Paul Newman: A Life
by Shawn Levy
Reviewed by Chris Bolton
A co-worker told me a story about a friend of hers who used to work for Paul Newman in his Manhattan apartment. She claims he had a framed letter on the wall of his bathroom that congratulated the Oscar-winning actor on his wonderful Newman's Own products and praised the charitable donations made with the company's profits ($200 million and counting). The letter concludes, "P.S. I hear you've been in some movies. I'll try to catch those sometime."
I can't verify whether this letter exists, much less that it hangs in Newman's bathroom, but I would bet the bank on it. If there's one thing Newman despised above all else, it was fame; and if there's one thing he loved, it was getting the piss taken out of Hollywood and its self-righteous, self-important "superstars" -- himself included. It is just Newman's rotten luck that he happened to be one of the biggest superstars in the Hollywood sky.
Shawn Levy's Paul Newman: A Life is bolstered by uncanny timing. Levy writes in his acknowledgments that he got the idea to start this biography in 2005. Paul Newman passed away on September 26, 2008, giving Levy's book an ending as perfect as it is bittersweet. While Levy never personally spoke with Newman, he has compiled an exhaustive collection of Newman's interviews over the years, which means his subject's distinctive voice is well-represented in all its witty, self-deprecating glory.
Newman was the rare movie star who didn't just coast on charisma and vanity projects; he could really act. He'd studied acting in college, first at Kenyon, then Yale, and survived a grueling summer stock schedule in Wisconsin -- but he really earned his chops at Elia Kazan's Actors Studio. To actors, being part of the Studio in the 1950s is like saying you hung out in Paris in the '20s with folks named Ernest, Gertrude, and F. Scott. The Studio's star pupil, Marlon Brando, had recently turned the theater world on its ear with his groundbreaking performance in Kazan's production of Tennessee Williams's play A Streetcar Named Desire. In the aftermath, an entire generation of New York actors pursued what came to be called (often derisively) the Method:
Stereotypically, this combination of unwelled emotion and raw technique could produce overemoting and mumbling; at its finest, though, it gave rise to the Stanley Kowalski and Terry Malloy of Marlon Brando and to the Cal Trask and Jim Stark of James Dean, characters ripped apart by powerful emotional struggles in a way that seemed more real than anything that had ever been filmed before.
Despite breakout stage roles in William Inge's Picnic and The Desperate Hours, Newman wasn't one of the more highly regarded among Studio alumni. He was considered too attractive, dismissed as a prettier Brando wannabe, with his intense blue eyes coming under particular scrutiny. He didn't exactly get an auspicious start in Hollywood, either, with a starring role in a historical flop called The Silver Chalice, giving a performance so awful that Newman himself later took out a full-page ad apologizing for it.
Once Newman found his groove, however, he rarely slipped out. The man was nearly incapable of delivering a line of dialogue that didn't sound completely convincing, and it was the rare Newman performance that wasn't riveting (even if the film surrounding it was somewhat less so). While Newman himself professed his range to be limited (after Chalice, he never again took on a role that required an accent), he delivered indelible performances in disparate roles in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Hustler, The Long, Hot Summer, Cool Hand Luke, and Hud. Watching these films, I'm overcome with remorse that scientists failed to perfect cloning technology while Newman was still alive so that future generations would never have to exist without a brand-new performance by a young Paul Newman.
Stardom and acclaim eventually found the man -- in spades -- and he resented the attention. In later chapters, Levy branches out from Newman's film work to his noteworthy secondary pursuits -- namely, race-car driving and philanthropy. Although I can't say I was electrified by the details of Newman's racing career, I'm grateful that Levy didn't neglect what became an important aspect of his life. Much more fascinating to me was the story of how Newman and his friend, the writer A. E. Hotchner, concocted the first bottle of Newman's famous salad dressing, ultimately building it into a giant company that donated vast amounts of money to charities such as Newman's own Hole in the Wall Camps.
Despite appearances, Newman wasn't a perfect golden boy. Another, equally famous aspect of Newman's life was his marriage of more than 40 years to the actress Joanne Woodward. While something of a fairy tale among infamously brief and tumultuous Hollywood unions, their marriage wasn't without its own shades of darkness; the relationship began while Newman was still married to his first wife (and mother of his three children). Years later, during the filming of Butch Cassidy, Newman had a brief affair with Hollywood journalist Nancy Bacon that became very public when Bacon published a book a few years later (nonetheless, it was news to me).
Newman could be a distant father, but he was severely shaken by the death by overdose of his only son, Scott, in 1978. It's not hard to draw a line, as Levy does, between Newman blaming himself for the tragic loss and seeking to make amends with his philanthropic pursuits.
Levy also observes that Newman's later years are marked by some truly astonishing film performances, notably in The Verdict, The Color of Money (for which he finally won his first Oscar), and Nobody's Fool. These later roles have a nearly constant vein of regret and disappointment, and the world-renowned superstar Paul Newman was somehow never less than convincing when he portrayed a down-on-his-luck loser who never got a single part of his life right.
[Newman] would...spend the final decades of his career playing coots -- but coots still capable of producing showers of wit and acid and pep and steel. And it would be hard to tell whether he enjoyed the role of the crusty old customer more on the screen or in life -- because he reached a point, finally, when the two were almost inexorably intertwined.
In Paul Newman: A Life, one of the film world's greatest stars gets a biography suitable to his legacy. Shawn Levy fills the book with compelling anecdotes from each of Newman's film productions and manages to fill the pages with Newman's distinctive voice, despite never having exchanged a word with the man. Film lovers and Newman fans alike will be spellbound. Like me, they might find themselves up far past their bedtimes, promising to read just one more chapter and that's it... and, after that, just one more... The book is every bit as irresistible as its subject.