“I’m two people. I’m me, Paul Newman. And I’m Paul Newman the actor. The first one is not for sale.” Paul Newman is quoted as having said this to “the press” in Shawn Levy’s biography Paul Newman: A Life. This is the point at which your typical review would use a phrase with a descriptive adjective phrase such as “Levy’s adoring biography” or “Levy’s cranky biography.” I have a hard time coming up with anything other than “apparently well researched and factual biography.”
It’s hard to say because there seem to be more than just two Newmans here, there seem to be dozens. Perhaps it is because the author never had the chance to interview the man. What we get are dozens and dozens of Newman quotations in this 474 page project compiled without the blessings of Mr. Newman or his wife (Joanne Woodward). The different quotes seem to have different tones, differing voices, as if Newman was sometimes factual and sometimes being the practical joker he was known to be. One also has to wonder if some of the Newman “quotes” were the creations of publicity agents.
There’s a seriousness to Levy’s work which is very, very admirable. You can almost picture him frowning while typing up the facts of Newman’s life, gleaned from official records and interviews with “friends and associates.” What seems to be missing is the sense of joy about life and living that Paul Newman seemed to possess; in his own eyes, he was nothing if not a very, very lucky man.
Two key questions went unanswered for me in reading this biography: Why exactly did Newman become an actor (we get some guesses here and some circumstances but not motivation) and what did Newman get out of acting (in a non-commercial sense) that was so satisfying? Something else has been missed here, which often needs to be answered in telling a person’s story: How smart, exactly, was the actor? The answer would have helped to gauge who he was. (Newman attended three colleges including Yale.)
As with most life stories these days, there’s a “fair and balanced” approach to detailing Newman’s strengths and positives (especially his philanthropic activities) and his weaknesses and faults. Fine, but it seemed a bit too much by-the-numbers for me.
There is one small fact that comes through well in the telling which is that Newman felt that he never got to know or achieve the admiration of his quite successful merchant father. Newman began to attain his professional success after his father’s death, something that appeared to haunt him.
Let me close by noting that I once came within two feet of Paul Newman. He had just won a celebrity auto race at the Long Beach Grand Prix and – with the help of a couple of young assistants – was walking through the crowd of thousands of race fans… He and his crew had massive magnums of wine and he was offering a plastic cup full of the libation to anyone and everyone he saw. His smile was huge, his blue eyes were bright and I thought, “This man really loves people and loves life!” Sadly, that is the Paul Newman I did not come across in this telling of his life’s story.
Note: Steve McQueen – Portrait of an American Rebel by Marshall Terill (Plexus trade paperback, $19.95) is recommended as an example of a biography where you will get to know and understand both the actor and the man.