Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Coolest of Couples #1: Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward

"Joanne is one of the last of the great broads." 
- Paul Newman 
The weirdness aspect here isn't age, but that Paul Newman is actually hotter than his own wife, and yet they were together and happy from the 1950s right through to Newman's recent sad passing. The actual physical beauty of Woodward is not insubstantial, but as Newman is still probably the closest thing cinema has had to a living Greco-Roman god one would think he'd need someone like Rita Hayworth or 1967-era Raquel Welch to be evenly matched. And yet! Newman seemed to have an altruistic gift--perhaps an old soul too cool to be shallow--in realizing excessive beauty can be a curse after few months into a sexual relationship, as anyone who's dated a painfully hot girl can tell you. A woman who is too beautiful becomes like a dagger, stabbing you in the heart with recrimination because no matter what you do, somehow, you can't live up to her, the ideal, the pedestal, which advertising and the media has helped raise to ludicrous heights in this country... so you end up fighting against becoming an insecure drunken wreck over all the skeevy attention she gets and she instinctively recoils and acts out against your spinelessness by playing it all up, like Marlene Dietrich in DEVIL IS A WOMAN. Conversely however, Newman is almost too hot to cheat, it's just too easy. Men cheat because they need validation; a guy as hot as Newman never needs validation. Also, if you're a girl with a guy like Newman in your hands, you know better than to bother getting jealous.

Woodward's suspected uninhibited sexuality, then, is a blessing that comes with the phenomenon known as "ugly-sexy," i.e. someone is enough themselves that even their conventionally unattractive features become incredibly sexy (perhaps defined ultimately by Serge and daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg). Woodward's healthy lust is something Newman was always quick--even wolfishly proud--to confirm in the press. He praised her as one of those rare and all-but forgotten creatures of the 1960s and 1970s, the broad. Women extroverted to the extent that their sacral chakras hum like spinning tops, theirs is actually the highest level of sensuality short of the tantra. It's a casual, open-hearted lust that prettier women sometimes never develop thanks to an excess of skeevy male attention at too early an age. Instead of learning to go after the boys they like, to parlay out into the field to claim a particular prey, the too-pretty women cultivate a defense against "men" as a whole, a facade of shallow bitchiness that repels close contact but rewards long-distance worship. While gorgeous women become obsessed with making themselves prettier, no matter how pretty they may be, the clock ticks and they recoil from each new wrinkle like Baby Jane in the mirror. The ugly-sexy girls don't worry so much and so wiggle free from narcissism's trap, staying eager for the flesh of their opposite rather than their own ego ideal. As a result, ugly-sexy women often get the hottest guys, while the hot girls wind up with rich short dudes, looking around their expensive lofts and wondering if their girlfriends' are bigger.

As for Newman, as goddesses would throw themselves off horses just to touch his garment, carousing around on a midnight creep carries no 'thrill of the chase,' so marrying Woodward and being faithful to her becomes a key to spiritual enlightenment, as Shakespeare intended, like Siddhartha chucking his kingdom for a spot on the river. If Newman spent most of his career free from the shallow insecure vanity that leads men astray, the cause lies perhaps in this sacrifice.

Newman and Woodward's relationship is built, in Newman's words, on "equal parts lust and respect." The "broad" comment atop may be lost on today's generation outside of MAD MEN fans, but I still remember flirting with drunken secretaries at my dad's bridge games as a swingin' eight-year-old in the 1970s. I value and remember those "broads," and if the juggernaut of feminism has them steamrolled, I hope they don't look back on their swinger days with any remorse. They shouldn't. Sex needn't always be a weapon or means to an end. If you give it a little effort you can wiggle free from guilt, shame and repression and just have a good time. It's clear Newman and Woodward did, and they probably helped usher in 1970s permissiveness as a result. Acidemic salutes them and all broads. Ladies, please come back.

But blue eyes and Greek god sculpted features, sex and slinkiness, aren't the true measure of Newman as a man, it's his unshowy altruism and wry, self-effacing humor. He's a veritable Otto Kruger from MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, as is evidenced in the couple's preference for rural Connecticut over Hollywood, and in the many amazing food products-- popcorn, salsa, cookies, tomato sauce, you name it--all delicious, well-made, affordable--the profits from which go to charity. Yeah, man, not just "a portion" of the profits but all. ALL PROFITS!  And the company's been a huge success without having to hoist any TV commercials on the public, nothing with Newman in overalls, intoning gravely about the importance of natural ingredients. Just sunny pictures of Newman and sometimes Woodward clad as farmers on the labels.

Just look at those still-hot sweet elderly beaming faces! So much wisdom. They're in the documentary on LONG HOT SUMMER, looking great and radiating enough matrimonial calm assertiveness to fuel twenty Thin Man movies.

Now, to confess, LONG HOT SUMMER is the only movie of theirs I see over and over. PARIS BLUES (1961) and A NEW KIND OF LOVE (1963) were okay but dated in their winky attitude towards sex. I'd love to see FROM THE TERRACE (1960) but RALLY ROUND THE FLAG BOYS (1958) pissed me off no end, as I couldn't stand seeing Newman's character being cock-blocked at every step by bratty children and Woodward's community activism; I cried seeing him struggle to get a much-needed after-work drink: he can't even fit into the crowded bar car on the commuter train home from the city, and at home there's barely enough gin in the liquor cabinet to make even one gin and tonic, and--right as the lip of the glass is reaching his lips--one of his bratty boys knocks it out of his hand with a pillow thrown from across the room. And the kid is not punished! Rather the dad is supposed to be very tolerant that neither his sexual or alcoholic needs are  being met.

And then when Joan Collins--the only other awake, sexually frustrated human being in this gossipy white collar settlement--tries to get him into bed (all the way safely over in Paris, mind you), who should show up but the wife for a surprise visit. Woodward is great, of course, but what's the point of watching a match not burn?

Sexual Politics and Narrative FilmI did stick around for Collins' Pocahontas dance at the Thanksgiving-cum-fertility festival. Whoop! Whoop! And since I'd read Robin Wood's essential but slightly bitter Sexual Politics in Narrative Film, I knew to see it as the "repressed erotic (barred from the home) returning in the exotic" (p. 170) Whoop! Whoop!

Ah, but THE LONG HOT SUMMER (1958), that never fails me. Their first co-starring vehicle, it does what so many films, including CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, can only try and do and don't often get right: that whole American Gothic style whoop-whoop that was so hot in the television-competitive Cinemascope-crazy late 1950s. Colliding a couple of Faulkner stories and contrasting acting styles. Unlike some of their other vehicles, here the passion between Newman and Woodward is allowed to be super hot in its non-hotness, as Newman's hustle only strengthens her spinsterish desire.

Woodward is deliberately school-marmish here the way a modern hipster chick might be today, all she lacks is granny glasses--promoting an implied gender neutral celibacy via unsexy clothing and carting around devoted and coded momma's boy, Oscar Madison from SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN. Gender, man, it's a weird thing when a girl tries to not be sexy. I don't know how to handle it! Neither does Newman. He can't steamroll over it, so he surrenders into a calm, submissive state for the first time in a tender final monologue.

 Masters of staying humble and in character, there's no more spark or heat than needed between these two, yet they still sizzle. Their bond has developed naturally through antagonism and begrudging respect-- though offscreen they were--according to the DVD extras---racing down to Florida to ball all night during their days off. Man, I know what it's like to be in love, don't you? If not, just learn from the masters: Newman and Woodward were a solid front, completely devoted, and it helped no doubt that they were in acting class together and probably got all inside each others' heads through hours of improv and exercise. So often stars dictates to what extent the supporting characters around them are allowed to flesh out and develop in any particular movie (they don't want anyone stealing their show). But no one in the family dynamic here feels the need to spell out their connections to one another in any showy or expository manner. It's all direct non/interaction, immediate, forceful! It cuts through the artifices of poetry and grabs right at the bull's balls, without seeming to grab a damn thing. Son, that's mythic!

Orson alone seems oblivious to such dynamics, and is thus superb. We see the way living with such a boisterous, animal breeding tyrant--no matter how benevolent and witty he may be--takes its toll on his children and shows in Fanciosa's and Woodwards' sense memory resignation. Welles' complete obliviousness to all but his own charm links him to Kane and Quinlan, and matches a current of self-loathing running below Newman's self-satisfied drifter--a mutual respect forms between them, one not sullied by confusing issues of trust.

But it's humility and vulnerability that win out. As they said in later years, their relationship was built on affection and tolerance, an understanding they didn't need to meddle in every aspect of each other's life. Noted Newman: "You can’t spend a lifetime breathing down each others' necks ... We are very, very different people and yet somehow we fed off those varied differences and instead of separating us, it has made the whole bond a lot stronger.”


  1. What a fantastic post - easily my fave of The Coolest Couples series so far. I think you really nailed what made these two such an enduring, respected, highly-regarded couple. Above all, they were a class act. They didn't air their dirty laundry in plug and weren't dragged through the tabloid mud. It seemed to me that they stayed grounded in regards to each other and never bought into the hype of their profession, preferring to keep things simple. They had the kind of relationship that is pretty rare nowadays, celebrity or otherwise.

  2. This is my favorite article so far in a terrific series, Erich. I think you expose why men in search of validation or hot women who've never had any need for lust are both way overrated.

    Personally, I don't care for "ugly sexy" as an endearment. Joanne Woodward wears "broad" or "bisexual hipster chick" much better while Newman indeed seemed like an old soul in a perfect body. I'm looking forward to The Long Hot Summer.

    Keep this series coming.

  3. Thanks Joe! My Argentine ex-wife taught me the meaning of ugly-sexy, which is a term popular in Buenos Aires, apparently, I forgot the Spanish version. Ugly sexy is actually preferable to being just sexy, which almost implies being vapid, for intellect can warp the face, from fiendish grinning, wild-eyed ranting and passionate crinkling. I'd say Liz Taylor even fit the bill once she was outside a particular weight range,and to her credit seemed to scoff at diets and drink like the wind! Yet who--gay or straight--wouldn't rather sleep with her than some bland automaton with perfect measurements and shiny hair? Sexuality rewrites all the aesthetic rules whenever it pleases, and the elite at Vogue no doubt hate that about it!