Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Paul Newman is a name requiring no introduction, a veritable Hollywood icon, the kind who endured the test of time and has managed to avoid reputation-ending scandals. In 2022 a project which he concluded almost two decades earlier was published, titled The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man – A Memoir, edited by David Rosenthal. In it, both Newman and many of those who knew him offer their unfiltered views on the man’s history and all the remarkable travails he was forced to endure.
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Paul Newman Opens his Inner Realms
Every single human being on this planet is made of flesh and blood, prone to the same miseries and joys as everyone who came before and will come after them. Nevertheless, many easily forget that our icons, whether they be actors, artists, entrepreneurs or anything else, are as human as everyone else, and have suffered from highs and lows as much as anyone. In his posthumously-published memoir, The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man, the legendary actor Paul Newman reminds us of that fact, opening the book of his life before the world.
For those who need a bit of an introduction (his heyday was, after all, decades ago), Paul Newman was an American actor, philanthropist and race car driver who achieved an iconic status not only in his country, but on an international scale. Despite seeming like it ought to be pure bliss, his life was nevertheless plagued by tragedies money and fame can’t save anyone from, and in 1986 he began a project to share the story of his life.
The idea was a simple one: Paul and his closest friend, screenwriter Stewart Stern, were to compile an oral history of Newman‘s life from both himself, his family and his friends. The sole stipulation was total honesty from all participants who chose to speak on the record, a condition some found more difficult to fulfill than others. In total, the project took five years, and in 2022 it was published under the previously-mentioned title.
The actor covers his life from A to Z, starting with his difficult and traumatic childhood, and how it shaped him for the rest of his life. He moves on to his teenage years, giving an increasingly detailed account of his life and mental state, the insecurities he struggled with, and the relatedly large amount of failures he had to forge on through.
His rise to stardom then follows, where he details his relationship with many of his movie rivals, including Marlon Brando and James Dean, giving us a glimpse behind the Hollywood scenes of those bygone earlier days when some semblance of pure artistic desire remained. In chronological order, he moves forward through the various events of his life, including his marriage, drinking problems, the death of his son Scott, and the anchor which kept him whole through it all, his relationship with Joanne Woodward.
Conscientious Explanations in The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man
To begin with, I think it’s important to address the actual purpose of this book. Many posthumously published works are simply released to make a bit more money on a dead person’s name, banking on the morbid premise alone to draw in droves of readers. As you might imagine, if such was the case with this book, I probably wouldn’t be spending my time writing a review of it.
The project was completed many years ago by two friends who have since then passed away, and from my understanding, nothing about it has been changed. The passion both men invested in this endeavour is palpable through and through, never more so than the moments when we become privy to Paul Newman‘s most private thoughts.
No matter what event he’s talking about or what person he is describing, Newman always makes it a point to lay all of this thoughts out on the table, no matter how difficult they might be to share. There are certain points where it even felt a little wrong to me, to be an interloper so deep inside someone’s head, even if it was at their own behest (so-to-speak).
In sharing all of his thoughts with the world in The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man, in my opinion, Newman attempts to provide as thorough of an explanation as he possibly can for the various decisions he made along the way. He doesn’t necessarily try to excuse or justify himself; he simply wants to show things as they are and were, so that perhaps his friends and family might hope to understand what drove him.
If, like myself, you didn’t have a deep knowledge of the man beyond his movies and people’s general perception towards him, then you’ll be probably be a little shocked at the frankness of his self-assessment. He is more than willing to admit his colossal failures as a father and a husband, and for all the explanations he offers, it seems he left this world with more questions than answers, as will we all, most likely.
The Hollywood Struggle
While the Hollywood of today is likely seen as sleazy and corrupt more than anything else, Newman worked in a time where it was still putting out original movies with actual souls in them, and I found his rise through that world to have been captivating, perhaps novel-worthy. He dedicates to his career as much time and effort as he does to his personal life, and for the most part, it feels like we’re living it with him.
Without veering into self-pity, Paul Newman makes it clear the struggles began quite early for him, and rather than succumb to the pressure, he allowed himself to be defined by the obstacles he forced himself to overcome. We get to see how the path of fame, glory and trials changed him not only for the better, but also for the worse.
Contrasting his international stardom with his personal shortcomings behind the curtains, such as drinking and being an absent father, we are shown through powerful images the toll life as an icon took on Newman. Or, I suppose more precisely, we are shown the toll an extraordinary life can take on an ordinary man.
So as not to give you the wrong impression on this one, The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man isn’t a pure tragedy, brightening considerably when Joanne Woodward enters the scene. Their marriage lasted fifty years and produced three children, giving Newman what can be best described as a new lease on life after his calamity of a first marriage.
As we move further and further through his life story we see the man growing internally, developing into an important philanthropist who managed to give the people back at least some of what he had learned about the world. Overall, I would say it ends on a positive note, showing that even the darkest days in a person’s life may yet give way to sunlight.
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The Final Verdict
The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man by Paul Newman is a layered and profound autobiography dealing with the many themes and events which coloured the author’s storied life. Insightful, moving, and at times inspiring, it brims with candour and stands as a testament to a life which wasn’t lived in vain.
If you’re a fan of Paul Newman and are interested in learning about his life, or simply like the idea of a revealing autobiography by an American icon plunging you deep into the Hollywood a bygone era, then I can only recommend this book to you.
(January 26 1925 – September 26, 2008)
Paul Leonard Newman was an American film actor, director, race car driver and author with an Academy Award, a Bafta Award and three Golden Globe Awards to his name, among many others. He has also written three books over the course of his lifetime: Newman’s Own Cookbook in 1998, Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good in 2003, and finally, The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man – A Memoir in 2022, published posthumously.