Review: Paul Newman memoir stuns with brutal honesty
“The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man: A Memoir” by Paul Newman (Knopf):
Paul Newman may have been a better actor than many moviegoers realized. Self-assured in his talents the Oscar winner was not. A sexual ace with the ladies? Hardly. Nor was he the devoted husband and family man presented to the public.
Newman grappled with alcoholism, too, and the man who famously played fun-loving Butch Cassidy could turn into an ugly drunk before passing out. After he became a social activist in the 1960s and ’70s he considered getting into politics, but thought his drinking might become an issue. The movie star who craved privacy had a lot to keep private.
Says who? Newman himself, in “The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man,” a stunning memoir by an actor who could convincingly play a charismatic but self-destructive outsider because he knew the breed all too well. Just watch “The Hustler,” “Hud,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Verdict” or “Nobody’s Fool.”
Newman, who died in 2008 at age 83, began working on a memoir in 1986 with a pal and confidant, writer Stewart Stern. After several years of effort that included recorded interviews with relatives, friends and colleagues, their project began to drift. Newman’s daughters Melissa and Clea decided to turn that raw material into a book punctuated by first-person accounts by others, including Newman’s first wife as well as his second, actress Joanne Woodward. The result is a brutally frank reflection on a life filed with self-doubt.
Newman grew up in a well-off but dysfunctional household in Shaker Heights, Ohio, his parents marrying when their first son was conceived out of wedlock. Paul soon followed, not making the marriage any happier. His heavy-drinking father was emotionally distant while his mother might beat him one moment and hug him the next.
His mother draws the most criticism in his memoir, followed closely by Newman himself. She became a symbol of his bottled-up emotions and low self-esteem, and success did little to wash away those feelings. When he became a star, his mother sent him clips of negative reviews. After one slight too many — an insult aimed at Woodward — Newman didn’t speak to her for 15 years.
The blue-eyed future sex symbol recalls being terribly shy as a teenager, a short and skinny kid smitten with girls but more comfortable playing a laugh-getting buffoon. In college a date once told him, “I like going out with you because you’re so harmless.” An unfocused student, he mainly chased girls and drank.
A stint in the U.S. Navy flying as a radioman gunner during World War II put some meat on Newman’s bones — he grew 5 inches to 5-foot-10 — and forced some maturity on him. The service also gave Newman ample opportunity for some serious boozing and tomfoolery, neither helping him overcome his belief that he was a poser.
What’s an insecure showoff to do? “Acting gave me a sanctuary where I was able to create emotions without being penalized for having them,” Newman writes. Yet he also says he never really liked the craft but discovered that he was good at it, at least in the eyes of others, and worked hard to make it a career.
Good looks, charm and an air of confidence provided an effective cover. He went from understudy in the 1953 Broadway production of “Picnic” to a featured role, then to starring in the movies. It sounds so meta: the professional faker faking it so professionally.
Things just seemed to go his way — “Newman’s luck,” he called it. The irresponsible drinker booted from the Kenyon College football team found a place in college theater. The lazy student managed to graduate and later study drama at Yale. The immature husband and father pivoted to eager adulterer when Woodward made him feel sexy. Yet he was noncommittal about their future for several years before divorcing the mother of his three children to marry his co-star in 1958.
Those left in the wake of Newman’s selfish pursuits were the unlucky ones, especially his son, Scott, whose own problems ended with a fatal drug overdose at age 28. Newman felt guilty, but he also believed people were ultimately responsible for themselves. Such reflections often smack of rationalization, with Newman offering a shrug of sorts by concluding that he could have done both better and worse.
“The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man” lacks the keen look at filmmaking that usually punctuates a movie star’s story. While a bumpy, disjointed confessional, it also smolders with introspection as Newman tries to ascertain what he couldn’t see in himself that so many others did.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Anne Bancroft: A Life” (University Press of Kentucky).
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