Paul Newman: A life
By Shawn Levy
490 pages; Harmony Books
Sure, Paul Newman made it all look easy. But as Levy reveals, his ascension up the Hollywood hierarchy was anything but. Though blessed with good luck and good looks, Newman also relied on a rigorous work ethic and a determination to overcome savage criticism. In a typically revealing aside, Levy, a film critic for the Oregonian, recalls a slap the young actor suffered early in his career. In January 1953, after being promoted from understudy to the lead role in the hit Broadway play Picnic, Newman's director told the blue-eyed actor, "You don't carry any sexual threat at all." It was an insult that Newman said he spent 20 years "chewing on." (See TIME's Appreciation: "Robert Redford Remembers Paul Newman.")
Scenes like this stream through Levy's sweeping tribute to Newman, who passed away last September at the age of 83. The iconic actor was both a vintage superstar and an anticelebrity, a man who worked tirelessly to impress audiences even as he built his home in Connecticut, thousands of miles away from Beverly Hills. Newman devoted himself to philanthropy before it was fashionable, turned his back on the Oscars after being snubbed repeatedly (he went so far as to boycott a ceremony at which he was given an honorary award) and remained married to his second wife for half a century, an aberration among Hollywood couples. His was a Tinseltown success story that began strangely with an accidental admission to an acting school Newman never applied to and culminated in a legacy as steeped in salad dressing as it is in indelible performances. (See TIME's photo-essay "Paul Newman: His Life in Photographs.")
On Newman's cross-generational appeal in the '60s:
"He was well liked, and by a variety of people and audiences. Like Brando and Dean and Steve McQueen, he was a rebel who dressed like a slob (but with taste), hung out in déclassé joints, got around on motor scooters or in sports cars, stayed out of L.A. as much as he could, played brassy scoundrels and real heels and the occasionally arty part, and seemed the whole while to be having a blast. Young audiences loved all that about him ... at the same time, he was a pragmatic businessman's son, and he had children to support, and he took all that seriously enough to win the approval of a generation who'd grown up with Henry Fonda, James Stewart and Clark Gable. He was easy on the eyes and a man's man."
On the early days of Newman's 50-year marriage to actress Joanne Woodward:
"Newman understood what a deal he was getting. For one thing, he was enormously impressed with Joanne's acting talent, which was much more instinctual than his burning-the-midnight-oil style. And because he was enjoying the life of a movie star, he understand what she had effectively given up for him ... He tried to dote on her, but he was clumsy in the effort in an earnest and somewhat cloddish fashion. 'For quite a while after we were married,' she remembered, 'he'd send me flowers on a certain day in September, which he thought was my birthday. Since I was born in February, I finally pointed out to him that his first wife was born in September.' "
On the drawback of being a sex symbol:
"And then there were those eyes ... they were a terrific asset but a terrific embarrassment too. He hadn't worked for them or chosen them, and the whole world seemed to have an opinion about them and to want to possess them, if only for a moment. Strangers would literally walk up to him and stare right into them, and when he took to wearing dark glasses, they would insist that he take them off. 'There's nothing that makes you feel more like a piece of meat,' he complained. 'It's like saying to a woman, "Open your blouse and show me your [breasts]."'"
Given his film expertise, one might expect Levy to build this biography around an analysis of Newman's films and his place in the cinematic canon. Instead, Levy offers reportage as impressive as his critical insights. Paul Newman: A Life is a layered and absorbing portrait of how the actor's personal life differed from his public persona. Levy paints Newman not just as a movie star but as a determined entrepreneur, family man and racer a man who admitted mistakes as he made them, took advantage of good luck when it came his way, and did his best to turn both personal fortune and tragedy (his son died of a drug overdose in 1978) into productive public causes. Most Americans are well aware of Paul Newman the actor, but Levy makes a compelling case that there's much more to his life story that's worth celebrating.