Is Paul Newman’s memoir, “The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man” (Knopf), really Paul Newman’s memoir? As best I can piece together the story, in 1986, the year he turned sixty-one, Newman sat down with an old friend, the screenwriter Stewart Stern, and began recording on a cassette player material for an autobiography.
This continued for several years, during which Stern also interviewed some of Newman’s buddies from college and the Navy, his two wives, his brother and other members of his family, friends and show-business colleagues, including screenwriters, directors, producers, agents, and actors—pretty much everyone he could find who’d had some relationship to Newman. By 1991, Stern had recorded more than a hundred interviews. Then Newman asked him to stop. In 1998, Newman took the cassettes to the dump and burned them all.
Newman died, of cancer, in 2008. About ten years later, some of his children (he had six altogether; his only son died in 1978) approached Ethan Hawke to discuss making a documentary. Hawke learned that Stern (who died in 2015) had had transcripts of the tapes made—maybe Stern had worried that Newman might destroy them—and he used the transcripts to put together a six-part series on the lives and careers of Newman and his second wife, the actress Joanne Woodward. It’s called “The Last Movie Stars,” and it aired this summer on HBO Max. Meanwhile, the transcripts were edited by David Rosenthal, and made into the book that Knopf has just published.
A lot of the television series is Ethan Hawke Zooming with his pals, few of whom knew either Newman or Woodward, and most of whom present onscreen like they just rolled out of bed. (The lockdown look, I guess.) The friends read from the transcripts, each having been assigned a part. Laura Linney reads Woodward, for instance. (Linney actually does know Woodward, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2008 and is still living.) George Clooney does an uncanny Paul Newman. Gore Vidal, who knew both Newman and Woodward, is expertly impersonated in the series by the actor Brooks Ashmanskas, although he’s absent from the book.
Clips from Newman and Woodward’s movies (they made around ninety films between them, some of which are forgettable) are used to “illustrate” incidents in the actors’ lives, a device that doesn’t work perfectly. There are more recent interviews, with people like David Letterman, who teased Newman about his charity work but became a convert, and Martin Scorsese, who directed Newman in “The Color of Money,” the role for which he won his only Oscar. Newman’s children and two of his grandchildren are heard from as well. “He was a really excellent grandfather,” one of the grandchildren says. The children’s feelings seem a bit mixed.
Hawke was able to fill in the years after the tape bonfire, when Newman was involved with his philanthropic activities. (He is said to have raised and given away more than half a billion dollars, much of it profits from his Newman’s Own brand of food products.) And the series includes classic scenes from the best movies, along with amusing fugitive bits, like a 1953 episode of the television program “You Are There” called “The Death of Socrates,” in which Newman plays Plato. When it’s Paul Newman, you want to see him, so the show is a lot more satisfying than the book.
One question that no one involved in these otherwise worthy enterprises addresses is why, more than twenty years ago, Newman burned the tapes. Was it because he didn’t like what other people were saying about him? Was it because he didn’t like what he was saying about himself? Was it because he decided, after five years of reminiscing, that he wasn’t a very interesting person? Whatever the reason, the auto-da-fé at the town dump leaves an impression that Newman did not want a memoir. But now he has one. And he obviously had no say about what got put into it.
Another question is why Newman’s children wanted all this stuff to come out. They say it was to set the record straight. As with any star of Newman’s magnitude, a lot of myth and rumor accrete to the image. (See, e.g., “Paul Newman: The Man Behind the Baby Blues: His Secret Life Exposed,” by Darwin Porter.) But even though the memoir was put together by friends and family, it has a slightly diminishing effect.
Newman was self-deprecating, well past the point of modesty. He was self-deprecating about his self-deprecation. It can grow a little monotonous. The memoir’s title is apt: Newman thought of himself (or he said he thought of himself) as nothing special, just an ordinary guy—who happened to look like a Greek god, but that was an accident of birth, a burden as much as a gift. It was not something he could take credit for.
Newman grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, outside Cleveland—his father ran a successful sporting-goods store—and he felt that he embodied a suburban, middle-American blandness all his life. He always considered himself Jewish, although his mothe r was not. He was politically liberal, and served as a Eugene McCarthy delegate from Connecticut at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, in Chicago, where police beat antiwar protesters in the streets. He later made it onto Richard Nixon’s “enemies list,” a point of pride. But socially he was, in many respects, a square. He once described himself as “an emotional Republican.”
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