Thursday, October 15, 2009

Review: Paul Newman



Paul Newman referred collectively to his acting roles as “the child of our time.”  Shawn Levy puts it this way in his new biography, Paul Newman: A Life:
Taken as a whole, Newman’s body of work nicely encapsulated the history of an in-between generation of American men who helped their fathers and uncles conquer the world in war and commerce but who could only watch—likely with some jealousy—as their younger siblings and their own children acted out on the native rebellious impulse to overturn everything. . . . Torn by the conflicting impulses to rule and rebel, his was arguably the pivotal generation of the twentieth century, and Newman, almost unconsciously, was its actor laureate.
It is this “big picture” approach that gives depth to Levy’s book and holds the attention of readers not usually taken with celebrity biographies.  Levy examines Newman’s life as a whole and in connection with cultural changes.

Levy gathered every Newman interview that he could get his hands on, in print or on camera, and studied them in chronological order.  He used these interviews—Newman’s own words—for the core of the biography.  While his method did not allow Levy to plow new ground, he wrings a lot out of his material.  Readers who know Newman’s movies, but have only a passing interest in other details of his life, will learn a great deal about an interesting man.  Dedicated Newman fans and celebrity gossip aficionados will likely know the basic story, but should find plenty of details to savor.

Levy brings his talent as a movie reviewer to this work, enriching Newman’s story.  He apparently watched every Newman movie (and television show) to write this book.  Instead of merely recounting which movie Newman made when, Levy analyzes the connection between Newman’s development as an actor and his growth as a person:
Newman grew and shed a series of actorly skins through the decades, but his transformations from one to the next were always subtle; watching his career unfold, taking his films as he made them, you wouldn’t necessarily think he was moving in any direction; look up, though, after twenty or thirty years, and you could see real development—improved craft, deepened humanity, palpable wisdom.
Levy goes on to evaluate these “actorly skins,” starting with “an unformed, psychologically delicate brooder” exemplified by Brick Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  Then came Newman’s period playing “a knave,” starting with Ben Quick in The Long, Hot Summer and culminating with his iconic role as Hud ”the guy men wanted to be like and women wanted to eat on a cracker.”  The knave then developed into “an ironist, a rascal, a scamp” with a “cocky mien” and a “cynical, breezy chuckle,” in roles from Harper to Reggie Dunlop in Slap Shot.

After the death of his adult son in 1978, Newman matured as a person and an actor, in movies like Fort Apache the Bronx] and The Verdict, in which his characters were no longer immune from “the scourges of age, death, disloyalty, greed, sullied honor, soured blood.”  And, finally, Newman played “coots”—”crusty old customers” with a “comfortable acceptance of one’s fate”—including Governor Earl Long in Blaze and the voice of an old race car in Cars.

The book gives equal time to Newman’s off-screen life, and not just the gossipy bits about Newman’s single affair with a Hollywood gadabout or his prodigious alcohol consumption.  Levy discusses Newman’s second career as a race car driver with the same level of analysis he brings to Newman’s movies.  Newman, who only became enamored with race cars in his mid-forties, loved the excitement and camaraderie he found on the race track.  Again, Levy goes beyond dates and events, to consider why racing appealed to Newman, concluding, at least in part, that Newman liked shedding his superstar persona and being one of the guys—especially, Levy observes, as Newman grew older and his dazzling good looks dimmed a little.

Another aspect of Newman’s life that Levy explores is the philanthropy that motivated much of Newman’s efforts, from his first commercially marketed bottle of salad dressing to his request that his ashes be scattered over the pond at the original children’s camp he sponsored.  In addition to giving away several hundreds of millions of dollars to charities, Newman rolled up his sleeves and worked himself.  For example, not only did he come up with the idea of a summer camp for children with cancer, he designed the first Hole in the Wall camp himself, hired the doctors to staff it, and visited at least twice every summer to play and eat with the kids.  As Levy concludes:
[H]e had come, in fact, to see himself not as a major artist or a great man but rather as someone who had simply given back the least bit of what had been granted him. He believed that his legacy would not be found in films or photographs or racing trophies or salad dressings or even the stack of heartfelt obituaries and memorials. Rather, he felt, it was those camps, and the affirmation, comfort, hope, rebirth, and freedom they afforded all those endangered children, that were his greatest accomplishment. And for the opportunity to help those children he felt not so much pride as gratitude.
Levy wields a deft pen—his book is as entertaining as it is insightful and informative. He presents readers with a thorough, respectful biography of one of America’s greatest screen, and off-screen, legends.  

First published in the Internet Review of Books

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