In the mid-1980s, Hollywood superstar Paul Newman – then in his 60s – began collaborating on a memoir with his old friend, screenwriter Stewart Stern (writer of 1956’s The Rack and 1968’s Rachel Rachel, both starring Newman). The two men spoke for five years about all aspects of Newman’s life, from childhood through his incredible career – and the tolls that fame took on his private life – while also interviewing friends and family. By 1991, the two friends were overwhelmed by the amount of material they’d amassed and shelved the project indefinitely. Newman died in ‘08, and Stern followed in ‘15.
Two years ago, these long-lost transcripts were discovered in a family storage unit and have been edited into something resembling Newman’s original intention. The blisteringly honest memoir paints Newman – the Hollywood star who seemed to have it all – as a man plagued by a troubled upbringing, personal failures and regrets, and alcoholism. It’s an incredible book that dispels the idea of the perfect Hollywood life, and forever changes not just our understanding of Paul Newman but of Hollywood itself – indeed, Newman’s intention was “to leave some kind of record that sets things straight, pokes holes in the mythology that’s sprung up around me, destroys some of the legends, and keeps the piranhas off”.
The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man’s title alone suggests the honesty within, and the humble approach of the prose. Here is a man who saw himself as just an average joe who found himself in an incredible story. Newman comes across as totally insecure; his self-criticism of never being good, or talented, enough is difficult to read – and even more difficult to understand, considering the incredible performances Newman delivered across his career. Newman puts a lot of his success down to his looks – he says in the book that he has “always had a terrible sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that his success comes simply from being fortunate enough to be born looking a certain way”.
But above all, the raw honesty of the book is what sets it apart from other showbiz bios, and makes it essential reading for fans of Newman and the Golden Age of Hollywood. This is the most genuine example of the old adage that deep down, celebrities are just like us. Here is a man filled with doubt and regret, setting the record straight about the seemingly perfect life he led. The vulnerability presented and the intimate recollections are unusual for the memoirs of a tough guy heartthrob like Newman.
It’s not all gloom, though. The book is funny – a much-reported line from the book refers to the so-called “F*ck Hut” Newman shared with his wife Joanne Woodward, while other steamy references, alongside digs at familiar Hollywood names, often raise a chuckle. But the memoir is on the whole brutally frank and surprisingly powerful, as Newman grapples with himself, his reputation, and his soul. Naturally, the book’s structure is a little disjointed and messy – hardly a surprise considering the five years of interviews that birthed it – but the result is a poignant look inside the man behind the iconic blue eyes.
Newman emotionally notes that his on-screen persona is but a “shell” while “whoever is really inside me, the core, stays unexplored, uncomfortable and unknown”. Perhaps now, Newman can truly be seen – and “known” – as he wanted.