Paul Newman (1925 – 2008):
“I picture my epitaph: ‘Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown’.”
I have earned the ire of a lot of people by finding the gay angle when writing about fascinating figures. But, I’m telling you, there are plenty of anecdotes to be found about alleged trysts between Newman and the usual suspects, including James Dean, Sal Mineo, Tennessee Williams, even Steve McQueen. Yet, no one knows for certain.
Famously, gay muckraker Darwin Porter wrote that when asked once if he was ever tempted to be unfaithful to his beautiful, talented wife, Joanne Woodward, Newman replied:
“Why go out for hamburger when you’ve got steak at home?”
Joan Crawford, who had several liaisons with Newman during his first marriage, dismissed that remark, saying:
“What a clever thing to say, but how true is it? First, I think Woodward is hamburger, not steak. As for Paul, he dines out frequently and on the most succulent filet mignon, from what I hear.”
Several of his friends and associates have claimed to have known that Newman was bisexual, including Eartha Kitt. Janice Rule, who played opposite Newman in the Broadway version of Picnic (1953) wrote that Newman liked an occasional guy, and Shelley Winters claimed to have had a three-way with Newman and Marlon Brando.
For me, one of Newman’s best performances is in the film version of Tennessee William‘s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958), where he plays Brick, a repressed gay guy. James Dean had been originally cast in the role, but he died in that famous car crash before production began. In the film version, all the direct gay references were removed from Williams’ script to satisfy the production codes. Richard Brook‘s screenplay dances around the real reasons Brick and Cat (Elizabeth Taylor) haven’t had sex in years, but dialogue about the suicide of Brick’s especially close buddy Skipper remained.
Newman told Williams:
“The role of Brick is perfect for me. All my life I’ve been split into two different directions. One side of me wants to live life with my gay football buddy Skipper, the other side is tempted to fuck the living shit out of Maggie the Cat and be the heterosexual stud most of my fans want me to be.”
The Left Handed Gun (1958), features Newman as outlaw Billy The Kid. Written by Gore Vidal, a close friend of Newman and Woodward (the three of them shared a house for years), the screenplay depicts Billy as gay. But, in Arthur Penn‘s final version, Billy’s relationship with his murdered mentor is left ambiguous.
In 1959, Newman returned to Broadway, and Tennessee Williams, in Sweet Bird Of Youth. After that, Newman abandoned the theatre for the next 33 years, to the dismay of Woodward, who believed that stage discipline would make him less reliant on his special charm and the mannerisms that were, for some critics, becoming too reliable.
Newman became a producer, film and stage director, a race car driver, a political activist and a philanthropist. He contributed more money to charities, in relation to his own wealth, than any other American in the 20th century.
As a producer and co-founder of a production company, he was responsible for many of his own films and he directed six films, four of them starring his wife. One of them brought him an Academy Award nomination, just one of nine during his long career.
I thought he became especially handsome in middle-age, and my own favorite Newman performances are from this era: the washed-up detective The Drowning Pool (1976), a working-class guy in Absence Of Malice (1981), and a fading, alcoholic lawyer in The Verdict (1982), a role director Sidney Lumet remarked, required only minimal research.
His intense performance in The Verdict failed to get him an Oscar, a fact taken harder by his wife than by Newman. It was said that his politics and East Coast-ness alienated him from the Hollywood establishment. He took the next year off to concentrate on his race cars, but then he was awarded an honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement as a 60 year old, an award usually given to the elderly in the biz. The following year, he skipped the Oscars only to win Best Actor for The Color Of Money. He received the Academy’s Jean Herscholt Award for his philanthropic work in 1993.
Newman seemed to have retired from acting, but in 1994, he took a supporting role as a bad guy in the Coen Brothers‘ The Hudsucker Proxy, and then he took the lead role in Robert Benton‘s Nobody’s Fool (1994), giving one of his best performances. It brought him another Oscar nomination.
In 1995, when he was 70 years old, he entered the 24-Hour Daytona Endurance Race, the oldest person ever to complete the race car event.
When he was 73 years old, he played an ancient private eye with a drinking problem in Twilight (1998), giving a deep, melancholy performance, and at 77, he took a juicy supporting role as a vicious mobster in Sam Mendes‘ Road To Perdition (2002). It brought Newman another Oscar nomination and rave reviews. The same year he returned to Broadway as the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder‘s Our Town.
Still handsome, still strong, Newman’s final appearance was in the television drama Empire Falls (2005). He won an Emmy Award at 80 years old. Newman is one of only four actors to have been nominated for an Academy Award in five different decades. His final credits rolled in 2008, taken by lung cancer at 83.
In 1982, he founded, initially as a modest venture, Newman’s Own, a company that makes products like salad dressing, pasta sauces and popcorn based on his own home recipes. Newman’s Own now makes over 50 products. Newman devoted the company’s entire profits to causes throughout the world. They have raised more than $500 million, so far.
Newman was actively involved in the project that received funding through Newman’s Own, including the Hole In The Wall Gang summer camps, that he started for underprivileged kids. In 1999, he returned to the theatre in the two-character play Love Letters, opposite Woodward. The play raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for land conservation in Connecticut where the couple lived.
Newman was never shy about his politics. He donated one million dollars to the leftist magazine The Nation; he had a long-term involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. He narrated the documentary King: A Filmed Record (1970), about Martin Luther King Jr. He campaigned against the war in Vietnam and supported Eugene McCarthy‘s 1968 Presidential campaign. He was vigorous in his opposition to Richard Nixon and was proud of being among the Top 20 on Nixon’s enemy list.
Newman was an early supporter of Gay Rights:
“I’m a supporter of gay rights. And not a closet supporter, either. From the time I was a kid, I have never been able to understand attacks upon the gay community.”
But, mostly we remember him for his screen career. He made more than 50 features, 11 opposite Woodward. With those blue eyes, insouciant smile, and always slim, athletic body, he was simply all that.
One of the great viewing pleasures of 2022 was Ethan Hawke‘s stunning achievement The Last Movie Stars a six-part documentary series from HBO Max that chronicles Newman and Woodward’s iconic careers and where Newman’s own contradictory character makes his movie star persona seem superficial. He was a skilled, serious actor, but he was also one of the most beautiful men to appear on screen, and that seemed to get in his way.