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Classic review: Paul Newman: A Life

An enduring portrait of one of America's most beloved actors.

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Bit by bit, Newman steadily improved as an actor. By his 40s, cinema’s very own Dorian Gray was able to mete out immensely popular hits – “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Sting,” and “The Towering Inferno” – in between a surprising number of duds. Eventually, though, the flops began to stack up and the star became bored with acting. Worse, Newman had to repair his marriage after a two-year affair and, later, he suffered the devastating loss of his son to drug abuse.

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But Newman’s salad days were far from over – if anything, they were just beginning. Levy recounts the way Newman would always “mix a salad dressing from scratch” at restaurants using his own recipe. Eventually, the actor idly wondered about bottling the stuff and selling it. The biography offers up a fascinating narrative of how the Newman’s Own empire was born – as with all of Newman’s achievements, it wasn’t easy – and how his philanthropic instinct blossomed. At the same time, Newman’s love of motor racing came to the fore, and his perseverance eventually resulted in many congratulatory waves of the checkered flag.

All of these late experiences seemed to unconsciously bleed into Newman’s acting. There’s a noticeable difference between the actor who made 1963’s “Hud” and the one in 1994’s “The Hudsucker Proxy.” In films such as “The Verdict” and “Nobody’s Fool,” the mature Newman finally delivered the caliber of lived-in performances he’d always strived to achieve.

Levy’s meticulously researched biography is as revealing a portrait as one could hope for, given that he didn’t have access to Newman or his family. At times, Levy is hamstrung by his subject’s private nature. Why did Newman – so famous for his long-lasting marriage – stray from Woodward, and why did she forgive him?

None of our business, really. And Levy, thankfully, only seems interested in Newman’s private life in so far as it provides context for how it shaped him as a person and influenced his work. What emerges is a nonprurient, endearing portrait of a man who had little interest in living inside the Hollywood bubble – he lived in Connecticut, after all – which made him seem like a man of the people. By the time Levy details Newman’s last recorded words, you may find yourself blotting the ink on the final page.

Stephen Humphries is a former Monitor arts editor.

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