Paul Newman did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Like Me.
Paul Newman film career had a false start where his first appearance was the leading role in the biblical epic The Silver Chalice. The film was poorly received and Newman was so embarrassed by his own performance he took out a trade add asking people not to watch the film when it hit television, and I would say probably contributed greatly to him turning down the leading role in Ben-Hur. Newman though would get his second chance with Somebody Up There Likes Me which apparently was made for all the cool actors around at the time. I mean for starters there is the King of cool himself Steve McQueen in a small part. In addition to that James Dean was originally pegged for the part, which is noticeable with Dean's former co-star Sal Mineo in the cast, but his untimely death left them to quickly replace him cool hand Luke himself Paul Newman. This film proved to be Newman's big break and in the early scenes it seems perhaps a little too obvious that Newman is trying to make himself known.
Newman is not an actor known for his accents, usually keeping it towards slight variations on his own accent. You don't need to be great at accents to be a great actor though, and Newman is a great actor. Newman here though clearly was refining himself still as the role of Rocky Graziano with a very heavy, wise guy style, New York accent. Newman overplays it a tad actually in that it's slightly cartoony. It actually seems like Newman might be doing his own attempt at a Brando style characterization, but he's not really as good at it as say Richard Harris in This Sporting Life. Newman even does try for a few mannerisms at all that also don't really quite work either. It probably sounds like I am trashing Newman's performance here, but it was his break out for a reason. Newman thankfully does not go so far with his accent and mannerisms that his work here that it is not salvageable. I mean what what he does fails to really work though it's not so bad that it makes this a bad performance and thankfully a few mannerisms and an accent are not all there is to Newman's performance.
Newman does not cover up what made him such a great performer though. Newman's very natural presence still shines through even if it is technically partially obscured. When Newman is silent in this film he is terrific. Newman reflects what his character is going through quite well with just his more reactionary moments, since Newman does not really go for the mannerisms unless he is speaking. Newman though carries a scene so well even when he does not say a single word. He does match the transitions rather well as he begins with the rough callousness of a troubled youth, and he is convincing as he slowly makes Rocky mature after he is imprisoned both as a civilian in a state prison then as a soldier in a stockade. It's not the most remarkable transformation to be sure, but it's a good one thanks to Newman. As the story proceeds Newman actually seems to become more comfortable in the part, and actually does his best work once Rocky becomes reformed while beginning his professional boxing career.
The romantic scenes between Newman and Pier Angeli as Rocky's wife are highlights in Newman performance. Newman reveals his considerable charm here, and even successfully manipulates it within the whole rough Rocky act to make Rocky's relationship with Norma a rather sweet one. Newman manages to make that kinda the whole crux of his work as the warmth he brings in those scenes leaves Rocky someone you want to see succeed. The last act of his story is Rocky basically accepting the mistakes of his past in order to finally allow him to fully accept his reformation. Really the last part basically is quick replay of the previous transformation, but Newman does well enough once again. This is never quite a great performance and it is not one of Newman's best performance to be sure. Newman though seemed to take note himself and he would late give much more naturalistic performances. Even with the unnecessary actory additions by Newman here his appeal as a star, and talent as an actor still comes through to give a satisfying performance.