“Plastic Jesus” / Paul Newman / Cool Hand Luke (1967)
It all starts with Paul Newman’s silence. I’m talking about my favorite scene in Cool Hand Luke in which Luke is told that his mother has passed away after an illness.
He walks forlornly to his bed while the other inmates gather at the opposite end of the room. He suddenly leaps up to his bunk and begins to strum “Plastic Jesus” on a banjo while they look on. It is very gentle and slow and heartbreakingly sad.
The singing starts. His voice is raw- it’s not a polished performance. That just adds to the scene. It makes it feel more real, as if you’re watching it happen to someone you know.
When the tears fall and his breath catches, it is almost too much. The quiet breaking down of such a rugged man is beautiful and haunting and painful to watch. It’s one of the most uncomfortable viewing experiences I’ve ever had; the mourning process is deeply personal and I feel voyeuristic. Despite this, I have watched it multiple times. The entire performance is just too great to be ignored.