Rogue, Hero, Icon: On Paul Newman’s Taste for Literary Adaptations

“Watching Ethan Hawke’s HBO docuseries The Last Movie Stars, I was struck by an early scene where Gore Vidal, voiced by actor Brooks Ashmanskas, recounts how he became friends with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. It was around 1954, and Newman was cast in one of Vidal’s plays written for television, The Death of Billy the Kid. At the time, New York television studios were broadcasting weekly live dramas written or adapted from works by Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, William Faulkner. … The scene is remarkable for the way it captures the confluence of an aging Hollywood studio system, the emergent medium of television, and contemporary literary imaginations. Newman and Woodward—the last movie stars, as Vidal puts it—built careers underwritten by Hollywood but indebted to American literature. In fact, most of Newman’s films were literary adaptations. Bringing Westerns, crime novels, and bestselling thrillers to the screen, as well as works by Tennessee Williams and Faulkner, Newman helped to define our cultural narratives about labor, masculinity, and success. In Leslie Fiedler’s classic study Love and Death in the American Novel, published in 1960, the literary critic observes that the American novel is distinct from its European prototypes by its squeamishness about love, sex, and marriage: Ever since [Rip Van Winkle], the typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat—anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say, the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage, and respectability. … Paul Newman is an uncanny avatar of male ambivalence about cramped civilization. Offscreen, there’s the actor’s long marriage to Woodward and his well-known political and philanthropic efforts, which suggest a commitment to family and civic life. But on screen, he projects a rogue individualism. …”

Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof examines the relationships and lies in a Southern family.  

About 1960s: Days of Rage

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1 Response to Rogue, Hero, Icon: On Paul Newman’s Taste for Literary Adaptations

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