Behind the Beautiful Mask: Paul Newman on Paul Newman

I’ve never been very interested in reading autobiographies by movie stars; wrongly or rightly, I’ve had the impression that they often have a tendency towards mythomania. But recently I was asked if I’d like a review copy of Paul Newman: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man – A Memoir, and since I’d seen a fellow critic tweeting about it in an intriguingly positive way, I decided to take up the offer, warning in my reply that I wouldn’t write about the book unless I had something favourable to say.

Not only have I never been interested in movie-star autobiographies; I’m also, I think, rather less interested than most people I know in movie-stars’ lives. As for Paul Newman… Well, he was a fine actor, obviously, but he was never one of my great favourites. Still, I liked and respected him as a performer, and he certainly had a pretty distinctive persona. There were his good looks, of course, but also a seductive confidence, sometimes appealing but often bordering on cockiness. Those qualities were readily discernible in such well-known films as The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke and that very successful pair of not-very-good movies with Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. I myself generally prefer some of the later movies which critique, question or undercut that aura of confidence: films like The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, The Verdict, The Hudsucker Proxy and Nobody’s Fool.* Whatever, for some years he was undoubtedly a major Hollywood star, and from such promising early works as Somebody Up There Likes Me and The Left-Handed Gun onwards, he made more than enough movies which are worth revisiting for one reason of another.

Hud (Martin Ritt, 1963)

Back to that book. It’s not, strictly speaking, an autobiography, since Newman didn’t actually write it himself; its genesis is more complicated than that. In the mid-1980s, Newman asked his close friend Stewart Stern, a screenwriter, to collaborate with him on a project about his life. Stern was to speak not only with Newman himself but with members of his family, friends and colleagues; they worked on the project for five years and then it ground to a halt. The transcripts of Stern’s interviews were eventually forgotten about, then, after Newman’s death, believed lost, until they were recently rediscovered. The book, then, is compiled and edited by one David Rosenthal from those conversations. What makes it uncommonly interesting is that Newman insisted that all the contributions Stern recorded – his own included – should be honest.

Some, it must be said, of the brief contributions by Newman’s colleagues are not especially illuminating; the friends and family are rather more revealing. But what does give the book a real lift is Newman’s own perspective on his life and his personality. It’s unusual enough that he readily admitted to his intellectual limitations, to his excessive drinking, to cheating on his first wife when he met Joanne Woodward, and to his shortcomings as a parent. Still more remarkable is his constant questioning of his own worth. For a star who seemed so confident, Newman was in reality riven by self-doubt, insecurity, emotional reserve and a strong sense of ethical dilemmas. He doesn’t seem to have believed much in himself as an actor; perhaps he feared his success derived in no small part from his appearance. He wonders how someone as emotionally remote as himself could be expected – or able – to project a rich emotional life on screen. He repeatedly ponders his own motivations, and asks himself how things might have been had he behaved differently. He goes out of his way to consider questions about his relationship with his parents, his first marriage, his son’s suicide, his relationship with Woodward and his other children; there is a very evident desire on Newman’s part to arrive at some sort of unvarnished truth. This, for once, is emphatically not a star autobiography driven by mythomania. It may have its flaws and occasional longueurs, but if you’ve any interest at all in Newman – or even, perhaps, in the relationship between acting, celebrity and ‘real life’ – it’s probably essential reading.

*For the record my favourite Newman movies are Buffalo Bill and the Indians and Nobody’s Fool.

Nobody’s Fool (Robert Benton, 1994)

Paul Newman: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man is published by Century.

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