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For many fans, Paul Newman epitomizes the handsome, confident, masculine ideal — blue-eyed perfection to be admired on the big screen. Not quite, according to the late actor, whose new memoir, The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man, co-written with David Rosenthal, includes Newman’s poignant expressions of deep loneliness and insecurity that, he explained, came from never feeling fully known or understood beneath his attractive appearance and the characters he embodied.
He referred to that inner self, his core, as “the orphan,” who got left in the dust by his much-heralded decorative shell.
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The book began 20 years before the actor’s death in 2008. Newman asked his close friend Stewart Stern, a screenwriter, to create an oral history of his life. Stern interspersed Newman’s memories with those of his friends and family members — including wives Jackie Witte and Joanne Woodward and directors Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront) and Sidney Lumet (The Verdict).
The result is an unusually thoughtful and moving portrait, with no attempt at artifice or, certainly, the usual Hollywood name-dropping or self-aggrandizement. The goal, Newman wrote, is to “leave some kind of record that sets things straight” and “pokes some holes in the mythology that’s sprung up around me.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone reading this book and not liking the naturally flawed man far more than the myth.
Here are some takeaways:
1. Newman never felt loved for who he really was.
His parents, Art and Tress, were both rather cold-hearted. His superficial, appearance-focused mother viewed her son as “a decoration for her house,” according to Newman, who sometimes presented his more painful memories in the third person. “If he had been an ugly child, his mother would never have given him the time of day.” As for the adoring public: “The damage for me has come when I’ve realized what people were clamoring for was not me. It was characters invented by writers.”
2. His childhood home was marked by violence.
He and his brother Art would bang their heads against the living room wall — “literally,” he wrote, explaining that it was a way to let out his rage. “This was not some tippy-toe banging; this was a serious whacking that took down the plaster behind the wall covering.” His parents were in a constant state of war, their house in Shaker Heights, Ohio, sometimes ringing with “the sounds of things breaking,” including the time “my mother took a picture down from the wall and broke it over the top of my father’s head.”