January 26, 1925– Paul Newman:
“I picture my epitaph: ‘Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown’.”
I have earned the ire of a lot of people by finding the gay angle when writing about fascinating figures. There are plenty of anecdotes to be found about alleged bisexual trysts between Newman and the usual suspects: James Dean, Sal Mineo, Tennessee Williams, even Steve McQueen. Who knows for certain?
Famously, when asked once if he was ever tempted to be unfaithful to his wife, Joanne Woodward, Newman replied:
“Why go out for hamburger when you’ve got steak at home?”
Joan Crawford, who had several liaisons with Newman during his first marriage, dismissed that remark, saying:
“What a clever thing to say, but how true is it? First, I think Woodward is hamburger, not steak. As for Paul, he dines out frequently and on the most succulent filet mignon, from what I hear.”
Several of his friends and associates have claimed to have known that Newman was bisexual, including Eartha Kitt, and Janice Rule, who played opposite Newman in the Broadway version of Picnic (1953). Shelley Winters claimed to have had a threesome with Newman and Marlon Brando.
One of Newman’s best performances is in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958), where he plays Brick, a repressed gay guy. James Dean had been originally cast in the role, but he died in that famous car crash before production began. In the film version, all the direct gay references were removed from the Tennessee Williams’ script to satisfy the production codes. Richard Brook’s screenplay dances around the real reasons Brick and Cat (Elizabeth Taylor) haven’t had sex in years, but dialogue about the suicide of Brick’s especially close football buddy Skipper remained.
Newman told Tennessee Williams:
“The role of Brick is perfect for me. All my life I’ve been split into two different directions. One side of me wants to live life with my gay football buddy Skipper, the other side is tempted to fuck the living shit out of Maggie the Cat and be the heterosexual stud most of my fans want me to be.”
The Left Handed Gun (1958), features Newman as outlaw Billy The Kid. Written by Gore Vidal, a close friend of Newman and Woodward (the three of them shared a house for years), the screenplay depicted Billy as gay. But, in Arthur Penn’s final version, Billy’s relationship with his murdered mentor is left ambiguous.
In 1959, he returned to Broadway, and Tennessee Williams, in Sweet Bird Of Youth. After that, Newman abandoned the theatre for 33 years, to the dismay of Woodward, who believed that stage discipline would make him less reliant on his special charm and the mannerisms that were, for some critics, becoming too reliable.
Newman’s own contradictory character makes his movie star persona seem superficial. He was a skilled, serious actor, but he was also one of the most beautiful men to appear on screen.
He was a producer, film and stage director, a race car driver, a political activist and a philanthropist. He contributed more money to charities, in relation to his own wealth, than any other American in the 20th century.
Newman said that he was happiest behind the wheel of a racing car.
As a producer and co-founder of a production company, he was responsible for many of his own films and he directed six films, four of them starring his wife, Joanne Woodward. One of them brought him an Oscar nomination, just one of nine during his long career.
In 1982, he founded, initially as a modest venture, Newman’s Own, a company that makes products like salad dressing, pasta sauces and popcorn based on his own home recipes. Newman’s Own now makes over 50 products. Newman devoted the company’s entire profits to causes throughout the world. They have raised more than $400 million, so far.
Newman was actively involved in the project that received funding through Newman’s Own, including the Hole In The Wall Gang summer camps, that he started for underprivileged kids. In 1999, he returned to the theatre in the two-character play Love Letters, opposite Woodward. The play raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for land conservation in Connecticut where the couple lived.
Newman was never shy about his politics. He donated one million dollars to the leftist magazine The Nation; he had a long-term involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. He narrated the documentary King: A Filmed Record (1970), about Martin Luther King Jr. He campaigned against the war in Vietnam and supported Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 Presidential campaign. He was vigorous in his opposition to Richard Nixon and was proud of being among the Top 20 on Nixon’s enemy list.
Newman was an early supporter of Gay Rights:
“I’m a supporter of gay rights. And not a closet supporter, either. From the time I was a kid, I have never been able to understand attacks upon the gay community.”
But, mostly we remember him for his screen career. He made more than 50 features, 11 opposite Woodward. With those blue eyes, insouciant smile, and always slim, athletic body, he was simply all that.
From 1943 to 1946 Newman served in the US Navy. After WW II, he attended Kenyon College and then Yale Drama School. He planned to be a theatre teacher, but he was spotted at Yale by NYC agents, moved to Manhattan and took classes The Actors Studio. He made a successful Broadway debut, originally as an understudy, in William Inge’s play Picnic where he met another understudy, Woodward. They fell in love, although Newman was married and had a young son.
In 1954, he had famously lost out to James Dean when director Elia Kazan screen-tested them both for the lead in East Of Eden. But in 1956, after Dean’s death, the role of the boxer Rocky Graziano, already planned for Dean, in Somebody Up There Likes Me went to him. The next year, Newman filmed The Long Hot Summer (1958), from a William Faulkner story, opposite Woodward. Newman divorced his first wife, and married his co-star.
Newman worked with the best directors, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, John Huston and Robert Altman, but often in their less interesting films. There was Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961) with Newman in his most complex early role and a turning point in his career. He played Fast Eddie, a pool shark, and his performance cemented his screen persona, a mix of vulnerability and swagger. He was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost. He played fast Eddie again 25 years later, opposite Tom Cruise, in The Color Of Money, winning his only acting Oscar.
There were more great performances: Hud (1963), Harper (1966), Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969) with his friend Robert Redford. In the decade of the 1960s, he starred in 18 films, as well as directing his first and best film, Rachel, Rachel (1968), starring Woodward.
He was best playing against type: Hud is selfish, Luke arrogant, Harper cynical and Butch was a killer.
In 1969, at the height of his fame, Newman formed First Artists Productions with Barbra Streisand, Sidney Poitier, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Each agreed to make three films, but only Newman fulfilled his obligation.
I thought he became especially handsome in middle-age, and my own favorite Newman performances are from this era: the washed-up detective The Drowning Pool (1976), a working-class guy in Absence Of Malice (1981), and a fading, alcoholic lawyer in The Verdict (1982), a role director Sidney Lumet remarked, required only minimal research.
His intense performance in The Verdict failed to get him an Oscar, a fact taken harder by his wife than by Newman. It was said that his politics and East Coast-ness alienated him from the Hollywood establishment. He took the next year off to concentrate on his race cars, but then he was awarded an honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement as a 60-year-old, an award usually given to the elderly in the industry. The following year, he skipped the Oscars only to win Best Actor for The Color Of Money. He received the Academy’s Jean Herscholt Award for his philanthropic work in 1993.
Newman seemed to have retired from acting, but in 1994, he took a supporting role as a bad guy in the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy and the lead in Robert Benton’s Nobody’s Fool, one of his best roles. It brought him another Oscar nomination
In 1995, when he was 70-years-old, he entered the 24-Hour Daytona Endurance Race, the oldest person ever to complete the event.
When he was 73-years-old, he played an old private eye with a drinking problem in Twilight (1998), giving a deep, melancholy performance, and at 77-years-old he took a juicy supporting role as a vicious mobster in Sam Mendes’ Road To Perdition (2002). It brought Newman another Oscar nomination and rave reviews. The same year he returned to Broadway as the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
Still handsome, still strong, Newman’s final appearance was in the television drama Empire Falls (2005). He won an Emmy Award at 80-years-old. Newman is one of only four actors to have been nominated for an Academy Award in five different decades. His final credits rolled in 2008, taken by lung cancer at 83-years-old.
By the way, I collect pictures of him. They are wonderful to look at.
“Maybe the best part about aging is that your liver can’t handle those beers at noon anymore.”