, sending the younger man in after that movable poker game, “It’s a hard act to follow.”

Fifty years later, it still is.

Ty Burr is the author of the movie recommendation newsletter Ty Burr’s Watch List at tyburrswatchlist.substack.com.

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