“There’s nothing that makes you feel more like a piece of meat,” Paul Newman once complained. “It’s like saying to a woman, ‘Open your blouse, I want to see your tits.’”
The iconic actor was talking about his fans’ obsession with seeing his famous eyes, those “uncanny lapis lazuli-cornflower-cobalt-summer-sky eyes,” as Shawn Levy describes them in his new biography, Paul Newman: A Life (Harmony Books, 496 pages, $29.99). But the quote is also a fair assessment of how the movie star, race-car driver, philanthropist and salad-dressing king, who died last fall, felt about his relationship with the public in general. Levy, longtime film critic for The Oregonian, does an excellent job of getting past Newman’s famous eyes (and “Greek-godlike” face and body) to reveal a complicated, fiercely private guy who through both luck and terrierlike tenacity was able to trade a life minding his Jewish family’s Cleveland sporting goods store for more than a half-century as a globetrotting superstar, political activist and practical joker.
Readers may already know a few of the book’s juiciest revelations. In late April, Newman’s longstanding enemy, the New York Post, trumpeted Levy’s book as portraying the actor as an “alcoholic and womanizer,” a phrase that went viral within days. The stories led an annoyed Levy to tell WW last week that his book is “unsparing but no seedy tell-all.” I’d agree. If anything, Levy is vigilant in balancing Newman’s antics, which included drinking cases of Coors at a time, wearing a bottle opener on a chain around his neck and engaging in a year-long affair with a journalist he met during the filming of Butch Cassidy the Sundance Kid, with laudatory bits about his attempts to be a good father and husband to his famous wife, Joanne Woodward. What emerges is a complex portrait of a man who threw himself into new projects—be it a film, race-car team or camp for kids with cancer—and often had to deal with the personal fallout later.
In essence, this is a sometimes overwhelming fan’s appreciation. And Levy, who has written biographies of Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra, finds ample room to geek out on Newman’s oeuvre. He takes a critic’s relish in describing the agony and ecstasy of Newman’s ascent from a stiff leading man clad in a Roman “cocktail dress” in the 1954 bomb The Silver Chalice to iconic roles in The Hustler and Cool Hand Luke, noting how his acting deepened and improved with age (he’s especially fond of 1982’s The Verdict). Levy plots that on-screen roller coaster against the highs and lows of the actor’s personal life—including detailed chapters on his childhood and thirst for education, as well as the suicide of his only son in 1978.
The book is chockablock with “I didn’t know that” moments, including Newman’s former Kenyon College classmates reminiscing about their party-hearty classmate’s entrepreneurial activities (he opened an off-campus laundromat that served free beer) to the fact that Elia Kazan forced the 1959 Broadway cast of Sweet Bird of Youth to shun the actor off stage in order to improve his performance.
Levy drew this layered portrait without any help from Newman, who turned down interview requests three times. When the actor died last September, Levy found a bittersweet trove of names—from racing buddies to college classmates—in the hundreds of obituaries and appreciations across the globe. This painstaking research fundamentally improved the biography because it forced Levy to pick up invaluable details from others that an interview with the notoriously private actor might never have yielded. And the star no doubt would have appreciated readers focusing on something besides his eyes for a change.
READ: Shawn Levy reads from Paul Newman: A Life at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Wednesday, May 6. Free.