In 1969, two Paul Newman films were released (which is why they were called the good old days): Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Winning. As Blake Z. Wong noted in Road & Track: One of those movies made him a legend. But the other made him a race car driver.
That’s a brilliant observation, and an understatement. Three years after Winning, at the tender age of 47, Newman officially immersed himself in the sport, earning actual accolades and respect, and sometimes even leaving his still-hot film career in the dust.
The original 1969 flick that started it all earned $6.2 million in North America; it was the 16th most popular box-office film of the year, and that’s saying something (other than Butch Cassidy, notable films included Midnight Cowboy, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Easy Rider, and The Wild Bunch) .
The 2016 Chassy documentary, Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman, chronicles his actual life in racing. It spanned 35 years, with Newman winning four national championships as a driver and eight national championships as an owner.
In the Chassy doc, the Sundance Kid, more commonly known as Robert Redford, complains of his lifelong best pal’s racing obsession: “He became so boring! Because that’s all he talked about.”
Yep. And nope. Newman’s passion made his fans — and the press – even more interested in him. And he became the most interesting man in the world. The culture watched — and rooted — as he pursued auto racing all the way to the end of his life, in 2008, at age 83.
The 1969 film, Winning, is both traditional and groundbreaking. It has the feel of an old-fashioned love story told in what was then modern-day music and film technique. Roger Ebert originally gave it a thumbs down, calling it dreary. However, his praise for Newman is solid: “Newman by now has transcended the stature of the roles he plays. He seems to exist beyond his characters.” Amen?
The stars of the film outshine the story itself; however, for racing fans, the footage is to be devoured. It was taken from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 1968 race (the intensely Sixties crowd is way more compelling to watch than the actual competition — wowee, there sure were a lot of white people back then); actual film of a spectacular, dramatic crash is eye popping; that’s captured from an earlier race, in 1966.
Cinematic music legend Dave Gruisin scored the film (Wait! He wrote the music for Divorce, American Style!). Put a flower in your hair — it’s as Sixties as film music can get — it’s ‘bo contemplative and dreamy. Fun fact: the opening moment’s of the movie’s main theme, “500 Miles,” was used as the theme for The Million Dollar Movie on WEWS in Cleveland during the Seventies and Eighties. Maybe Gruisin’s proudest accomplishment.
The story is as much about a dysfunctional relationship as it is about racing. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward — married in real life — play a couple whose marriage is as doomed as it was meant to be (the real-life marriage was truly happy — they remained together until Newman’s death). The year before, they co-starred in the heavily dramatic, slow-moving Rachel, Rachel.
Here’s how Time magazine assessed Woodward’s performance in Rachel: “It is in the transcendent strength of Joanne Woodward that the film achieves a classic stature. There is no gesture too minor for her to master. She peers out at the world with the washed-out eyes of a hunted animal. Her walk is a ladylike retreat, a sign of a losing battle with time and diets and fashion. Her drab voice quavers with a brittle strength that can command a student but break before a parent’s will. By any reckoning, it is [her] best performance.”
Holy shit! This next project — Winning — followed a hard act, but it changed things up a bit, gunning the accelerator.
In the film, Newman’s character is already a successful professional racer whose life changes when he meets Woodward. He’ll put her into the ride; she’ll become his off-track object of desire. The story begins in the small town of Redburn, in which Woodward observes, “People in Redburn talk just to have something to do.” Heavy.
She plays a divorced Avis Rent-A-Car counter girl. Like Avis, Woodward tries harder, and wins the dream hunk of the 20th century. In fact, they marry, just like that. Back then, it was called a “whirlwind romance.” Today, it’s called “reality.”
The motivation: she’s lonely/he’s freewheeling. In fact, he so freewheeling that he free wheels her straight to the Pacific Ocean.
Newman quickly makes Woodward forget Floyd, her first husband (this is not difficult for Newman to do, ever). Fun fact about Floyd: they honeymooned in Milwaukee because he hoped that she would acquire a taste for beer. Classy move, and nice try: Woodward laments, “I never even acquired a taste for Floyd.”
With Newman, of course, she finally acquires a taste for beer (Pabst Blue Ribbon), and, symbolically, of life. She’s still a woman, after all, with needs, and he’s Paul Newman.
More about this needy thing later – the neediness becomes a damn problem.
Despite the spontaneity, Woodward comes with baggage: a son. At first, Newman assumes that he’s probably a precocious little boy, but he’s only half right. They boy turns out to be Richard Thomas, who later played John-Boy on The Waltons. Snagging John-Boy for this film is apparently a big deal: he scores an “Introducing Richard Thomas” credit in the film’s opening credit sequence.
Because Newman is a mensch, he becomes a father figure to John-Boy, teaching him all about racing and life, which, to Newman, is basically the same thing.
At first, the family dynamic is cozy. Woodward observes that her son is “as happy as a kid with a new dune buggy.” High praise.
Richard Thomas, in his film debut, earns his money; he’s great in reaction scenes during races, exhibiting all the feels: anticipation, relief, exhilaration. Other than that, he’s sensitive, cagey, clingy, needy, and nervous as a cat. In its review of the flick in 1969, The New York Times called him, “the most appealing teen-age lad in a long time.” And that’s not even fake news.
Everybody’s feeling groovy, until Woodward gets it in her head that she’s being neglected by Newman. It doesn’t take long for her to realize that, although she’s a fine girl, Newman’s life, his lover, his lady, is racing.
He’s just doing his job. She had no job – there doesn’t seem to be an Avis rental center within miles.
“I figured we’d do some strange, exotic thing like go out to dinner together,” is the jab she throws at him while he’s preparing for the Big Race. Really, girlfriend?
What’s a girl to do? Probably not what Woodward does here: she takes up with Newman’s best friend and fellow racer, a swinger played by the dashing Robert Wagner. This Wagner character is a real snake in the grass. While Newman and Wagner are busy out-handsoming each other, Wagner swoops in on the lady. What’s worse: Newman walks in on them during sexy times. It’s extremely awkward.
Get it? He’s winning on the race track, but not on the race track of love. This may affect his performance (on the race track, that is) – Wagner’s too. Both men are filmed with faraway, dazed, contemplative, handsome faces as they race against each other in the flick’s climactic race.
Newman broods, Woodward grieves. Both chain smoke. This does not affect John-Boy in a healthy way – he’s a total mess (acting school version — maybe even overacting school version). Newman continues to act too, as his surrogate father, introducing him to life and livin’ and ladies and lager.
“I don’t feel so good,” John-Boy says after a drinking binge.
“That’s the price, swinger,” says Newman, making with the tough love.
Woodward’s character is the most problematic in the film, and not just because in one scene she sports a pixie-like Mia Farrow do, and then in every other scene, she’s back to the longer, standard-issue Sixties do.
She treats us to a series of reaction shots during the climactic race: biting her fingernails, looking hopeful, looking grateful, looking concerned, looking relieved, trying unsuccessfully to light cigarettes (symbolic?). The rest of us, though, have wiped our hands and our asses of her. She’s made her bed, and Newman ain’t in it.
The other big red flag is Robert Wagner, who we really don’t get to know, especially why he would do Woodward – his best friend’s wife – when Sixties chicks are fawning all over him. It’s a puzzlement, but it moves the thin plot along.
Here’s a piece to the puzzle: Wagner says to Newman, “It must be nice to wake up to somebody you recognize.” That Sexual Revolution must have really been something.
Quentin Tarantino? Not a fan. About the original Newman flick, he famously said, “I’d rather saw my fingers off than sit through that again.” He even ranked it below LeMans, with Steve McQueen. Burn!
Nevertheless, if you love racing, you’ll be screening this joint. Maybe watch it on a Sunday, a day of rest for everyone but Newman, according to Woodward.
“Even God took a rest on Sunday,” Woodward had reminded him before the shit hit the fan.
“I’m not God, that’s my problem,” Newman says.
The jury, though, is still out on that one.
Click here to devour this Paul Newman joint.
Click here to screen Winning, the Chassy original doc on Newman’s racing obsession.