Review of Paul Newman’s memoir “The Ordinary Life of an Extraordinary Man”

What do you do with a diary that the diary writer might not want to see? Between 1986 and 1991, Paul Newman sat down with screenwriter Stuart 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 institution was supposed to become a kind of book but somewhere out there Newman changed his mind, burning tapes and moved.

Do you think that will be the end of it? Or did he predict that, three decades later, the surviving family members would dig up Stern’s scripts and put the process back in motion – creating, through their combined efforts, a kind of cross-platform operating system?

In July, about 14 years after Newman died at the age of 83, came HBO’s six-hour documentary “The Last Movie Stars,” in which elite actors reenact old interviews by reading an off-screen table. (Divinely right, George Clooney voiced Newman, but the de-facto star was Brooks Ashmanskas, who grabbed Gore Vidal straight from the open sky bar.) This month he produced an audiobook featuring Jeff Daniels and, almost as an afterthought, the reconstructed memoir itself.

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Relatively slender in its setting, “The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man” is perhaps the least mediocre and most conflicting part of the entire Renaissance because it carries within it all the tattered emotions that its subject might expect to feel upon its release.

As a narrator, he performs the expected due diligence. He talks about growing up in Ohio, about serving, mostly out of harm’s way, in the US Navy, and realizing, after a stint at his father’s sporting goods store, that his fate was the Yale School of Drama. He regains early rest periods and fails. Other witnesses, from Tom Cruise to his aunt Babbitt, are allowed to fill in the details. But he knows that at some point he has to talk about sex.

Because if he was just so handsome, we wouldn’t read his memoirs today. His icy blue eyes and Michelangelo’s bone structure derive their strength in large part from being harnessed, like Brando’s Romanesque beauty, into something animal. Even in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” where the plot requires Newman’s Brick to repeatedly resist Maggie Elizabeth Taylor’s overtures, his every look and gesture confirms that something equally exciting is happening out of sight.

In life, Newman remained shy about this subject; was his way. In his memoirs, he credits his longtime and helpful wife, Joanne Woodward, with making him a “sexual creature,” in part by creating a husband’s hut where they could be “intimate, boisterous, and miserable” several nights a week. However, as Newman certainly intended when he gave Stuart Stern free use of his address book, dissenting voices emerged. One of his Kenyon College classmates remembers him as “brutal, punk, and dangerous.” Elijah Kazan, who almost had him starring in “On the Waterfront,” noted approvingly that Newman has “a lot of strength, a lot of insides, and a lot of sex.”

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Also keep in mind that when Newman Woodward first stepped into the suites of a 1953 Broadway production of “The Picnic,” he already had a wife and two children that, uncomfortably, would be three years old. These three are then combined with the three that Newman and Woodward brought into the world. (Scott, the only boy in the mix, will die of an overdose at age 28.) In this way love and marriage led to the formation of the family, a topic around which Newman also exploded.

Perhaps the book’s most surprising confidence comes in six pages, when it talks about joining his older brother in banging their heads against the dining room wall of their 1930s Shaker Heights motorhome. “Our Wailing Wall,” recalls his Jewish half Neumann, an undoubted response to a cold, lovable, alcoholic father and emotionally voracious mother who, when not fighting, would pull her youngest son into the grip of death. .

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By those standards, the built Newman-Woodward house was a step or two up, but not always more. Newman’s alcohol consumption oscillated between functional and nonfunctional. (He was Kenyon’s record holder in beer, and beer would be a lifelong companion.) Woodward, to whom Newman credits himself, writes, alarmed by the descent to Mother Earth, and the general mood, his daughter Melissa writes in her candid introduction, it was “a stormy moment, exhilarating by the minute.” next”.

It is the thesis of this memoir, and one might say the whole of Newman’s rehabilitation campaign, that it has improved. The broken man, motivated by family and his better nature, became a better husband and father—and even a better actor, according to conventional wisdom and self-serving directors.

George Roy Hill, for example, asserts that with “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Newman learned to relax. Sidney Lumet asserts that Newman (despite being one of the early cast members) finally realized the value of “self-disclosure” through The Verdict. None of the directors should have spent much time with “The Hustler,” “Hud,” “Cool Hand Luke,” or Newman’s Brick that can never be outdated. This cute cat was sitting on his hot tin roof and was no less conspicuous to pretend he wasn’t hurt. In the words of Kazan: “There is something within it that is persuasive but beneath it, there is a soul that wants to do many things.”

And you can’t do it. You can do nothing about the sheer chaos of being the object of desire or, in the words of the man himself, “it’s unbelievable to be human.” Perhaps it was the same principle that prompted Newman to commit all those hundreds of hours of tape-taped testimony over the flames. He may have just concluded that an actor’s life is – or at least should remain – no more knowledgeable than his art.

Louis Bayard is the author of “Jackie & Me” and “The Pale Blue Eye.”

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