Portland Oregonian film critic Levy (The Last Playboy: The High Life of Porfirio Rubirosa, 2005, etc.) reckons with the life and work of one of the last great Hollywood icons.
Newman (1925–2008), notes the author, was well-loved for his waggish, self-deprecating charm, his philanthropy and his longtime marriage to actress Joanne Woodward. Of course, the actor also fascinated with his preternatural physical beauty, a fact that haunted him throughout the course of his career and, Levy suggests, was a key factor in his approach to his craft. Newman couldn’t claim credit for his naturally athletic physique or piercing blue eyes, but he could take satisfaction in diligent study and old-fashioned hard work. He was not an obvious natural talent in his early forays into the field—begun while a student at Kenyon College—but rather a beautiful, magnetic charmer, a dilettante reluctant to join his family’s prosperous sporting-goods company. That he achieved his status as a master film actor is a testament to sweaty, unglamorous effort and a mania for rehearsal and script analysis, fed by his participation in the Actors Studio. It often drove collaborators to distraction but slowly paid off in a series of indelible roles in films such as The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963) and Cool Hand Luke (1967). Levy charts Newman’s evolving screen persona, from brash, cocky callowness to irreverent roguishness to gravelly authority, but the author is equally interested in Newman’s storied auto-racing career and philanthropic enterprises, including his charity gourmet-food business and his Hole in the Wall Gang camps for seriously ill children. This industry and energy, along with the boyish love of pranks and dirty jokes, the compulsive self-puncturing of his legend, the devotion to Woodward and the stubborn integrity all reveal an unusually integrated personality so ineffably right for his métier that mere mortals could only look on in wonder and delight.
An illuminating look at one of the true greats, full of humor and intelligent analysis—highly recommended.