I’m guessing you already know who Paul Newman is (if you don’t, please comment and tell me!) so I won’t waste words on an introduction other than to say he is considered one of the greatest movie stars of the past century, starring in a slew of iconic films. He was also renowned for a more than 50-year marriage to fellow actor and Oscar-winner Joanne Woodward.
Their relationship was idealized as the perfect romantic union, but as this new compiled memoir (and the accompanying HBO Max docuseries The Last Movie Stars makes clear, neither of those accomplishments — a stellar career and a loving relationship — were enough to make Newman feel like he deserved all the acclaim.
Indeed, what stands out in my mind after reading The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man (2022) is that a man casually assumed to “have it all” could have felt like such a failure to himself. It was a jarring discovery and made me feel sad that he couldn’t enjoy his success as we did. Early in his career, Newman studied at The Actors Studio, renowned for producing Marlon Brando, among others, who drew upon their own memories and emotions to inform the characters they portrayed. Newman said he felt like a fraud in those classes, calling himself an “emotional Republican” unable to feel anything very deeply. It’s a small consolation to read that as he grew older he did start to become more in touch with those deepest feelings, a rewarding development for himself and his friends and family.
Indeed, without that inner thaw, this book probably wouldn’t exist. It initially consisted of hundreds of hours of taped interviews between a writer friend and Newman, his friends, family and colleagues. At some point a few years before his death, Newman abandoned the project but left behind all the transcripts for his daughters to do with what they wanted. They chose David Rosenthal to go through the transcripts and cobble together a roughly chronological, somewhat unconnected series of chapters on various topics, with Newman’s own words forming the backbone of the narrative interspersed with sometimes lengthy commentary from others relevant to that particular topic. The result is raw but restrained, comprehensive but leaving the reader wanting more, and ultimately an important corrective that reveals the real-life man beneath the myth and the legend.