Monday, May 30, 2011

Paul Newman : A Life - Shawn Levy

Cover of the American edition.
' Paul Newman's craft was acting. His passion was racing. His love was his family and friends. And his heart and sole were dedicated to helping make the world a better place for all. '

 The press release from Newman's Own Foundation on Paul Newman's death, Friday, September 26th, 2008.

 Unfortunately I don't have the time I wish I had to read as many actor/actresses biographers as I'd like to. I just happened to see this book the first step I took into our local library the other day. I was only after some very light fiction, but as soon as saw this I stuck it under my arm and read it in two nights. For me it is somewhat poignant as Cars 2 is to be released soon and it brings home to me what a great loss he is to us all.

 Well if you don't know who Paul Newman was then there is really no hope for you at all! Either that or it is a very isolated cave you have living in for a very long time!! Newman is a name that needs no introduction, and Shawn Levy's biography is the first published since the very sad passing of this true cinematic legend and humanitarian. There have been twelve books written about Newman over the years, of which I have read the grand total of ...none! After reading this book though I was surprised how much I knew about the man and also how much I didn't!

 Firstly Newman's parent were Jewish. Newman is a bit of a give away when you think about it but Paul himself wasn't a practising Jew being quite oblivious to the religion as a whole. The only time in his life his origins were brought into question was when he met Sam Speigel for a casting session. Speigel was himself a Jew, and concious of it to the point of signing himself S.P. Eagle. He asked Newman why he didn't change his name to avoid Jewish stigma and what he would call himself. A green Paul said, S.P. Newman. He didn't get the role!! Which role? On the Waterfront!!

 The whole biography is full of interesting titbits like this, and as always it is interesting to see the roles he was offered and turned down. For example:

Both he and Robert Redford were initially going to make Serpico together. Obviously it never happened and Al Pacino got the role. They were also both considered for The Man Who Would Be King, but Paul told John Huston ' to get Caine and Connery for Christsake '!

The Eiger Sanction and Dirty Harry - Clint Eastwood. ( Thank god for posterity Newman never became Harry!! ).

Robin and Marion - Sean Connery.

Cry Freedom - Kevin Kline.

Superman - Marlon Brando.

Romancing the Stone - Michael Douglas.

 He was also approached to make Papermoon with his daughter Nell. Ryan O'Neal got the role with his own daughter Tatum ). Interestingly Nell was banned by both Paul and Joanne from auditoning for the Exorcist, the role made famous by Linda Blair. They didn't want her involved in the industry but she of course persisted, giving up her acting career in her early thirties at the start of the 1980's.

 Paul Newman is regarded as a man within an extra-ordinary amount of natural talent. This really is untrue as he was actually a man who worked extremely hard to achieve his successes and wasn't naturally talented at all. He achieved everthing through hard work and dedication, something he learnt from his father. When he started acting he was quite poor at it and yet persisted. It is unbelievable to think that the actor we now know started out with such inauspicious beginnings. He started out, as so many actors did, on the stage, and slowly worked his way up into television before his break out role in the awful, The Silver Chalice. All reviews took notice of his looks but were adamant he couldn't act, and wouldn't get anywhere on his looks alone.

 Well has an actor defied the odds so much as Newman did?! After The Silver Chalice his star took off, even to the point of him buying out his Warner Bros. contract to further his career, and be his own man. I don't have to add anything to what he achieved do I?!! Ten Oscar nominations, one win,  an Oscar for services to the industry, and numerous other distinctions and awards are indicative  enough.

 Unlike many actors Newman took his craft extremely seriously. He worked extremely hard as an actor, and what looks like natural talent is actually dedication and much rehearsing. He was noted for such efforts even though some actors found him hard to work with for the amount of time he put in rehearsing a scene before shooting it. Most actors came in, read and memorised the lines, and then shot the scene. Throughout the whole book though Ava Gardner was the only one who has ever gone on record as saying Newman wasn't much of an actor!! At the start of his Hollywood career he suffered from being known as the poor man's Marlon Brando. It irked him as they both came from the same school of method acting, and it took him many years to shake the image off. Interestingly Joanne Woodward had dated Brando before meeting Newman!!

 The whole book obviously goes through Newman's whole acting carrer. He done it all, from stage, television, film , directing, producing. He had much success in all fields, and his share of flops too. During the late sixtes he was the most 'bankable' star in America. During the 1970's his choice of roles deserted him and his star waned somewhat. He admits he starred in The Towering Inferno solely for the money, something he had never done before as he took roles he was interested in playing, and felt were within his abilities.

 It is amazing that Newman never felt himself a good actor. It was part of his self-effacing persona, but by the end of the sixies he was bored with acting as he felt he had done all the roles he could within his abilities. It wasn't until the 1980's that his talents shone again. He rates Martin Scorsese highly as a director because he felt he stretched him as an actor and got things out of him he didn't knew he could play. Of course he went on to finally win a belated Oscar for The Colour Of Money. I've always felt it was belated and some of the evidence does point to this. Many of his previous nominations were against fairly mediocre films and performances, and it is obvious he was over looked for far too long Oscar wise.

 After Cars Newman wanted to make one more film as a goodbye to the industry. For several years he and Redford looked for a suitable script but it never came to pass. Redford actually rang him one day with one but Newman told him he was finished and had retired. He was actually ill and dying with cancer. The pairing of Newman and Redford in a final hurrah was sadly not to be.

 Newman's enduring marriage to Joanne Woodward is legendary. I knew he had been married previoulsy but didn't realise he had three children to his former wife. It is funny to read some of Woodward's views on Newman, especially in regards to his sex symbol status. She once said he has six children and snores in his sleep, how can he possibly be sexy'!! But millions of women thought so!! He was endlessly mobbed by them and Wooward was always amused by watching women literally go weak at the knees whenever he entered a room. His sex appeal even saw his twelve year old daughter asked by a girl friend whether she, 'felt like raping her father'!! At twelve!!!!

 Newman was famously adamant about protecting his privacy. He didn't like being a sex symbol. His blue eyes are legendary and they gave him no end of grief. He took them for granted and was known to say ' I didn't ask for them ', and got annoyed by strangers asking to see them. He is quoted as saying, 'There's nothing that makes you feel more like a piece of meat. It's like saying to a woman, open your blouse,  I want to see your tits.'  As a sex symbol Newman only strayed from his wife once. This after his famous quote as to why he wasn't a womanizer, ' When I've got steak, why would I go out for hambuger'. The thing was his only daliance was with a woman called Nancy Bacon. So he did leave the steak once.....for some bacon!! But she is reported as saying he wasn't very good in bed. I can believe this as Newman doesn't have the reputation as a strayer. Sex symbol he may have been but in all reality he was no Casanova and didn't want to be.

 He is also famous for his looks that didn't seem to age. At forty he looked ten years younger. I reviewed The Left Handed Gun several months ago and assumed Newman to be in his early twenties. He was in fact over thirty!! I couldn't believe it, and he certainly looked younger than he was for most of his life. He never lost his looks until he was dying when he became quite skeletal from cancer. In a twist of irony with The Green Lantern being released soon it was interesting to read that Newman was the base for which Gil Kane designed his comic book character, Hal Jordan, from!!! ( See page 86 ).

  The Newman's mariage may have been legendary but did have its moments. Amazingly at times both partners kept it together in an industry known for its sham marriages. Paul and Joanne's wasn't, and was the real deal to the end. I've always admired them for that fact in a Hollywood riddled with egos and falseness. This trueness though had a sad ending for Newman's son. Scott was Paul's only son and he suffered from being placed into his famous fathers shadow by the public. He felt he had to live up to his fathers image as so many children born to famous parents did. He mirrored the likes of Humphrey Bogart's son, Stephen, and Robert F. Kenndy's son Michael who, like Scott, died from a drug overdose. Scott's death did rock the Newman's but their daughter opened a foundation to help others with drug problems as a result, The Scott Newman Foundation.

 Newman was basically the big name star who stared philanthrophy before it became fashionable. His cooking was legendary, and he was known for sneaking home made popcorn into theatres. He was also better known for taking his own salad dressing to restaurants and washing actual salads in the rest rooms, then re-dressing them!! This led to him and a friend devising a way of making his salad dressing in bulk and selling it for charity. The way it was devised and sold is extremely interesting. and well worth a read. The rest as they say is history. At time of publishing US$400 million had been donated to charities according to Levy. He even opened several camps in America that spread around the world for children with cancer that cost the parents nothing to send their sick children to. Just an amazing man who used his own (unwanted ) celebrity for so many others.

 Newman also was a champion of Civil Rights and unashamedly tended many rallies. He even threw his support behind several presidential candidates. One year he rallied against Richard Nixon. Somehow he ended up on Nixon's infamous 'hate' list. Nixon famously said, 'Tell Newman he's a great actor even though he thinks I'm a losy politician!! Newman's life outside of acting was just one charity or cause after enough. His selflessnes was just staggering as you realise the time he put in over many years.  I mean he was at it when over 80 years of age!

  Newman was very private and didn't like the publicity his fame gathered. He famously didn't give out autographs when asked. He was adamant he was a private person outside of films, and he kept to it as well . When he developed a love of racing he told those around him it was no publicity stunt as he took it all seriously, and his name wasn't to be used in any publicity of the sport. Again, like his acting, Newman developed his skill slowly and carefully. He didn't start racing until he was forty and is still the oldest driver at 70 to  win a professional race in the States!! He came to be highly regarded as down to earth and not one who threw his celebrity status around.  This was a trait that followed him everywhere in life though. He co-owned his own racing team when he became too old to race himself, and again was known for his down to earth manner. He won his last race at the age of 80, and at speeds of 180mph!! He became a talented driver but it was through hard work and application, probably the two things that really highlight his life.

 So without doubt Paul Newman was an interesting man. But what really comes through is the fact that he was so ordinary. He was just an everday guy who worked very hard and had some success doing it. This ordinariness is so hard to fathom when you look at his achievements. When you do you can only admire them all the more for keeping his down to earth style. Incredibly he was a functioning alcoholic for most of his adult life drinking 24 cans of Coors beer a day, and even half a bottle of scotch until he gave it up after Joanne's insistence. He also smoked heavily, and yet counter balanced it by very regular excersise, and was always trying to quit by eating carrot and celery sticks!! He was human after all with flaws like everyone else.

 This biography is very good and I like how Shawn Levy has steered away from the trap of many biographers of straight out character assassination. He points out at one stage how a previous biographer was some what anti-Newman to the point of calling him a 'homo'. The quickest way to slur a man is to call him homosexual after all. As I have alluded to Newman really wasn't a wonanizer and to think he was is just fanciful thinking. Even in college Newman wasn't known for 'chasing' girls even though he had girlfriends. He was actually quite a gentleman when it came to woman sexually. His looks didn't mean he used them for sexual purposes.

 One trap too of a biographer is that of hero-worship. Levy keeps his under control and I feel this is a balanced Biography. Warts and all you might say. He paints Newman as the normal man he was with his strengths, weaknesses, and flaws. Towards the very end a bit of gushing occurs, but Levy builds it up nicley as he re-caps Newmans successes, particualrly as a philanthropist. The end pages are quite sad as he describes Newman's failing health and eventual death. The last two pages are full of fitting, and touching, epitaphs of the times. This one from George Clooney stood out for me as he is similar to Newman in style as a celebrity, and self effacing human being:

" He set the bar too high for the rest of us. Not just actors, but for all of us."

 That about sums up Paul Newman for me, and it is a great last word of a great man from one who himself is quite a nice guy too!!

 This is a worthy read full of interesting facts and anecdotes. I found it very easy to read and  believe it can be managed by all reading levels. It is well balanced being neither a character assassination or overly gushey. May be it achieves what any good biography should do; make me put down the book and make me 'feel' as if I'd actually met Paul Newman. I'm satisfied it did!! Paul Newman was an outstanding, down to earth man and this biography is a worthy look and appraisal of this remarkable actor, man, husband, father, driver, and humanitarian. Highly recommended to all.

Cover to the English addition. Shawn Levy prefers the American cover as he considers it more 'sexy' Something I'm sure Newman wouldn't like as he didn't consider himself a sex symbol. It was an image that didn't sit comfortably with him.


  1. I love reading celeb bios. I'm glad you enjoyed this one and found out a lot of interesting tidbits. Was this the one that was released shortly after his death and was considered a bit controversial?

  2. Brent.

    Im really not sure. Judging from the dates of the other bios in this then I believe this is the lastest one written. If it's controversial I don't know why. I suppose with any celebrity there will always be that though won't there?!
    I liked it when I compare it agaist other biographes I've read, especially ones I didn't regard very highly!

  3. Hi Brent. Since you can't log into your account, I wanted to advise you to use a different browser! It helped to the majority of us who had the same problem.

  4. Brent.
    Thanks Lesya...I'm trying but I'm also having trouble with getting my alternative browser to work!!

  5. It's funny I've been a fan of Paul Newman as long as I can remember but I've never read any of the books about him. After reading this excellent post I'll definitely but looking at Shaun Levy's book and on the subject of Blogger and browsers have you tried Google Chrome?
    I was having the same problems as you but since I switched everything is working fine.

  6. Brent.
    Thanks Paul!! Am trying but am having all sorts of problems!! It is bloody annoying and should have been fixed by now.

    This is a good biography in my opinion. It is balanced as Levy is neither attacking Newman or being overly gushy. I'm currently reading a biography on Alec Guinness and as a comparison Levy's biography of Newamn is much the superior in my opinion.
    It is always interesting to read a good biography and look at the person behind what we see on screen.