Who Paul Newman Was—and Who He Wanted to Be

Newman told Stern that the first role he felt emotionally comfortable in was that of Frank Galvin, the alcoholic lawyer in “The Verdict,” which came out in 1982, rather late in his career. “I never had to ask myself to do anything in that picture,” Newman said. “Never had to call upon any reserves. It was always right there. I never prepared for anything, never had to go off in a corner, it was there immediately. It was wonderful.”

After he made “Winning,” in 1969, a movie about a race-car driver, for which he was paid a record 1.1 million dollars, Newman took up auto racing, and he got very good at it. He is in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest person to win a professionally sanctioned race—the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. He was seventy. He attributed his success as a driver, too, to persistence. “The only thing I ever felt graceful at was racing a car,” he said. “And that took me ten years.”

Among the things the children want to amend is what one of them calls “the public fairy-tale” of Newman’s fifty-year marriage to Woodward. Woodward dated a lot of men before she met Newman, including Marlon Brando. But she was not glamorous. You wouldn’t know her in the street, which is why she could play many types. You would know Newman, which is why he couldn’t. They had an intense, lifelong love affair, and a big part of it, which they spoke about frankly in interviews, was sex. “Joanne gave birth to a sexual creature,” Newman says in the memoir. “I’m simply a creature of her invention.” They also bonded professionally. They made sixteen movies together; he directed her in five of them.

For a long time, though, the relationship was clandestine, because Newman was already married, to a woman named Jackie Witte, and he couldn’t bring himself to ask for a divorce. “Impossible times,” he told Stern. “I was a failure as an adulterer.” (It’s not clear what counts as a success in that field.) The affair made him wretched, and, incredibly, it lasted in secret for five years, during which time Jackie gave birth to a daughter. Newman said that he felt “guilty as hell” about his treatment of Jackie: “I’ll carry it with me for the rest of my life.” Jackie eventually remarried, but she wasn’t too happy about what he had done to her, either.

Woodward was as ambitious and, in the beginning, as accomplished as Newman—in 1958, she won Best Actress for “The Three Faces of Eve”—but after they began having children she often stayed home while her husband was on location. “Being Paul’s wife is my career,” she said then. Over the years, that sentiment seems to have curdled somewhat.

They fought a lot, and it is intimated that Newman had affairs. At least one is known, with a minor Hollywood actress named Nancy Bacon (“Sex Kittens Go to College,” “The Private Lives of Adam and Eve”). It began while he was making “Butch Cassidy,” seems to have gone on for a year or more, and got into the tabloids. (You won’t find it mentioned in either the television series or the book. Bacon recounts it in her own memoir, “Legends and Lipstick.” Newman’s biographer Shawn Levy says her story checks out.) In 1983, Newman and Woodward renewed their vows.

The problem with all this biographical insight is not that Paul Newman wasn’t Cool Hand Luke around the house. That’s no surprise. The problem is that his flaws were so, well, ordinary. People do drink too much, cheat on their spouses even though they love them, and wish they had been better parents. What people generally do not do is become the biggest male star in Hollywood and get nominated for ten Academy Awards. There’s got to be more to Paul Newman than this.

“It keeps me focussed.”

Cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez and Al Batt

It seems that most people who knew Newman thought that there was. In the memoir, the juxtaposition of their testimonies with Newman’s self-analysis produces a sort of cognitive dissonance. Here is Arthur Newman, Paul’s brother: “Paul ended up with drive and energy and resourcefulness. . . . He gets this self-starting built into him and what happens to him? He becomes a success.” And: “He was loveable, had a great personality, and made people instantly like him. Furthermore, he was smart and he was perceptive and he had all the ingredients no matter what he did.”

A Navy comrade: “From a thousand yards away, I could tell it was Newman coming. . . . He had a certain stride about him; he was a confident kid even then as a nineteen-year-old.” A college friend: “He was probably the most well-known guy on campus. He drank more. He screwed more. He was tough and cold—it turned on the girls. They liked him because he was the devil.”

A fellow-student in the Yale drama department, where Newman studied after Kenyon, referring to a coveted role: “Paul got it because he was by far the most magnetic and attractive of all the actors there. . . . He got [it] because he made sure he got it.” George Roy Hill, who directed Newman in “Butch Cassidy,” “The Sting,” and “Slap Shot”: “You never saw him act—he just was.” A family therapist: “Paul is a very loving and caring father. He has tremendous respect and love for his kids.” It’s choose-your-own Newman, I guess.

In 1954, Newman broke into Hollywood, after some Broadway success, with a turkey called “The Silver Chalice.” He played the part of Basil, an artist who makes the chalice used at the Last Supper. Bible stories were often big moneymakers in those days. This one was not. Newman called it “the worst movie produced in the fifties,” and in 1963, when it was scheduled to be broadcast on a local television station in Los Angeles, he took out an ad in the papers: “Paul Newman apologizes every night this week—Channel 9.” (The ad seems to have increased viewership.)

In 1958, Newman played opposite Elizabeth Taylor as Brick in an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s psychosexual melodrama “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” for which he received the first of his Best Actor nominations. Newman looked very fine in a T-shirt, and he could play a drunk, both useful in the role. But psychosexual melodrama was not his genre. His persona was too cool, too dry, too laconic.

That persona derived not from the Broadway stage but from Westerns. On the stage, you have to act. In the movies, if the camera loves you, you just have to be in the frame. The movie camera loved Paul Newman as it has loved few other leading men, and he made a career out of underacting—just as the actor he was often compared to starting out, Marlon Brando, made a career out of overacting. (Newman admired Brando, but the comparison annoyed him. “I wonder if anyone ever mistakes him for Paul Newman,” he said. “I’d like to see that.”)

The movies that established this cinematic persona were “The Hustler” (1961) and “Hud” (1963). “Hombre” and “Cool Hand Luke” came out in 1967, “Butch Cassidy” in 1969. They were all hits, and the posters sold the star, not the film: “Paul Newman Is Hud.” He was one of the biggest box-office draws of the nineteen-sixties—and there was almost nothing sixties about him. The music he liked was Bach.

Newman was part of the generation of male Hollywood stars who replaced Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant—a generation that included Redford, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Steve McQueen, and Sidney Poitier. Along with a fresh crop of screenwriters, directors, and producers, they built the New Hollywood on the ruins of the old studio system.

The New Hollywood was a great place for leading men. It was less welcoming to women. The new female stars—Julie Andrews, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Ross, Natalie Wood—commanded far fewer leading roles than had the “screen goddesses” of Old Hollywood, like Joan Crawford, Vivien Leigh, Bette Davis, Grace Kelly, Katharine Hepburn, and Ingrid Bergman, women who could reliably carry a picture. Marilyn Monroe, potentially the biggest star in the new cohort, died in 1962.

The female characters in Newman’s movies are either damaged and expendable, like Piper Laurie in “The Hustler” (she kills herself) and Patricia Neal in “Hud” (she leaves town on a late-night bus), or they are peripheral eye candy, like Katharine Ross in “Butch Cassidy.” “Butch Cassidy” is pure bromance. Ross has almost nothing to do in that picture except watch Newman perform tricks on a bicycle while listening to Burt Bacharach’s maddening “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” in a dramatically pointless scene. She leaves the story before the finale.

There is one female role in “Cool Hand Luke,” Luke’s dying mother (Jo Van Fleet), who has a single, four-minute scene with Newman. (I don’t count the young lady washing her car, a part that has, and needs, no dialogue.) There are only minor female roles in “The Sting,” another Newman-Redford bromance and one of the top moneymakers of Newman’s career. As Newman’s fiancée in “The Towering Inferno,” yet another big box-office bromance, this one with Steve McQueen (all right, who has the bluest eyes?), Faye Dunaway is tasked mostly with looking concerned. There are many female characters in “Harper,” a hardboiled sexist travesty released in 1966. They all have the hots for the lead, who has his way with them (much like in the early James Bond movies).

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