In 1986, the year before he finally won an Oscar, for The Color Of Money, Paul Newman embarked on a series of interviews with his long-time friend Stewart Stern, a screenwriter best known for Rebel Without a Cause, which they carried out sporadically over the following five years. Newman wanted to set the public record straight on his life, having spent decades dodging tabloids and to leave a record for his six children, from two marriages. In her foreword, his daughter Melissa Newman confesses that it’s “full of the kind of revelations that, had they been shared with us sooner, might have made for some deeply meaningful conversations … and, most likely, some pretty uncomfortable family dinners”.
Instead, the transcripts of the interviews lay buried until 2019, 11 years after the actor’s death, when the family stumbled on some papers in the basement of the family house in Connecticut, while the bulk of the 14,000 pages of transcripts was discovered in a family storage unit some months later. The result is an often extraordinary peek into the head of one of the most famous actors of the 20th century.
What’s perhaps most telling is Newman’s chronic insecurity, the actor suffering from imposter syndrome. It began, he admits, in adolescence, when he “started to develop an awareness that certain other people were true originals … and the rest were scholars”, trying to ape the natural ability of these exalted ones: “I never had a sense of talent because I was always a follower, following someone else with stuff that I basically interpreted and did not really create.”
Newman’s father was a secret drinker, the actor wondering if his own problems with alcohol and his son Scott’s addiction issues could be “partly inherited — bad blood with the Newman men”. Scott died in 1978, aged just 28, after taking a combination of substances, including Valium and alcohol.
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Newman describes the heady days of first love with his first wife, Jackie Witte, but also reveals the cracks and strains in their relationship, the infidelities and the eventual break-up: “I ask myself how I could have been so irresponsible as to take the first girl with whom I had a speaking relationship, marry her, and impregnate her right away”. His second wife, Joanne Woodward, he credits with turning him into “a sexual creature”, their magnetism and love lasting for more than five decades, until his death, in 2008, but he regrets the years spent vacillating between wanting to marry Joanne and not wanting to admit that his marriage with Jackie was over.
There are wonderful insights into his career, from acting opposite the great but egotistical Orson Welles (“Screen generosity was not part of Orson’s vocabulary”) to learning method acting at New York’s extraordinary Actors Studio, where he grudgingly admits “when I mixed my confidence and energy with my real emotions — terror and fright (which came out as rage) — something genuine was going on, even if just by accident”. There’s a wonderful story about working with the legendary John Huston, who was “mystical, magical, something undefinable”, and another recalling Newman’s profane phone call to the head of Warner Brothers when they tried to force him to make a movie he didn’t like.
As well as Newman’s own revelations, the book is peppered with insights from family members and close friends, who provide some outside perspective. Stern also interviewed some of Newman’s fellow actors and directors, Karl Malden revealing how Newman was almost cast in the lead role in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Robert Altman explaining how he wooed the actor into taking a role in Quintet, while Tom Cruise recalls how he met Newman as a nervous young actor on an audition and was blown away by how the veteran could “still be excited just by two actors doing a scene”.
While it’s not a conventional, chronological memoir, frequently zipping forwards and backwards through the decades, taking in his racing career and philanthropy as well as his acting, this is a rare insight into the inner workings of one of the biggest movie stars to ever walk the earth. Newman reveals himself as a deep thinker who is arguably too self-critical to allow himself to be happy, forever questioning if he is good enough, whether as an actor, a husband or a parent.