A note on Paul Newman’s The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man

Paul Newman’s semi-autobiography, THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF AN ORDINARY MAN, is out now and comes across as an earnest, somewhat harsh, and slightly dull exploration of the self. We hear of his upbringing in Shaker Heights, his conflict with his mother, how he dealt in public with being half-Jewish; what ‘sexual awakening’ meant in Depression America; how he was Mr. Chug-a-Lug at College; his service in WW2; his failings as a husband, a parent, his drink problem; what race-car driving meant to him; how, relative to income, he became the most generous person of the 20th century, giving away every year publicly through the profits of his salad dressing much more than he earned privately as a star. The biography is cobbled together from the transcripts of conversations he had with Stewart Stern that are also the foundation for THE LAST MOVIE STARS TV series. Ostensibly, he recorded these talks so he could let his children know ‘everything’ and communicate to them what he couldn’t tell them face-to-face. In some ways, it’s all very moving. He saw himself as cunning (he was good at selling and making money since childhood) but not book bright. He suspects he had learning difficulties and would rent a hotel room and lock himself up for days just to learn his lines. He embodies a mid-century American archetype of ‘decency’, hard work and ‘solid values’. He aspired to be a good person and worked very hard to become one; he knew he couldn’t be a great actor but tried very hard to be a good one. He had more success with both than he acknowledged. One feels one gets to know the person. But shallow as I am, I was disappointed we didn’t get more about the career, the business, the art, the movies, the shows, the directors, the co-stars (though he does cover some of that). But then, it is a book about a person and a life, not merely about a star and a career. I’m glad I read it.

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