Wait, what? Paul Newman? Unsung? As Ethan Hawke’s utterly absorbing and beautifully made HBO documentary series The Last Movie Stars – an extraordinary deep dive into the romantic and creative relationship between the late Paul Newman and his longtime wife, Joanne Woodward – amply demonstrates, Paul Newman was renowned for his incredible work as an actor, and for his high profile sidelines in race car driving and philanthropy. And while the leading man of stone cold classics like Cool Hand Luke, Hud, The Verdict, Slap Shot, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, The Long Hot Summer, and Sweet Bird Of Youth (along with lesser but almost equally fascinating works like Fort Apache The Bronx and WUSA) stands as one of the greatest movie stars of all time, his small list of films as a director is rarely, if ever, discussed.
Unlike contemporaries such as Clint Eastwood or Robert Redford, directing never became a full-time deal for Paul Newman. His five films (and one telemovie) as a director, however, showcase a true auteur’s voice, with all driven strongly by the concept of family, and how familial relationships can be both nurturing and loving, and hateful and toxic. Most of Newman’s directorial efforts were also tellingly made in the service of his wife Joanne Woodward. An actress of rare, intuitive gifts (she won a well-deserved Oscar for 1958’s The Three Faces Of Eve), Woodward has been a consistently under-valued Hollywood player, excelling on television with greater frequency than on the big screen. Newman the director, however, put Woodward firmly on cinematic centre stage, allowing this great actress to truly soar.
“I’ve repeatedly said that for people with as little in common as Joanne and myself, we have an uncommonly good marriage,” Paul Newman once said. “We are actors. We make pictures and that’s about all we have in common. Maybe that’s enough. Wives shouldn’t feel obligated to accompany their husbands to a ball game, and husbands do look a bit silly attending morning coffee breaks with the neighbourhood wives when most men are out at work. Husbands and wives should have separate interests, cultivate different sets of friends, and not impose on the other. You can’t spend a lifetime breathing down each other’s necks.”
Though maintaining a little distance clearly worked for their long lasting marriage (which continued until Newman’s passing in 2008), when Newman and Woodward came together on screen, the results were often dynamic. They co-starred together frequently, and their chemistry was obvious. Newman, however, stayed off-screen for his directorial debut, with Woodward the extraordinary, singular star of 1968’s Rachel, Rachel, which received four well-deserved Oscar nominations, but has now slid ignominiously from view. Hopefully, Hawke’s The Last Movie Stars might prompt an overdue rediscovery of the film.
Adapted by Newman’s screenwriter friend Stewart Stern (whose extensive interviews conducted for Newman’s aborted memoir form the basis of Hake’s documentary series) from the 1966 novel A Jest Of God by Canadian author Margaret Laurence, Rachel, Rachel follows Woodward’s eponymous schoolteacher, a shy, sheltered virgin in her mid-thirties who still lives with her domineering mother. Rachel’s life goes through a major upheaval with the arrival of former high school classmate, Nick (James Olsen), and a surprise interaction with her best friend Calla (Estelle Parsons). A gentle but powerful story of a woman finding independence and her own identity later in life, Rachel, Rachel is a surprising and deeply moving film. Newman’s facility for actors is obvious (Woodward and Parsons are both amazing, and scored Oscar nods), but it is his sensitivity and warmth as a director that truly astound here.
Poetic and authentic, Rachel, Rachel marked an incredible debut for Newman, who also produced the film with Woodward. They struggled for many years to get the film made, and it should rightfully be heralded alongside the deeply personal works of contemporaries like Cassavetes and Scorsese. “My mother knew that her husband, who was really famous, deeply believed that she was a way better actor than she was,” daughter Lissy Newman says in The Last Movie Stars. “And he did a lot to prove it. He worshipped her as an artist.”
That deep sense of worship continued in 1972 with the wonderfully titled and now almost completely forgotten The Effect Of Gamma Rays On Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds. Woodward delivers a truly towering performance as Beatrice Hunsdorfer, a strange, delusional woman whose overbearing personality threatens to smother her daughters, played by Nell Potts (Woodward and Newman’s daughter) and Roberta Wallach (daughter of the great Eli Wallach). Filled with amazing performances, unforgettable scenes, and cringe inducing moments courtesy of Woodward’s occasionally nightmarish Beatrice, The Effect Of Gamma Rays On Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds is a lost gem, and another example of how fruitfully Newman and Woodward’s creative relationship could be.
Wedged in between the incredible Newman-Woodward double shot of Rachel, Rachel and The Effect Of Gamma Rays On Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds was 1971’s Sometimes A Great Notion (also known as Never Give An Inch), a true anomaly on Newman’s directorial resume. Based on the novel by counterculture figurehead Ken Kesey (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest), this rough, rugged and raucous drama follows the various members of a logging family in a small Oregon town who battle unions and the hostile townsfolk. Initially just a producer on the film, Newman stepped into the director’s chair when original helmer Richard A. Colla left the project due to various artistic differences, as well as some health issues. Despite the late call-up, Newman delivered an entertainingly freewheeling affair, while the film’s intense family dynamics were right up his directorial alley.
Newman took an extended break from directing after his late-1960s, early-1970s heyday, finally returning in 1980 with the telemovie The Shadow Box, a straightforward adaptation of Michael Cristofer’s play about three terminally ill cancer patients. Once again, Newman was working here at the service of Joanne Woodward, who delivers a typically fine performance alongside Christopher Plummer, Valerie Harper and James Broderick. Like most telemovies, this one is sadly difficult to find today…at least, ahem, legally, and in decent condition, if you get our drift.
Newman returned to the big screen in 1984 with the now largely forgotten Harry & Son, an excellent family-themed drama in which Newman gifts himself a great role as the hard-nosed Harry Keach, a bulldozer operator with a rousing work ethic who bangs heads with his wistful wannabe writer son, Howard, charmingly played by Robby Benson (remember him?) Joanne Woodward also appears (as do Ellen Barkin and Morgan Freeman in early roles), and Newman once again proves what a fine touch he had with actors. Like all of Newman’s films, Harry & Son is moving and authentic, and richly details the everyday difficulties of being in a family.
It is wholly fitting that Paul Newman’s final film as a director would be his beautifully realised adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Not only did he shoot to fame as an actor in big screen versions of the renowned playwright’s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird Of Youth, but 1987’s The Glass Menagerie perfectly encompasses Newman’s complex approach to family relationships on screen. An absolute acting masterclass, this meditative drama stars the truly magisterial Joanne Woodward as Amanda Wingfield, the genteel, smothering mother to Tom (the excellent John Malkovich), who longs to escape, and the shy Laura (the truly wonderful and ever underrated Karen Allen is brilliantly affecting), whose chances in life are sadly slim. It’s a strong, thoughtful and moving take on an American classic.
A vital, essential, towering figure in American cinema, the late, great Paul Newman was also a director of rich humanity, generosity, and quiet human poetry whose films deserve far, far more credit.
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