The Long, Hot Summer (1958)

May 15, 2019     Updated May 27, 2022

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward

Paul Newman & Joanne Woodward Get Married, Joanne Wins an Oscar, & the Newmans Put Their Marriage First. It's The Long, Hot Summer (1958).

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The Long, Hot Summer (1958) marked the first onscreen pairing of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.  The two wed in early 1958, not long after the completion of filming.

I was about eleven or twelve the first time I watched The Long, Hot Summer.  At the time, my takeaways from the film were:

1. Orson Welles was scary (and how did he ever snag the beautiful Rita Hayworth).

2. Paul Newman’s bowtie looked better than Bill Nye’s.

3. Joanne Woodward had the most beautiful voice.

The dramatic and romantic elements of the film were completely lost on me. 

the long hot summer

 Watching The Long, Hot Summer as an adult, it’s impossible not to appreciate the screenplay, rich with the influence of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams; or the electric chemistry between Newman and Woodward.  These two were in love offscreen, and it shows.  It’s no wonder Paul and Joanne went on to a successful 50-year marriage, in Hollywood no less.

Let’s get to the plot.

Paul Newman as Ben Quick, on trial for suspicion of barn burning.

Small Town Meets Mischievous Drifter

Ben Quick (Paul Newman) is a mischievous and ambitious young drifter who comes to a sleepy little southern town named Frenchmen’s Bend (what a name) after being kicked out of other sleepy little southern towns for suspicion of barn burning.  Ben’s reputation precedes him: the people of Frenchmen’s Bend (haha) know of his past as soon as he arrives in town and gives his name.

Clara Varner (Joanne Woodward) receives the wrath of her father, Will (Orson Welles). The cowardly Jody (Anthony Franciosa) looks on, with his wife Eula (Lee Remick).

The Varner Family

Frenchmen’s Bend is basically owned (did you laugh that time?) by the exceptionally wealthy Varner family. 

Will Varner (Orson Welles), the patriarch of the family, is a pushy, confident, self-made man.  He’s disappointed in his two children, Jody (Anthony Franciosa) and Clara (Joanne Woodward).

Will is disappointed in Jody because he doesn’t show any of the drive or smarts of his father.  All Jody really wants to do is stay in bed all day with his beautiful wife, Eula (Lee Remick).

the long hot summer
Clara entertains her boyfriend, Alan (Richard Anderson).

Will is disappointed in Clara, the child he knows is smart and accomplished, because she remains unmarried after wasting five years dating their mama’s boy neighbor, Alan (Richard Anderson), who won’t ever propose because his mom is the number one woman in his life.  

FOREVER.

“None of that now! Way past son’s naptime!”

Alan’s mom announces when she catches Clara trying to kiss Alan on a date in their front yard.  Ummm Alan is at least  30…no wonder Will is disappointed in Clara.  She dates 30 year olds who still take mother-mandated naps.

the long hot summer
Will Varner takes an immediate liking to Ben Quick and his ambition. These two are cut from the same cloth.

The Ambition of Ben Quick

Ben Quick is hired by the Varner family.  He starts as a sharecropper, then works his way up to manager of their general store. Will Varner likes Ben from the start, seeing in him the drive and ambition Jody lacks.

Will senses a kindred spirit, and quite accurately tells Ben:

“You’re a young dangerous man.  I’m an old one.”

the long hot summer
Clara and Ben obviously like each other, but Clara needs to make sure it's more than just physical attraction.

Sparks fly between Ben and Clara, though Clara will not allow herself to fall for him until she’s convinced Ben can see all the wonderful qualities she has to offer a man.  Clara won’t settle for a one-dimensional marriage, even though her dad literally tries to contract Ben to marry her, financial rewards and bonuses included. 

But Ben genuinely wants to pursue Clara, monetary incentives or not.

the long hot summer
Jody (Anthony Franciosa) wants to spend all his time with Eula (Lee Remick). Can you blame him?

Oh, Jody

Jody the doofus (sorry, but this character is SO annoying) gets so jealous of his dad’s interest and pride in Ben that he locks Will in their barn and sets it on fire.  Luckily, Will’s pleas to unlock the barn door get to Jody, and he saves Will before it’s too late. 

Don’t ask me why, but Jody trying to kill his dad, and then deciding to save him at the very last possible minute, is seen as a great mark of character by Will.  Immediately after the incident, Will is incredibly proud of his son and suddenly thinks Jody is a great kid who’s clearly on his way to accomplishing amazing things!

(I think Jody just seems foolish and maybe legitimately crazy after trying to kill his dad, but whatever…??)

the long hot summer
Ben and Clara playfully realize their relationship is multifaceted, and are ready to move forward in life together.

The Long, Hot Summer Ends

Of course, all the townspeople want to blame the barn burning on Ben because of his reputation.  But Clara saves Ben from the mob, and in the process learns that he is in fact a multifaceted individual who sees and appreciates her for who she really is. 

Will tells the townspeople the barn burned because he accidentally dropped his cigar in the hay (OOOPS!), Jody happily agrees with him (DOOFUS!), and Clara and Ben begin their relationship, presumably with marriage in the near future.

And that’s the end of the film.

Orson Welles in 1947, looking quite a bit different than he does as Will Varner in The Long, Hot Summer.

The Long, Hot Summer Method Actors.  And Orson Welles.

Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Anthony Franciosa, Lee Remick.  These were bright, basically new names in Hollywood cinema, and they all had one big thing in common: they trained with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York. 

This was a group of actors who wanted to read and analyze the script before filming; they wanted to create back stories for the characters they played, and discuss scenes and motivation with their director.

Not so with Orson Welles. 

Welles belonged to the previous generation of Hollywood movers and shakers.  Remember Citizen Kane (1941) and everything that film pioneered?  Orson Welles was one of the cool guys of the previous era, no doubt about it.  But he didn’t really get all this method acting stuff.  And it led to some much publicized conflicts on The Long, Hot Summer set, notably between Welles and the director, Martin Ritt, who was also part of the Actors Studio crowd.

Welles as Will Varner, with love interest Minnie, played by Angela Lansbury. Yes, it IS interesting to hear Ms Lansbury speak with a southern accent. She's great in the role.

Welles’ Revenge on The Long, Hot Summer

It’s rumored that Welles purposely mumbled through a lot of his lines in The Long, Hot Summer, resulting in painstaking post-dubbing efforts by Martin Ritt.  Mumbling through his lines, à la Marlon Brando or James Dean, was apparently Welles’ way of thumbing his nose at the Actors Studio.

And speaking of noses, Welles’ prosthetic nose in the film—he most always used prosthetic noses in his movies—was constantly slipping off his real nose during filming because it was so hot.  The Long, Hot Summer  was shot on location in Clinton, Louisiana, and that long, hot, southern summer made the whole cast, the heavy Welles especially, less than comfortable for the majority of filming.

the long, hot summer
The gorgeous Varner girls! Joanne Woodward as Clara, and Lee Remick as Eula.

The Long, Hot Summer: Joanne Woodward Gets the Role

The Long, Hot Summer was the first film that teamed Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. 

And it almost didn’t happen. 

Eva Marie Saint, already a big star, was the first choice for the role of Clara Varner.  But word was getting out around Hollywood that Joanne nailed it in The Three Faces of Eve (1957).  There was even some Oscar talk in the air.  In the end, the reputation Joanne garnered for her work on Eve was enough, and she landed the role of Clara.

the long, hot summer

Joanne Gets the Oscar

The 1958 Oscar ceremony just preceded the April 3rd release date of The Long, Hot Summer.  And it ended up being great publicity for the film: guess who won the Best Actress Oscar for her first feature film role? 

Yep, it was Joanne, for The Three Faces of Eve.

The newcomer was up against some classic names—Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner, Deborah Kerr, and the great Italian actress, Anna Magnani. Joanne was positive that Kerr would win, and said so publicly. 

Joanne, in her stunning homemade dress, at the 1958 Oscars with her Best Actress award.

Actually, Joanne did absolutely no campaigning herself to win the Oscar.

Joanne was so grounded about the whole Oscar-nomination-for-your-first-film-thing that she wore a gown of her own making to the ceremony.  As Joanne recounted of her homemade gown:

“I spent a hundred dollars on the material, designed the dress, and worked on it for two weeks.”

The newlyweds. She's so happy, and he's so proud of her.

For some reason, this really made some of the old-time glamour queens mad, namely Joan Crawford (who, incidentally, Joanne was named after).

But it was Joanne who took home the Oscar that night.  I certainly can’t think of a better way to get the last laugh.

Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman

The Long, Hot Summer & A Not So Secret Love

Filming of The Long, Hot Summer  was the first time Paul and Joanne could be completely open about their relationship.  Technically, this was still a forbidden love–Paul’s divorce from first wife Jackie Witte was not finalized until 1958, and the film was shot at the end of 1957.  But Paul made friends with some of the local guys in Clinton, Louisiana.  Any time reporters who came to town got a little too nosey about the romance between the film’s stars…well, they were encouraged to back off by Paul’s new friends.

Anthony Franciosa later joked that he thought Paul and Joanne were already married when filming began, they were just so close and obviously so in love on set.  But it was after filming completed, though before The Long, Hot Summer  was released, that Paul and Joanne tied the knot on January 29, 1958.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward
The Newmans, in love and happily married.

Top Priority: Marriage

And with very few exceptions, after she became Mrs. Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward decided to only accept roles in films that also involved her husband in some capacity, usually as costar or director. This marriage was going to work, despite the flashy industry the Newmans were a part of.

Today, Joanne’s decision to put her marriage above her career may be viewed as old-fashioned, foolish even.

But I think it’s awesome. 

The Newmans enjoyed a happy and successful, 50-year marriage.  Paul and Joanne both carried their weight, so to speak, in keeping their relationship faithful and strong.  But Joanne’s decision to base her career moves around her husband may have been the deciding factor in the ultimate success of the Woodward/Newman marriage.

Joanne Woodward Paul Newman

And it’s not like Joanne’s career suffered.  She may have made more films if she’d participated in projects that didn’t involve Paul, but the films Joanne did make after her marriage were all quality productions.

And of course, she had her Oscar win just after their marriage, another three Best Actress nominations interspersed throughout their marriage, and there’s the fact that Joanne could–and frequently did–use her husband’s super-stardom to make films out of stories she found interesting. 

I’d say Joanne Woodward did pretty well for her own happiness, career, family, and marriage by putting her role as Mrs. Paul Newman first.

That's It for The Long, Hot Summer

And that’s it for The Long, Hot Summer [aff. link].

Join me next week for all about Paul Newman Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

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