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.
2. Paul Newman’s bowtie looked better than Bill Nye’s.
3. Joanne Woodward’s voice was beautiful.
The dramatic and romantic elements of the film were completely lost on me.
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.
Let’s go through the plot of The Long, Hot Summer, then behind the scenes to the near ruinous start of Paul Newman’s film career. We’ll cover the scandalous early years of the Newman/W0odward romance, and how Paul and Joanne ultimately went on to a successful 50-year marriage, in Hollywood no less.
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.
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).
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.
“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 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 that Jody lacks.
Will senses a kindred spirit, and tells Ben:
“You’re a young dangerous man. I’m an old one.”
Sparks fly between Ben and Clara, but Clara will not allow herself to fall for Ben until she’s convinced that he can see all the wonderful qualities she has to offer. 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.
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!
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 that the barn burned because he accidentally dropped his cigar in the hay (oops), 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.
A Rocky Start In Hollywood
In 1954, Paul Newman bombed in his Hollywood film debut.
The film, a bible epic entitled The Silver Chalice, was a disaster. Critics deemed Newman a “poor man’s Marlon Brando” and panned his performance. According to The New Yorker:
“[Paul Newman] delivers his lines with the emotional fervor of a Putnam Division [Railroad] conductor announcing local stops.”
"The Worst Film of the 1950s"
Paul would later joke that it was “kind of a distinction to say I was in the worst film to be made in the entirety of the 1950s.” But in 1954, the failure of The Silver Chalice was no joking matter: as a struggling young actor with a wife and three kids to support, Newman feared his film career would never recover:
“I was horrified and traumatized when I saw the film. I was sure my acting career had begun and ended in the same picture.”
Paul Newman's Second Chance
Despite the embarrassment of The Silver Chalice, Paul’s solid turn on Broadway in 1955’s The Desperate Hours, coupled with a handful of standout television performances, brought him to the attention of screenwriter Stewart Stern and Dore Schary of MGM. Stern wanted Newman for a lead role in his new courtroom drama, The Rack (1956), while Schary was interested in casting Paul as boxing champ Rocky Graziano in the upcoming Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956).
A loan out deal was negotiated between MGM and Paul’s home studio, Warner Bros. Newman would star in both films. It was a rare, fortuitous second chance to make it in Hollywood.
Paul Newman planned to take full advantage.
During filming of The Rack and Somebody Up There Likes Me, Paul impressed MGM with his work ethic and dedication to character and story development. As Stewart Stern related:
“He is the most aware and the most disciplined storymind that I have ever come across in terms of being able to space, measure and orchestrate a script from an actor’s point of view.”
It was a time of great professional fulfillment for Paul. Success in Hollywood seemed within reach.
But things were increasingly complicated in Paul Newman’s personal life.
Paul and Joanne: The Early Years
There was an immediate attraction when Paul met Joanne Woodward during production of the 1953 Broadway play, Picnic. Paul was torn between his feelings for Joanne and his commitment to his wife, Jackie Witte. It’s unclear when exactly the friendship between Paul and Joanne turned romantic. But during filming of Somebody Up There Likes Me in Hollywood, the two were officially—though clandestinely—a couple.
In Joanne, Paul had found his soulmate. But that didn’t mean it was an easy romance. As a friend observed, the start of the Newman/Woodward relationship was:
“more of an ordeal than a courtship. Paul was torn between his loyalty to his children and honesty with his feelings for Joanne. And Joanne, who was friendly with Jackie, suffered torments at finding herself in the role of a homewrecker. But being what they were [in love], neither could help what was happening to them.”
"Guilty as Hell"
To deal with the psychological trauma of cheating, Newman began seeing a psychiatrist. Paul’s evaluation of the effectiveness of these sessions reveals a man who was especially hard on himself:
“It [analysis] helped me in some ways to have a more realistic appraisal of myself, to get in touch with my emotions. Some of it was effective and some of it was helpful…he [the psychiatrist] taught me to like myself better, which I don’t. He taught me to recognize the level of my achievements, which I don’t. He taught me not to ‘should’ myself, which I still do….I was very surprised at how little I knew about myself.”
Despite the success of his 50-year marriage to Joanne, Paul Newman would forever be ashamed of the scandalous start to their relationship, and the damage and pain it brought his first family:
“Guilty as hell. And I’ll carry it with me for the rest of my life.”
Paul would always be reluctant to discuss the early years of the Newman/Woodward romance. As he told a reporter in later years:
“Whatever happened to us during that period is not going to help anybody live a happy life. It’s not going to help people’s marriages, it’s not going to destroy their marriages. And it’s simply nobody’s business.”
Despite knowledge of his affair with Joanne, Jackie refused Paul’s requests for a divorce. With three kids, nearly a decade of marriage, and—after years of struggle—long awaited financial stability on the horizon, one can hardly blame her. But Jackie must have known it was only a matter of time before she’d have to let her husband go.
With the commencement of The Long, Hot Summer filming in September of 1957, that time came.
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; think Citizen Kane (1941) and all it pioneered. Orson Welles was arguably one of the most respected actors of the previous era. But he didn’t really get all this method acting stuff. 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.
As Ritt remembered:
“I took a lot of crap from him because I knew that that extraordinary figure would be there on the screen.”
Welles’ Revenge on The Long, Hot Summer
It’s rumored that Orson Welles purposely mumbled through a good portion 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 frequently wore prosthetic noses in his movies—was constantly slipping off his real nose during production because it was so hot. The Long, Hot Summer was shot on location in Baton Rouge and Clinton, Louisiana. That long, hot, southern September made the whole cast, the heavy Welles especially (according to Angela Lansbury), less than comfortable for the majority of filming.
The Long, Hot Summer: Joanne Woodward Gets the Role
The Long, Hot Summer was the first film to team Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
And it almost didn’t happen.
Eva Marie Saint, already a 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 end, the reputation Joanne garnered for her work on Eve was enough, and she landed the role of Clara.
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 Jackie was not finalized until 1958, and the film was shot in September 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 because “they were so obviously together and so beautifully close.” 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. As Paul succinctly shared of the joy he and Joanne felt after their nuptials:
“It felt good, being married.”
Joanne Gets the Oscar
The 1958 Oscar ceremony just preceded the April 3rd release of The Long, Hot Summer. It ended up being great publicity for the film: guess who won the Best Actress Oscar for her first major 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.
Actually, Joanne did absolutely no campaigning herself to win the Oscar. The nomination just didn’t mean all that much to her. As Joanne put it at the time:
“If I had an infinite amount of respect for the people who think I gave the greatest performance, then it [the nomination] would matter.”
Joanne was so grounded about the whole Oscar-nomination-for-your-third-film-thing that she wore a gown of her own making to the ceremony. Joanne recalled that:
“I spent a hundred dollars on the material, designed the dress, and worked on it for two weeks.”
For some reason, this really made some of the old-time glamour queens mad, namely Joan Crawford—who, incidentally, Joanne was named after. Crawford even snarked that:
“Joanne Woodward is setting the cause of Hollywood glamour back twenty years by making her own clothes.”
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 expressed humbling gratitude in her acceptance speech at the Oscars. But she knew that her ultimate fulfillment would not come from industry accolades. As Joanne put it:
“Acclaim is the false aspect of the job, which screws you up. You start to need it, like a drug, and in the final analysis, what does it all mean? I won my Academy Award when I was very young. Sitting in bed afterward and drinking my Ovaltine, I said to Paul, ‘Is that it?’”
Top Priority: Marriage
Joanne Woodward decided to put her marriage above her career. With very few exceptions, after she became Mrs. Paul Newman, Joanne would 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 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.
It wasn’t always easy. Joanne herself later confessed to feeling “grief” at times over lost career opportunities. But actions speak louder than words: whatever career grief Joanne occasionally felt, Paul and her marriage remained her top priority.
In many ways, Joanne’s decision to put her marriage first was beneficial to her career. Joanne 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 quality productions.
And of course Joanne 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 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.
And together, the Newmans proved that with love, sacrifice, and commitment, marriage can work. Even in Hollywood.