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The Foolscap Pages

Simon Callow, interviewed by Noel Stevens

Simon Callow

Simon Callow

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.


For the December 22 issue of the Review, actor and frequent contributor Simon Callow reviewed Paul Newman’s memoir, The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man. Less of an autobiography and more of a posthumous compilation of oral histories, the extravagantly modest title offers an insight into the inner turmoil of one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars. Callow, who worked with Newman briefly on a film in 1989, was “bemused” by Newman’s meek demeanor in contrast with his fame: “Newman…knew that he had what people wanted, but he didn’t feel that he owned his natural gifts. This was the cause of a great deal of the tension in his life.”

A writer, actor, director, and musician, Callow is a venerated Renaissance man in his own right. His acting career—most famously in his BAFTA-nominated performances in A Room with a View and Four Weddings and a Funeral, but also on stage, where he originated Mozart in Amadeus—are may be what he’s best known for in the United States. But he is a prolific author, having written biographies of Orson Welles, Charles Laughton, and Oscar Wilde, as well as several acting guides and works of criticism.

I e-mailed Callow this week to find out what makes a good biography and delve further into Newman’s remarkable life.


Noel Stevens: Which creative discipline first attracted you, writing or the performing arts? Is there an endeavor, among these or others, in which you feel most at home? 

Simon Callow: I learned to read rather late—six years old—but then my craving for the printed word became insatiable. In those distant days—the early 1950s—it was common to deploy newspapers on newly washed floors, and if I was absent, I could most often be found upside down in the kitchen, reading the Financial Times or The Daily Telegraph. Quite early on I used to scribble down things I’d heard or thought and was that unusual child who actually enjoyed writing thank-you letters. I contributed florid essays to the school magazine, although my career in that sphere started with a terrible fraud. I lived in Africa from the ages of nine to twelve, and my mother had somehow got hold of a version of Genesis chapter 1 in pidgin English—“In de beginning was de Word and de word was de Lawd,” etc.—and I submitted it as my own. It was a great success and all my future, self-scribed submissions were reverently received and duly published.

All I wanted to be was a writer, though I soon realized that I only had one subject: me. Even I could see the limitations of that. But I was serious enough to have sold my entire beloved collection of LPs to buy my first typewriter, a cheap affair with a gray-blue plastic body on which I wrote epic confessions of my inner experience. It was also the machine on which I wrote a three-foolscap-page, closely typed letter to Laurence Olivier, explaining to him what a fine organization the National Theatre was under his leadership, which led to my getting a job in their box office, which in turn led, in the fullness of time, to my becoming an actor. But I never stopped writing: diaries, plays, even, God help me, poetry. I once wrote a hate poem to the unresponsive object of my love; that was the only verse of any merit I produced. I love acting deeply and continue to be fascinated by its demands and possibilities; I enjoy directing immensely, despite the huge extra burden of responsibility; but I think I’m at my happiest writing.

Toward the end of your review of Paul Newman’s memoir, you write “as an account of the inner life and struggles of an altogether exceptional human being, it belongs with the best of memoirs, theatrical or otherwise.” As a reviewer and writer of biographies and memoirs, what do you think it takes to produce a good one? How can or should the biographer or memoirist decide where to focus when an entire life, exceptional or not, is to be considered? 

As a memoirist, one has to balance the rival claims of one’s actual recollections, the desire to make sense of them, plus the almost equally pressing aspiration to write the result well. It’s a three-way pull. A crucial part of the process is selection. We can never know what Newman’s memoir would have been like had he published it himself. I draw attention in the review to the pitfalls of using oral interviews as a basis for a memoir. The process easily becomes confessional and can lead to a degree of self-dramatization. Newman relentlessly scourged himself in these sessions, a self-denigration that (perhaps unintentionally) only points up his subsequent achievements.

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One of the interesting letters I received after the review came out was from a contemporary of Newman’s at Kenyon College, who remembers him in the role of Hildy Johnson in the Hecht and MacArthur newspaper comedy The Front Page. “Watching Paul Newman in student productions of 1947,” the correspondent writes, “I knew without question that eventually I would see this gifted man-about-campus achieve vast success on stage and in motion pictures, which indeed is what occurred.” Newman clearly felt that this early spontaneity and ease was too easily won and chastised his younger self for it. Yet it’s quite clear that that was exactly the quality he spent his whole career trying to regain. There is a constant tension in the memoir between how he sees himself and how others perceive him. His recollections are frequently challenged by those of his contemporaries. For example, he insists that he was highly unsuccessful sexually until he met Joanne Woodward, but his contemporaries all recall him as the campus Lothario.

The increasingly popular and often very illuminating form of group oral biography sometimes leaves one uncertain as to the real facts, which of course may reflect a deeper truth about human experience. In the end, almost by definition, pretty well every autobiography or memoir has to be viewed as subjective. In this case, his account of his childhood, which casts a spell over the whole book, is extraordinarily vivid, but even there one can’t be certain of the facts: on a small matter, he described his mother’s voice as warm and well-modulated, whereas his first wife described it as harsh and unrelenting.

One of Newman’s talents that you single out is the tension between his desire for control and the occasions when that slips. Are there particular scenes or moments in his filmography that really stand out to you? Why? 

With any such moments, it’s hard to know whether he’s acting the slippage of control or whether it simply happened, but an outstanding example of this is in Cool Hand Luke when he has to sing a song, play the banjo, and break down in tears, all novelties for Newman, the first two of which he mastered after long and hard work. The director, Stuart Rosenberg, tricked him into tapping into his rage, and he visibly loses control on film. As described by Rosenberg: “He cut me off and just started to sing. I motioned to him to just keep going. He stopped, started again, and the tears started to come down. It was fucking brilliant.” There is nothing more moving than watching someone cry whose tears, as Shakespeare puts it, are “unus’d to flow.” It’s a great moment in Newman’s output, and watching him get there—to the point of finally letting go—is terribly moving

Do you think there were any ventures or experiences in Newman’s life where he found his version of liberation, either behind the camera or out of Hollywood altogether? 

He is absolutely explicit in the memoir that creating the Newman’s salad dressing line and the subsequent charitable fund, as well as, later, the Hole in the Wall Gang camp, were among the greatest achievements of his life, partly because, as he surmises himself, he was able to give expression to his father’s managerial and entrepreneurial brilliance in a good cause—he was able to be a highly effective businessman without the stigma of being a capitalist. He was a complex man, right enough.

Were there any details in Newman’s memoir or The Last Movie Stars that felt incongruous with what you knew about him personally?

No. What was a little odd about the documentary was the extraordinary amount of emotion generated in the actors who contributed to it—somewhat indulgent emotion, which I suspect Newman would have loathed. It increasingly seemed to become all about them, not about him at all.

Who are some writers you find yourself returning to often, either as a reader or as an inspiration for your own writing?

My idol as far as style is concerned is Christopher Isherwood, and I often return to him, though I am well aware that my style is a million miles away from his: my tendency is baroque, extravagant, highly colored; Isherwood’s the exact opposite. But I think that hearing his still, calm voice in my head has from time to time saved me from drowning in my own excesses.

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