Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Paul Newman, Decency Manifest

by Anne Helen Petersen

So let’s set things straight: Paul Newman isn’t from Classic Hollywood. In fact, he’s not even scandalous — if anything, he managed to avoid scandal altogether, in a way that few stars have before or since. His star image was that of a genuinely talented actor, a kind man, a passionate philanthropist, and an absolutely devoted husband….

….who just happened to the most gorgeous thing on the planet. Sometimes I’ll say that a movie star is good looking, or sexy, or handsome, but I also realize that my opinion is subjective, and others might not find him to be so. But when it comes to Paul Newman, it is impossible not to find him attractive. He is objectively handsome. His blue eyes are un-unlikable.

What’s that you say? You don’t find Paul Newman attractive? You’re going to tell me so in the comments? You are a robot.

Usually the prettiest boys are the biggest assholes. If you went to high school or ever set foot in a fraternity, you know this to be true. But sometimes the prettiest boys don’t realize they’re pretty, and they somehow end up becoming decent human beings, getting really into car racing, making lots of pantry items, and using the profits from said pantry items to let kids go play en plein air. Paul Newman is one of those few and far between. Or, more precisely, his image is that of one of the few and far between — the guarantor that hotness and decency are not mutually exclusive.

The living, breathing Paul Newman probably screwed up, forgot to recycle, and got boogers. Yet once it was established that such a beautiful man had pledged faithfulness to his wife, the gossip press, from the fan magazines to Life, gloried in it. Amid the counter-culture, long-haired hippies, and free love, here was a guy who chose to take his non-goddess wife, move to Connecticut, and cook breakfast in his boxers for his loving family, tra la la.

But the media couldn’t have made the image of Paul Newman without the appropriate building blocks. Newman grew up in the suburbs of Ohio with a Jewish father and a Christian Science mother, and she encouraged him to do cute things like audition for school plays. His father ran a sporting-goods store, and Newman worked there after school and probably used his dimples to sell lots of women’s walking shoes.

Newman served in the Navy during World War II, putting in time in the Pacific theater and looking young and cocky in his sailor duds. He returned and enrolled at Kenyon College in middle-of-nowhere Ohio, thus giving Kenyon bragging rights over ever other small liberal arts college. (I mean, the only famous people who went to my small liberal arts college were Television Batman [Adam West] and Best Supreme Court Justice Ever [William O. Douglass, hollllla], both of whom Newman would tromp in a hotness fight. Why aren’t all of Kenyon’s recruiting materials just graduation statistics superimposed over Newman’s abs in Cool Hand Luke?)

Bygones. In 1949, Newman married a woman named Jackie Witte, who gave birth to three of Newman’s children but soon became a footnote in the grander Newman narrative. He also went to Yale for drama school, spent some time studying The Method at the Actor’s Studio, and eventually started appearing on Broadway. After some leading roles and a few forays into television, Newman replaced James Dean as a boxer in Somebody Up There Likes Me. And since playing a boxer = taking off your shirt, the film quickly attracted notice.

A string of unremarkable films kept Newman visible, including a role in The Long, Hot Summer, where he met one Joanne Woodward, a very talented and very blonde actress with a pointed look that makes one think of money, grace, or icequeens. Think no-nonsense Grace Kelly with darker eyebrows.

The Long, Hot Summer INDEED.

For all of Woodward’s relative plainness, she clearly had a power over Newman. He divorced Witte and married Woodward a few months later in what my decadent coffeetable book filled with beautiful pictures of Newman calls “an intimate Las Vegas wedding ceremony.”

As a wedding gift, Newman gave Woodward a silver cup, inscribed with:

“So you wound up with Apollo/If he’s sometimes hard to swallow/Use this.”

Funny! That is funny! Paul Newman is funny!

And here’s where the timeline becomes important:

January 29, 1958: Newman marries Woodward in Vegas.

March 26, 1958: Joanne Woodward wins the Best Actress Academy Award for The Three Faces of Eve; Newman and Woodward dance the night away at the after party; huge Woodward lovefest ensues.

April 3, 1958: Long, Hot Summer appears in theaters, featuring real chemistry between co-stars, which is TOTALLY OKAY because NOW THEY ARE MARRIED.

September 20, 1958: Release of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Liz in white slip; Paul in blue bathrobe; fighting, fighting, clawing, kissing, fighting. Ridiculous hotness:

With this series of events, Paul Newman became a thing the same way that, say, The Fassbender became a thing with the one-two punch of Jane Eyre and the New-But-Actually-Truly-Bad X-Men Origins. The recipe is simple: Play hot, mournful, and moody, then play a variation on hot and mournful and moody. Bonus points for being married to someone who is also beautiful but not so beautiful that you want to burn off her eyebrows while she’s sleeping.

But remember, the timing was perfect. First wife fades to the background; second wife comes to the foreground. This wasn’t necessarily novel, and I am not suggesting that it was deviously orchestrated. But it did allow for the narrative of Paul Newman, Perfect Husband to unfurl.

And unfurl it did — but somewhat slowly. Over the course of the next decade Newman and Woodward had three daughters, and Newman established himself through key roles.

Very stoic in Exodus, super sad sack in The Hustler, hating the universe in Hud, saying as little as possible in Hombre (“HOMBRE means man; Paul Newman IS HOMBRE!”), and in a moment that lives in the memories of every rebellious boy, eating 50 hard-boiled eggs in Cool Hand Luke.

One summer when I was bored and marginally employed the way people are after graduating from liberal arts college with a degree in Film Studies, I watched a lot of movies, but, most importantly, I watched the director’s commentaries for a lot of movies. And in the director’s commentary for 25th Hour, which might be the most woefully underrated film of the last decade, Spike Lee and the art director discuss how they were trying to figure out the perfect poster for Ed Norton’s apartment, and how that poster had to aesthetically and thematically convey his character’s stoicism and attractiveness and stubbornness.

This was obviously the poster, and this was obviously the man.

Cool Hand Luke was a huge hit, it and it had the potential to turn Newman into a hero of the counter-culture, which would be Peter Fonda’s fate two years later following the release of Easy Rider. But Newman’s extratextual image was so strong, it swallowed any suggestion of Newman as an actual rebel. Sure, Newman plays a “non-conformist” on screen, and sure, he’s campaigning for Eugene McCarthy, but will you take a look at those tennis whites!

Then, as if Newman needed people to love him more, he went and directed a film starring his wife. And unlike the times when Guy Ritchie directed Madonna and your eyes melted out of your skull, this film — Rachel, Rachel — is actually amazing, and received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress.

For all its actual artistic merits, Rachel, Rachel was also a public relations dream, with critics lauding the way that Newman’s directing was effectively a love letter to his wife. Whether or not you agree, the discourse was in place: Paul Newman loves his wife so much that you can see it in the movement of the camera.

Newman’s reconciliation of ordinary, loving husband and ripped, rebellious dude was crystallized with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a film whose anti-hero cowboys are, in reality, super mainstream. Don’t mistake me: I love this film. I love the hokey use of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” while Newman fecklessly rides a bike. I love Robert Redford’s moustache and the saturated film process that somehow make Newman’s eyes even more startling. I even love the freezeframe at the end and all its suggestiveness of immortality.

And sure, it was released in 1969, and it focuses on two outlaws. But Newman and Redford are outlaws in the way that the Oceans 11 crew were outlaws, which is to say that they were handsome men who used cunning and the occasional explosive to get what they wanted, including the girl. Butch Cassidy was counter-culture lite: You could, and still can, watch it with your gramma. Don’t even think of doing that with Midnight Cowboy, which was released the same year, was rated X, and makes Butch Cassidy look like a Disney film.

Butch Cassidy also forever yoked Newman with Redford in the public eye — an association reinforced by The Sting and the impossible truth that both men only continued to get better looking with age. If Tumblrs were around in the 1980s, there’d be one called FuckYeahCraggyDudes, exclusively devoted to mid-career Newman and Redford.

The 1970s and 1980s pass. Things get relatively steady. Newman and Woodward stay married, stay in Connecticut, and make a bunch of films, none spectacularly good or bad. The highlights:

1. The String = Perfect Saturday-night-stay-home-movie. The music (Joplin) will be your personal life soundtrack for at least a week afterwards.

2. Slap Shot = Obviously the best sports movie of all time. Broadly palatable in the way all sports/Paul Newman movies must be.

3. The Color of Money = B-grade Scorsese. Wins Newman an Oscar, but the Academy was clearly awarding every performance that was not this one. Tom Cruise is wee.

4. The Verdict = High production value John Grisham adaptation before there were John Grisham novels. Just because it’s directed by Sidney Lumet doesn’t mean it’s not a genre film.

5. Nobody’s Fool = So good but ADMIT IT, JUST ADMIT IT, probably could have been produced by Oprah.

Again, I’m not suggesting that these films aren’t entertaining — they obviously are. The Towering Inferno, for which Newman received an equally towering paycheck just to rescue people from a very tall building, might be the most blatantly entertaining of them all.

But they aren’t exceptional. Look at Brad Pitt’s career and you can say the same — apart from a Jesse James here and a Coen Brothers movie there, dude’s spending a fair amount of time with pablum like Benjamin Button, which is a Hallmark movie dressed in Oscar clothes.

The Newman mid-career canon was filled with strong, steady, and somewhat predictable films — and his personal life matched it perfectly. Sometime in the 1970s, it became clear that Newman was still with Woodward — no scandals, no affairs, just New England living, many children, and turquoise velour zip-up cardigans.

Which isn’t to say that Newman was boring. There’s a difference between solid, reliably entertaining films — and a solid, reliable star text — and boring. Ben Stiller is boring. (At least his “sanctioned” image is boring; the secret anorexia? Not so boring.) Tom Hanks is super boring. Will Smith is boring. Dude doesn’t even cuss.

But not Paul Newman. Because you know what Paul Newman did? RACED FAST CARS.

His interest in cars started in 1968, when he played an Indy 500 driver in Winning. By 1976, he won his first title; in 1977, he finished fifth at Daytona; in ’79, he got second at Le Mans. At 55! In 1983, he founded the Newman-Haas racing team, and kept racing throughout the ’80s and ’90s, eventually winning the 24 Hours of Daytona. At age 66. I mean, I don’t know shit about car racing, but this all sounds like Paul Newman wasn’t just good for a celebrity, like the way that anyone who wins at Dancing at the Stars is a good cha-cha-er for a C-List star.

Boy oh boy did the magazines love to take pictures of Newman in his gear. Bright colors! Red and white and blue! AMERICA! People just LOVED it, but I can’t show you pictures because Time Warner will kill me in my sleep.

Race car driving may seem wild and crazy and at odds with Newman’s image, but please realize that race car driving is the most benign adventure sport of all time. I understand that it is actually very, very treacherous, but the point is it appears rather safe and clean and you’re inside of an f-ing car, a very expensive car, and people even change your tires for you. And this was before NASCAR (and racing cars) had become synonymous with trashiness. When Newman raced cars, it was the type of thing you did in Monaco.

Racing fast things, however, added the needed counter-point to Newman’s otherwise steady image. But just in case you thought he might be getting too wild, DON’T WORRY, he’s also making salad dressing. Yes, that big, broad, smiling face on your food items? That is an aging Paul Newman, so eager for you to make a Caesar Salad so that all proceeds can help ill children go to summer camp.

In the early ’80s, Newman and author A.E. Hotchner started making salad dressing for fun and gifting it to friends. People loved it, so the duo thought HEY, WE HAVE AN ESTABLISHED STAR, why wouldn’t people buy things with his face on it? Salad dressing was the gateway drug to all sorts of cleverly packaged and quasi-healthy: Newman-Os, pizza, lemonade, spaghetti sauce, popcorn, all with Newman in some weird costume (look at him and Woodward in the overalls, lolz explosion) and slogans like “Made Fresh Since February.” (Bonus: the Mint Explosion Newman-Os MIGHT BE THE BEST COOKIE EVER? Discuss).

And these products made a lot of money! Like $300 million since 1982! For seriously ill kids! The money also underwrites an award for an individual who has bravely stood up for the right to Free Speech, which is just so philosophically awesome I can’t even stand it. I realize that these may sound like small things — celebrities give to charity all the time, although not always altruistically — but I want to underline that Newman was one of the very few who exploited his image with the explicit purpose of generating profits for charity. 100% of profits from these products. Can you imagine what would happen if Jessica Simpson did that with the money from her shoe line? Or Britney with any one of her 52 perfumes?

Hairpinners, Newman’s image is that of decency manifest. And if the man behind that image was not in fact similarly decent, then he may have pulled off the most impressive public relations coup of all time. I love a good scandal, and almost wish that there had been one in Newman’s life, if only because I like the guy so much and want him to be even more interesting. But here’s the thing, and Miley Cyrus and other contemporary celebrities, take note: It’s true that a scandal won’t (necessarily) decrease the value of your star brand. But there are different strategies for playing the game — alternate ways to have your name ring out, as Marlo of The Wire would say.

Paul Newman somehow managed to show the rest of the silver age stars that there was, indeed, a second path to enduring stardom, one characterized by decency, fidelity, and philanthropy.

When asked why he had never cheated on Woodward, Newman replied “Why fool around with hamburger when you have steak at home?”

Newman at home with his steak.

I’m not some monogamy-proselytizer, and I’m not trying to say that all stars should be like Paul Newman. If they were, there’d be no good gossip, only Entertainment Tonight profiles of the star’s cute dogs. But Newman played the part of a decent, beautiful man so well, and so thoroughly, that his star will endure. His image seemed real, seemed possible — something to which both men and women could aspire. And if stars embody values that matter to us as a culture, then I’m mostly just thrilled that steady decency did — and still does — matter.

Previously: The Unheralded Marilyn Monroe.

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.