Paul Newman – The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man is not a straight memoir as the title suggests, focusing principally on the man rather than the movie actor, whose star shone for many a decade over Hollywood till his death in 2008. Though his career was long, to some, his most enigmatic and most interesting roles were in the early years, the late 50s and throughout the 1960s, with films like Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, and Hud, The Hustler and Cool Hand Luke , where Newman was gorgeously naughty, flouting the rules and sexual mores à la James Dean/Brando. His persona however was darker, more enigmatic on screen than Dean or Brando who were fine actors too.
In Hud released in 1963, Newman came across as cold, even cruel. His scenes with Patricia Neal sizzled however with sexual tension. Neal got an Oscar for her part as the older woman, who knows a thing or two about men, but who cannot help but succumb to Hud and who could blame her. Newman was young, looked fine in a pair of jeans, and when he leant against his mustang and tilted back his Stetson he was a cocky rooster with the morals of a snake.
It was a role which stuck, that of the caddish outsider, the chancer, the loveable criminal and prankster. In Cool Hand Luke he wolfed down fifty hard-boiled eggs , for a bet, the last few needed to be massaged down his throat! I loved the movie – millions did, along with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting.
Reading his memoir – there is no doubt that, in some respects, Newman the man was not a million miles from his screen persona. He was an inveterate prankster and drinker however on an emotional level, he was totally lacking in confidence when it came to women. Joanne Woodward changed all that – she opened him up. Steve Stern, Newman’s close friend, recalls: ‘Joanne relates with her heart, spontaneously… I mean she is a lady whose emotions come right out of her skin. She is sudden and cannot be false: it is not in her system’. Woodward and Newman’s arguments were as loud as their love-making.
The memoir was borne out of taped interviews that Newman and Stern conducted between 1986 and 1991, when Newman was in his early sixties – a time when he was trying to make sense of his life. He roped in his family, friends and film buddies into the project and insisted on frankness and truth.
It was a laudable project but Newman gave up on it. He decided to burn the tapes. Was he done with grief and self-examination? – probably. When he died twenty or so years later, it fell to the editor of this book, David Rosenthal, and perhaps Woodward and most certainly the daughters, to make sense of thousands of pages of tape transcriptions which had survived. and to decide what went in the memoir and what would remain private.
The memoir covers all the areas you would expect – Newman’s unsettling childhood with his overbearing mother and sardonic alcoholic father in Ohio. He describes head butting their bedroom wall with his brother often. Boredom? Frustration? Certainly, very troubling. Newman was not much happier at school. He wasn’t academic he says, but he still managed to win a place at Yale on the theatre course. He is often flippant and self-deprecating.
Where he isn’t flippant is when he is discussing his two wives and six children; his guilt towards his first wife never quite left him. He admits to moments of happiness with Jackie, and they had three children together. Joanna Woodward however eclipsed her, and he admits to having become a sexual being with Woodward. And there were Newman’s battle with alcoholism– he was a functioning drunk, but a drunk all the same, who disappeared into another room at the end of the day. Interestingly his drinking problem was greatly reduced when he started racing cars.
If you think this endeavour to understand himself is self-obsessional – it never really is too much, as there is a Greek chorus of friends and family to either sympathise with him, reason, support or criticize his actions. All of them agree that Newman would have been lost without Woodward.
Newman’s guilt reaches its apogee when he talks of his son Scott, who died aged twenty-eight of a drug overdose . Scott’s death is chillingly told. On receiving news of Scott’s death Newman forces himself to attend a long-standing professional commitment, rather than rush home back to face Scott’s dead body in the mortuary.
‘After Scott’s death, Paul never discussed the situation with his girls, so they never knew how much he grieved’ says the Newman daughters’s therapist.
Clea Newman Soderland saw her father’s wish to explain himself in the tapes as cathartic “Ultimately, it was a snapshot in time-and for sure a pivotal one of realization and reflection…He evolved immensely in the last quarter of his life; he became more present and revelled in giving back.”
Newman raised nearly $1billion for humanitarian and political causes.
Interestingly, Joanne Woodward stands out as being the least verbal participant in the book. Make of it what you will. I believe Woodward was, or is leaving space for her husband – as she did in their professional lives. Woodward was a great actress – but not one we saw much of on our screens after Newman and her married. For her this was difficult but not insurmountable. At the age of ninety-one, Woodward lives a quiet life in Connecticut and is facing her own mortality.
I wonder about the tapes – what they would have given us – if they had been released. Perhaps a few remain. There is something so moving about listening to a voice of a person one loves, one reveres.
I for one, would have loved to have heard Newman on audio book. But we have his films. And the films, especially Hud, were damned good.
Paul Newman The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man is out now, published by C Century, Penguin Random House.