The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man: A Memoir by Paul Newman

The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man, a posthumous memoir by Paul Newman, is an odd duck of a book—welcome, but odd. It arrives on the heels of The Last Movie Stars, Ethan Hawke’s six-part, six-hour-plus documentary series released on HBO Max in July, which chronicled the marriage and often intertwined careers of Newman and Joanne Woodward. The series’s spine was pieced together like a stack of Legos from a series of interviews with the two actors and various friends, family members, and colleagues, which Newman had commissioned between 1986 and 1991—raw material for an autobiography he ultimately decided not to write.

His heirs changed his mind for him. But the new book is based on the same interviews, and frequently overlaps with the documentary. So is The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man merely a supplement to The Last Movie Stars? For readers who have watched the series, the book can’t help but suffer in comparison for not being able to include glorious clip after glorious clip of Newman in action across his lengthy filmography. That, after all, is why we care—with all due respect to his second and third careers as a race-car driver and a philanthropist.

Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward, who had just won an Oscar for best actress for her role in The Three Faces of Eve, 1958.

As well, the memoir is necessarily incomplete, even speculative—a found object of sorts that has been carefully shaded and massaged into a facsimile of what Newman might have intended if he hadn’t turned his back on the whole thing. However grateful one is to have it—and it’s not pretending to be a smoothly polished work—it’s a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster. Or a more apt reference might be the 2018 movie The Other Side of the Wind, which was cobbled together from one of God knows how many films Orson Welles had left mangy and unfinished at the time of his death, in 1985.

Don’t let that scare you: there is much to cherish here. The book is in Newman’s voice, with occasional interjections from the interviews with Woodward and others. It’s a familiar voice: genial but shrewd, self-deprecating but resolute, not so different a persona from the flawed good guys he tended to play on-screen.

The memoir’s mostly chronological first half—which begins with Newman’s comfortable-despite-the-Depression childhood in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and ends with his marriage (his second) to Woodward in 1958 and his breakthrough into superstardom in the early 1960s—is the stronger and more coherent half. The back end bounces around: a chapter here on drinking (Newman was no slouch at a bar), a chapter there on politics. (Anyone under the age of 60 know the name Eugene McCarthy?) At times, without The Last Movie Stars fresh in mind, I might well have gotten lost. But given the limits and vagaries of his source material, the book’s editor, David Rosenthal, the former publisher of Simon & Schuster, has fashioned a work that is emotionally cohesive and moving.

In her introduction, Melissa Newman, one of the actor’s five daughters, writes, “You can read about private jets and red carpets elsewhere. This is definitely not that. Instead it’s sort of a self-dissection, a picking apart of feelings, motives, and motivations.” True. Some passages, such as Newman’s account of his mother’s smothering but narcissistic love, have the quality of revelation turned rote, which suggests hours upon hours spent regurgitating the same old traumas in a therapist’s office.

Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1958.

Don’t let that scare you, either. Some tidbits of decent gossip have managed to lodge between these covers. There is the time Newman’s Actors Studio classmate James Dean, on the verge of stardom with his first film, East of Eden, is snotty about Newman’s own first film, The Silver Chalice, a bum Biblical epic. (“Oh Paul, you poor guy!”) A couple dozen pages later Elizabeth Taylor tells him to “get the fuck out of here” when he lamely tries to comfort her after her third husband, the producer Mike Todd, had died in a plane crash while the two stars were filming Cat on a Hot Tin Roof together. “My platitudes and discomfort in that situation have chased me through my whole life,” Newman confesses. Like most artists, he seems to have dwelled on the bad reviews.

This next bit isn’t juicy, or even really gossip, but I was amused to learn that in high school the future star worked as a Fuller Brush man, and that he later sold encyclopedias while studying at the Yale School of Drama. Can you imagine Paul Newman at the age of 23 or so just turning up on your doorstep? He claims he was a good salesman, and who can doubt him?

If he had revelatory thoughts about what made his films work, or not, those insights are largely absent.The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man is most interested in telling us what it was like to be Paul Newman. (Was that why he abandoned the project—he already knew?) The real-life role was easy in the sense that success came relatively quickly; it was uneasy in the sense that he seems to have held that against himself—an insecurity compounded by his almost impossible beauty, like that of a Greek god carved from the most exquisite marble, but with a thin vein of redemptive goofiness. (“He’s got a pout in his lower lip that gives him a little boy’s vulnerability,” notes my observant wife. “It’s his best feature, after his eyes.”)

“It was my appearance that got me in the door,” Newman says. “Where the hell would I have been if I looked like Golda Meir? Probably no place.” (He can make that joke; his father was Jewish.) His face was a gift, a lucky break. Owning it “was like being a guy with a trust fund who doesn’t have to work. I always had that trust fund of appearance. I could get by on that. But I realized that to survive, I needed something else.”

To that end, he took his chosen art seriously and strove to enlarge his tool kit, even if the universe conspired to undercut him. “You work what you consider pretty hard at your craft and develop in a slow and painful way and you’re getting to the point where you’re just starting to feel kind of good about yourself—and not just the way you look—and then somebody says, ‘Oh, God, take off your sunglasses so I can see your baby blue eyes!’ All the self-esteem you’ve managed to build up goes right out the window.”

Newman wouldn’t have called his face a curse, but the relationship between doubting soul and gleaming vessel was clearly fraught. Again and again he refers to a schism between what he calls “the decoration and the orphan” or “the ornament and the orphan”—the outer Paul and the inner Paul, as if never the twain met.

Newman with Robert Redford, left, in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969.

He is also at pains to convince us he had no intrinsic sex appeal. “I never thought it was really genuine … but I guess it fooled enough of the people enough of the time to seem convincing.” He recalls his Broadway debut in the original production of Picnic, where he played Alan, a college boy and romantic rival to Hal, the smoldering lead. At one point well into the run the young actor pressed the director, Josh Logan, to let him take over the bigger role. “Logan patted me in a fatherly way on the top of my head and said, ‘I’d like to, kid, but you don’t have any sex threat.’”

The actor continues: “Sometime between the opening of Picnic in February 1953 and filming The Long Hot Summer four years later, I went from being not much of a sexual threat to something else entirely that people recognized…. Something had rubbed off on me. It was the introduction of Joanne and her sexuality into my life…. Joanne gave birth to a sexual creature.”

It is nice when celebrated actors acknowledge their collaborators, but this takes graciousness a bridge too far. For the record, Rosenthal includes a quote from Logan, who remembers things differently: “We did one rehearsal with Paul as Hal, and I said he’d be fine if he could wiggle his ass a little bit when he danced.” So take Newman’s self-flagellation with a grain of salt. And yet, his hesitancy, or whatever you want to call it, in this arena might explain why in many of his films he was treated more as sexual object than subject, and why he let Robert Redford throw off all the pheromones in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The truth is he was a very good actor—and a very great movie star. Those are allied but different talents, the latter as rare and innate as genius. If the Newman in these pages wasn’t at peace with that, or with his good fortune, we should remember that this is an unfinished examination of an unfinished life; he logged another 17 years here on earth after scrapping it. To quote the conclusion of another literary act of self-interrogation, “Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”

Bruce Handy is a journalist and the author of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult