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Review | What Paul Newman wanted us to know about him – and maybe not?

What do you do with a memoir that maybe the memoir didn’t want you to see? Between 1986 and 1991, Paul Newman sat down with screenwriter friend Stewart Stern to discuss his life and career. At Newman’s request, Stern also recorded hundreds of hours of interviews with the actor’s friends and family. The whole venture was supposed to become some kind of book, but somewhere in there Newman changed his mind, burned the tapes, and moved on.

Did he think this would be the end? Or had he foreseen that, three decades later, surviving relatives would dig up Stern’s transcripts and get the process going again—through their combined efforts to create a sort of multiplatform tell-tale?

In July, some 14 years after Newman’s death at age 83, HBO’s captivating six-hour documentary “The Last Movie Stars” was released, in which a cast of elite actors reenacted the old interviews through an off-screen table reading. (By divine right, George Clooney uttered Newman, but the actual star was Brooks Ashmanskas, who siphoned Gore Vidal straight from the open bar of heaven.) The current month has spawned an audiobook featuring Jeff Daniels and, almost as an afterthought, the reconstructed memoirs themselves.

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Relatively slim in scope, “The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man” is perhaps the least mediated and most contradictory part of the entire renaissance, as it carries within it all the torn emotions the subject might feel upon its release.

As the narrator, he carries out his expected due diligence. He talks about growing up in Ohio, about serving, usually out of danger, in the United States Navy, about realizing, after spending time in his father’s sporting goods store, that his destiny was Yale Drama School. He relives the early breaks and misfires. He has other witnesses, ranging from Tom Cruise to his aunt Babette, fill in the details. But he knows he has to talk about sex at some point.

Because if he had only been handsome, we wouldn’t be reading his memoirs today. His glacier-blue eyes and Michelangelo’s bone structure derived their strength largely from the fact that, like Brando’s Romanesque beauty, they were used for something animalistic. Even in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” where the plot requires Newman’s Brick to resist over and over to Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie overtures, every glance and gesture confirms that something equally erotic is going on just outside the window. sight.

In life Newman remained timid about the subject; it was his way. In his memoir, he writes that his longtime wife and collaborator Joanne Woodward has made him “a sexual creature,” in part by creating a spousal shack where they can be “intimate, boisterous and timid” several nights a week. But, as Newman certainly meant when he gave Stewart Stern a free hand in his address book, dissenting voices emerge. A classmate from Kenyon College remembers him as “wild, lascivious, dangerous.” Elia Kazan, who almost gave him the lead role in “On the Waterfront,” approvingly commented that Newman had “a lot of strength, a lot of insides, a lot of sex.”

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Also remember that when Newman and Woodward first worked together in the backstage of the 1953 Broadway production of “Picnic,” he already had a wife and, awkwardly, two children, soon to be three. Those three would then be merged with the three that gave birth to Newman and Woodward. (Scott, the only boy in the mix, was said to die of an overdose at age 28.) In this way, love and marriage led to family, a topic on which Newman was also torn.

Perhaps the book’s most startling confidence comes six pages later, when he talks about banging their heads against the dining room wall of their upwardly mobile 1930s Shaker Heights home with his older brother. “Our own Wailing Wall,” recalls the half-Jewish Newman, no doubt a response to a cold, thwarted, alcoholic father and emotionally voracious mother who, when not fighting, pulled her beautiful younger son into her death grip.

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By those standards, Newman-Woodward’s coeducational household was a step or two up, but not always more. Newman’s alcohol use fluctuated between functional and non-functional. (He owned Kenyon’s beer chugalug record, and beer is said to be a lifelong companion.) Woodward, to whom Newman attributes an ego equal to his own, curbed his being relegated to Earth mother, and the The general mood, daughter Melissa writes in her candid foreword, was “stormy one minute, joyous the next.”

It’s the premise of this memoir, and you could say Newman’s entire rehabilitation campaign, that it got better. A broken man, at the urging of family and his own better nature, became a better husband and father – and even a better actor, according to conventional wisdom and selfish directors.

George Roy Hill, for example, claims that with “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Newman “finally learned to relax.” Sidney Lumet argues that with ‘The Verdict’ (despite being one of the first members of the Actors Studio) Newman finally understood the value of ‘self-disclosure’. Neither director must have spent much time with “The Hustler” or “Hud” or “Cool Hand Luke” or Newman’s unbeatable Brick. That cool cat sat atop his own hot tin roof and was no less revealing because he pretended it didn’t hurt. In Kazan’s words, “There is something in him that is masked, but underneath is a soul that wants to do many things.”

And she can’t. Can’t help the sheer messiness of an object of desire or, to quote the man himself, “the unimaginable of being a human being.” It may have been the same principle that led Newman to spend all those hundreds of hours of taped testimonies on the flames. Perhaps he just concluded that an actor’s life is – or at least should remain – no more knowable than his art.

Louis Bayard is the author of ‘Jackie & Me’ and ‘The Pale Blue Eye’.

The extraordinary life of an ordinary man

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