Book review: The Extraordinary Life of An Ordinary Man by Paul Newman

Paul Newman (1925-2008) is often lauded as one of the best actors of his generation, enduring into old age through a succession of memorable movies.

Other than his work and long marriage to Joanne Woodward, I knew little about his background, vaguely aware there had been a previous wife and personal tragedy.

This book is largely Newman’s own words from the early 90s, reflecting back on his life for his children. The memoir remained forgotten and unpublished until now.

It is supplemented by snippets from interviews conducted at the same time with those who knew him at various points in his life by Stewart Stern.

A very interesting read, this delves less into the mechanics of the craft of acting than the psychological issues of dealing with childhood trauma, drink, adultery, and growing older.

Don’t look here for a career retrospective, although titles here and there are mentioned from film debut The Silver Chalice to career highs Hud and Butch Cassidy and directing assignment Rachel, Rachel.

Newman proves a reflective man who owns his mistakes and openly discusses his flaws. Half-Jewish, half-Catholic, he experienced racial discrimination early on.

He also battled with low self-esteem – and the objectification which comes with being a public figure – and alcohol, finding an eventual release in driving fast cars.

Ultimately this memoir was not planned for public release, but rather to tell his children “how it was”. How much was written but not included here is unclear but some of it is brutally honest – one passage about the third child from his first marriage seems rather harsh.

There are happy stories about friends (racing driver Jim ‘Fitzy’ Fitzgerald), and less so about colleagues (a snippy James Dean riding high on East of Eden, a hopelessly lost Pier Angeli, a tough Sean Connery), and reflections on directors.

The appeal of this may be limited to those enthused by Hollywood’s golden age behind the scenes (those who are not may need to supplement their knowledge of names mentioned), rather than general cinema buffs.

Published on 27 October by Century in the UK and the Commonwealth, and on 18 October by Knopf in the USA (with a startingly different cover).

Verdict: *** (and a half). A generally good read, with excellent images.