Newman and Woodward: Acting Up!

This week in New Plaza Cinema’s entertaining lecture series on the movies and the people who made them, film historian and author Max Alvarez talked about the 50-year creative partnership between Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, illustrated with numerous film clips. More than half a century ago (can this be true?) Paul Newman became my favorite actor with his portrayal of Ari Ben Canaan in Exodus, a status he cemented the next year in The Hustler.

So many of his great roles, were in the late 1950s and 60s (Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof [1958], Hud in Hud, Luke in Cool Hand Luke, Butch in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Henry Gondorff in The Sting, Frank Galvin in The Verdict [1982]). Just the films mentioned garnered him twenty-five major award nominations, including seven Academy Award Best Actor nominations. Yet he didn’t receive an Oscar until 1986, for reprising his Hustler role as Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money.

While Newman was a dominant screen presence in those years, Woodward stayed more in the background, keeping her career secondary to her family role. (The couple has three daughters.) Nevertheless, accolades came early for Woodward. She won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her performance in The Three Faces of Eve (1957). Over his career, Newman acted in 57 feature films, and she in 27. They worked together—as actors, or with him directing—on 14 projects.

Newman and Woodward both arrived in New York in 1951, and, two years later, they met as understudies in Josh Logan’s Picnic, which gave Newman his Broadway debut. He arrived after Yale Drama School, and she, five years younger, studied in New York with Sanford Meisner in the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. She never completely lost her Georgia accent. Though they both worked on Broadway, they’re best known for films. As Alvarez emphasized, in that era, Hollywood was willing to produce a fair amount of serious adult drama, many based on literary works, which was lucky for them.

Alvarez found screen tests of each of them with James Dean for the 1955 film, East of Eden, based on the John Steinbeck novel. Judging by their tests, either or both of them might have been at least as good as Elia Kazan’s ultimate picks, Richard Davalos and Julie Harris. (Commentators frequently note that Dean’s untimely death opened up roles for Newman that otherwise might have gone to the then better-known actor.)

Newman and Woodward’s first film together was The Long, Hot Summer (1958)(trailer), based on William Faulkner’s stories. During filming, they became a couple. Newman, already married with three children, needed a divorce before he and Woodward could wed.

Other notable collaborations for the pair were 1959’s From the Terrace (trailer), based on a John O’Hara novel. It was filmed mostly in New York to accommodate Newman’s Broadway acting schedule for Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth. In 1961, they appeared together in Paris Blues (trailer), with Newman on the trombone and Sidney Poitier on the saxophone. A jazz aficionado says Newman faked it pretty well. Newman directed Woodward in the low-budget Rachel, Rachel (1968)(interview with Newman and trailer), based on a novel by Margaret Laurence. The movie turned out to be both an artistic and surprise financial success. It was Newman’s directorial debut and led to his winning the Golden Globe and NY Film Critics Circle Award. Woodward also won those two awards. He also directed her in a 1986 film version of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (full movie), which features a young John Malkovich (worth seeing for that alone!).

Their final film together was the 1990 Merchant/Ivory production, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (trailer), about a sheltered Kansas City couple who must grapple with the profound social changes surrounding World War II. To keep costs down, the film was shot in real locations in Kansas City and received donations of costumes and props, modest and not-so: 100 gallons of paint from Benjamin Moore and a dozen Tiffany lamps and 1930s paintings from a local law firm, for example. Woodward’s performance was especially praised. The New York Times said “there is a reserve, humor and desperation in their characterizations that enrich the very self-conscious flatness of the narrative terrain around them.”

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