Paul Newman: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man

(A Memoir, 2022; edited by David Rosenthal from taped conversations, recorded from 1986 to 1991)

George Segal said, “Paul Newman is the last star. He’s the link. We’re just actors.” Impossibly pretty, and self-consciously ‘cool,’ Newman was a Great Big Movie Star for about thirty years, and since filmgoers managed to look past the looks and the sass, he avoided becoming a symbol during most of that time.

His best films are (or include) The Left-Handed Gun (1958), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), The Hustler (1961), Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), Hud (1963), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), W.U.S.A. (1970), The Sting (1973), Absence of Malice (1981) and The Verdict (1982).

Newman emerges as an interesting, occasionally introspective man, who struggles to be a better person. If that sounds like a bromide, the problem with this book is that transcribed conversations (Newman himself deleted the actual recordings) are like most epistolary novels, only worse. Perhaps because he’s been so successful in his career we would rather avoid his psychological ramblings, although they are occasionally profound for all that, as he discusses his early life (beware of the impossible Mom! and don’t look for help from distant Dad!), troubles with alcohol, uncertainties over a career, a careless first marriage, artistic triumphs and disasters, car racing, and juggling movie career(s) [his 2nd wife, Joanne Woodward, was the better actor] with a large growing family. His son from marriage 1, Scott, had a short and troubled life for which Newman takes a full mead of blame.

Newman’s ruminations are broadly but not slavishly chronological, and are interspersed with thoughts from actors, directors, family and friends, etc.  Some examples of his thoughts (‘Newman’s Own’):

“…my mother became a very private woman with only a few close friends. And while she was devoted to her house and her husband, she ultimately despised them both, and mistrusted all of her family. She was the most suspicious woman who ever lived, hysterical with the thought she’d never be accepted or get her fair share of anything. And those suspicions followed us throughout our lives.”

“My one recurring nightmare is only sound, and it has never gone away.

I never enjoyed acting, never enjoyed going out there and doing it. I enjoyed all the preliminary work – the detail, the observation, putting things together…It’s probably a reason I drank as much as I did.

“[in a production of Antigone] The company took a break, but we had to work until three a.m. before I could enter stage left and proclaim “The sergeant found the shovel” with a straight face.

I had no awareness that I could shape things myself.

For me, the experience of making The Silver Chalice became a metaphor for the whole movie junk, the failure of it, the hollowness, the superficiality…I always had that trust fund of appearance. I could get by on that. But I realized that to survive, I needed something else.”

I don’t have a gift for fathering. And then there’s the celebrity aspect…There was a time, long before he died, that I thought the only way I could free Scott to go his own way would be to shoot myself…I never had a sense of my children as people.”

With my children I think about their strengths, their individuality, their disappointments, their eccentricities – and I wonder how to allocate responsibility for all of that.”

[Even his indubitable charitable magnanimity he treats with doubt] “The easiest thing I can do, frankly, is to give away money…What’s hard to give is time…I sometimes suspect the root of my charity came from having no civic impulses at all, just inventing them the way I invented everything else.” [His foundation has reportedly donated hundreds of millions of dollars to various charitable causes.]

Last word to his soulmate, Joanne Woodward: “I used to think the only peace Paul ever found was that peace he used to find in being dead drunk. Now he finds it in racing cars. Peace and grace, the comfort of knowing he has done something well.”

How Paul Newman's dark, revealing new memoir got published - Los Angeles Times


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