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Paul Newman in 'Somebody Up There Likes Me.'

Somebody Up There Likes Me
March 13, 2023


Robert Wise



Paul Newman
Pier Angeli
Everett Sloane

Eileen Heckart

Robert Loggia






1 Hr., 54 Mins.


he most defining thing about Robert Wise’s Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) is how distractingly terrible Paul Newman is in it. Because he’s so terrible in it, the movie is never really able to convince you of anything it tries. How else are you supposed to react when a movie’s foundation feels so unstable? 

I don’t really fault Newman much for his badness. This is a case of an actor being so wrong for the part that all you can see is how wrong they are. Somebody Up There Likes Me was only Newman’s second movie — it also marked his first starring role — and in it he plays the real-life boxer Rocky Graziano. The film is based on Graziano’s memoir — “this is the way I remember it — definitely,” a title card signed off by Graziano assures us before the movie starts — and tracks his life from childhood, where he was beaten up regularly by his failed-boxer father (Harold J. Stone), up through his first major victory as a middleweight boxer.

The period between is lousy with trouble — a little teenage delinquency here, a prison stint and an dishonorable discharge from the Army there — with a relentlessness that makes you root for Graziano’s salvation through fighting. (Newman may on the whole be unpersuasive as this unabatingly tough Italian-American born on the “wrong side of the tracks” perhaps doomed to the yen for rebellion he for a long time believes is an inseparable part of him, but he at least is not the kind of unconvincing that makes you resent his character.) You want to see this approximation of Graziano succeed in the one thing for which he knows he has a talent. You also want him, after he meets and falls in love with a comparatively pacifistic German-Jewish girl (a soft-but-not-weak Pier Angeli), to find happiness in a family life that hopefully will prove more functional than the one he endured growing up. The latter is where Somebody Up There Likes Me is strongest. Early courtship scenes are touching precisely because they force this nail-tough guy into a sensitivity he’s long internalized as a no-go if you want to be taken seriously as a man.

That the Graziano part was supposed to go to James Dean is a now-legendary part of Somebody Up There Likes Me’s history. Daydreams of what could have been are like specters haunting the movie. Dean wouldn’t exactly be right for this part, either; I can’t imagine his Italian-American accent would be much better than Newman’s Danny Zuko-adjacent one. But it’s still obvious where it would work more. Dean was good at playing young and hungry — at being tough in a way that betrays the hurt and self-consciousness propelling it. There’s more of a scrappiness to him. Newman is so naturally clean-cut, beautiful in a marble-statue way, that Graziano’s rough-around-the-edges persona and cocky gait look odd on him. When Newman has to beat someone up in Graziano’s skin, you can feel how much he’s acting. Newman would play many more anti-heroes in his career; a blessed few so aggressively put into relief the feeling that something isn’t right. C

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