Woodward, Joanne (1930—)

views updated

Woodward, Joanne (1930—)

American actress of stage and screen, one of the most respected of her generation, who won an Academy Award for her performance in The Three Faces of Eve . Born Joan Woodward on February 27, 1930, in Thomasville, Georgia; attended Louisiana State University; daughter of Wade Woodward and Elinor Woodward; married Paul Newman (the actor), on January 29, 1958; children: Elinor "Nell" Teresa Newman (b. April 1959); Melissa "Lissy" Newman (b. September 1961); Claire "Clea" Newman (b. April 1963); and three stepchildren.

Enrolled in the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York to study under Sanford Meisner; while performing on the New York stage and on television, was given her first feature film role (1955); won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her career-making performance in The Three Faces of Eve (1957); has since been nominated twice more for Best Actress and has won two Emmy Awards for her work in distinguished television films; has worked frequently with husband Paul Newman, who has not only acted with her but also directed some of her most well-received roles;with husband, awarded the Kennedy Center honors for lifetime achievement (1992).

Selected filmography:

Count Three and Pray (Calico Pony, 1955); A Kiss Before Dying (1956); The Three Faces of Eve (1957); No Down Payment (1957); The Long, Hot Summer (1958); Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! (1958); The Sound and the Fury (1959); The Fugitive Kind (1959); From the Terrace (1960); Paris Blues (1961); The Stripper (1963); A New Kind of Love (1963); Signpost to Murder (1964); A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966); A Fine Madness (1966); Rachel, Rachel (1968); Winning (1969); WUSA (1970); They Might Be Giants (1971); The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972); Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973); The Drowning Pool (1975); The End (1978); Harry and Son (1984); The Glass Menagerie (1987); Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990); Philadelphia (1993); (narrator) The Age of Innocence (1993).

Laurence Olivier never forgot the night Joanne Woodward jumped into his lap. No matter that she was only nine years old at the time, or that Olivier happened to be passing by in an open limousine in Atlanta, Georgia, as part of a motorcade escorting Vivien Leigh to the world premiere of Gone With the Wind. The ear-splitting shriek and the mad leap into his car by the little girl from rural Georgia remained with him all his life.

Joanne had seen Olivier in Wuthering Heights, but he was just one of the stars she had come to admire during countless afternoons at the movies with her mother Elinor Woodward in Thomasville, Georgia, where she had been born on February 27, 1930. Her father Wade Woodward, an administrator in the local school system, remained skeptical of his daughter's enthusiasm for "movie people," but Joanne's mother was an indefatigable film fan. She had, in fact, named her daughter Joan, after one of her favorite Hollywood stars, Joan Crawford ; but a thick Georgia drawl would soon lengthen the name to Joanne. Elinor needed little convincing when Joanne suggested they drive to Atlanta for the Gone With the Wind premiere in December 1939. By the time the Woodwards moved to Greenville, South Carolina, six years later, Joanne had already been entering beauty contests and had adopted Bette Davis as her favorite actress. At 15, she was tall, slim, and strikingly attractive, with blonde hair and light blue eyes; and it was the opinion of her high school drama teacher that she was accomplished enough as an actress to go directly to New York. Instead, Woodward was accepted at Louisiana State University, where she majored, of course, in drama.

Her parents had separated by the time Joanne returned to Greenville after only two years at LSU; but when Wade attended Joanne's performance in The Glass Menagerie at the Greenville Little Theater, even he had to acknowledge his daughter's talent. In 1949, after a season of summer stock in Massachusetts, Woodward arrived in New York and Sanford Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse to begin seriously studying her craft. "I hated him at first," she said of the man she would later credit with much of her success. "For two years, I was slapped down, torn apart, and taught to act by Sandy Meisner." In addition to the rigors of Meisner's intensely psychological approach to acting, there was her Southern accent to contend with, slowly eradicated by speech lessons; and there was Joanne's conviction that all that 1950s show business in New York wanted was "dark neurotic girls from the wrong side of the tracks" rather than attractive Southern blondes. "I tried to turn myself into that type," she said, "but it didn't work." Fortunately, the advertising business still had need of clean-cut young women and provided Woodward with a small income from modeling.

Her fortunes improved when an agent from MCA, then the most powerful talent agency in both New York and Hollywood, saw her perform in a Neighborhood Playhouse production and signed her to a one-year contract. Also in Joanne's favor was the dawning of television's "Golden Age," distinguished by a number of live weekly drama series needing unknown young actors. One such series was NBC's "Robert Montgomery Presents." Thus it was that on June 9, 1952, millions of Americans got their first look at Joanne Woodward in a drama called "Penny." But her contract with MCA would mean more to her future than commercial success, for it introduced her to the man who would become her partner in one of Hollywood's longest-lived marriages.

Joanne had first seen Paul Newman in the hallways and waiting rooms of MCA. "I had been making the rounds and I was hot, sweaty, and my hair was all stringy around my neck," she said of the summer afternoon she first met Newman, who was four years her senior and whom she later described as "funny and pretty and neat." They seemed, at first glance, an unlikely pair. While Joanne had grown up in straitened circumstances in a small Southern town, Newman came from an upper-middle-class Cleveland family and had been educated at Ivy League schools; and while Joanne had arrived in New York as a single woman and had remained unattached, Newman had been married for some years to a fellow Midwesterner, Jacqueline Witte , and had three children. But when Woodward and Newman were cast as understudies in Josh Logan's landmark 1953 Broadway production of William Inge's Picnic, the relationship deepened. "I think Paul and Joanne had a certain discipline about their lives," Logan later said. "I'm talking about outside of talent; I'm talking about intelligence." The couple grew even closer when both began studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio as part of a now legendary class that included Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Julie Harris and Eli Wallach.

In 1954, Woodward was flown to Los Angeles to appear in a filmed television play for "Four Star Playhouse." She played a teenager who falls in love with an older man, performed by veteran film actor Dick Powell. Powell was so impressed by his 24-year-old co-star's ability to metamorphose for the camera into a starry-eyed adolescent that he sent a print of the show to his agent at Twentieth Century-Fox, which promptly signed her to a seven-year feature film contract that allowed her to continue working in television in New York while the studio looked for a suitable role for her. It took a year before Fox finally loaned Woodward out to Columbia to star with Van Heflin in a Civil War drama, Count Three and Pray. "It was a helluva good part," Woodward said years later of her first feature film role as the roughneck teenager Lissy. (She would give the nickname to her second-born daughter.) Even at this early stage in her career, Joanne's work drew attention for its integrity and depth, a tribute to her years studying with Meisner and Strasberg. "All she delivers is talent," one director said of her at the time. "No particular glamour, not publicity—just talent." But her next role for Hollywood proved more trying. A Kiss Before Dying (1955), in which she played the remarkably unperceptive girlfriend of Robert Wagner's homicidal killer ("No wonder he wants to kill her!" one critic wrote), would become, for her, "the worst picture ever made in Hollywood." The picture drew audiences, however, for the controversy which arose over the use of the word "pregnant" in one scene. Conservative elements became so incensed that the word was actually edited out of the soundtrack in Chicago theaters.

Hollywood, in fact, was not proving to her taste at all. Woodward found herself frustrated by the slow pace of making a feature film, spending on one picture weeks that might have provided

work in three or four television dramas; and the studio's suggestion that she accept more glamorous roles rather than challenging ones was, she thought, insulting to her craft. Her future, she became certain, lay in television and on Broadway, both of which she tackled after the release of A Kiss Before Dying with a string of TV dramas and her official Broadway debut in a play called The Lovers. The stage play didn't attract much favorable attention, but her television work led one critic to call her "another Bette Davis." She didn't warm to the compliment, even though Davis had, indeed, been one of her childhood idols. "I'd rather be the first Joanne Woodward than a second Bette Davis," she said, adding that she preferred "a small role that I felt would be good for me than a star part unsuited to me."

Acting is like sex. You should do it, not talk about it.

—Joanne Woodward

Her personal life was proving frustrating, too. By 1956, her relationship with Newman was well known, especially when she and Newman stayed together at a house in Malibu owned by mutual friend Gore Vidal. Newman was, of course, still married; and both lovers were warned by friends that their professional lives could be ruined by the affair, even if their respective careers were the talk of Hollywood. (Newman had just been praised for his performance as boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me.) The tension was especially difficult for Newman to handle, his arrest in New York on drunk-driving charges being just a slight indication of a serious drinking problem that developed at this point in his life.

Woodward, meanwhile, was presented with the role that made her career as a respected film actress. She later claimed she had been given the role of Eve in The Three Faces of Eve only because the part had been turned down by stars like Judy Garland and Susan Hayward . Even Joanne later admitted that she had serious reservations about the picture that would make her a star in her own right. "If I hadn't needed something really big right then," she said, "I wouldn't have played it. I was afraid I couldn't make the part believable." But the film's veteran producer-writer Nunnally Johnson, a fellow Georgian, claimed he had wanted a newcomer all along and had based his choice on her television work. The two spent hours discussing the part and watching films of actual patients suffering from schizophrenia. Woodward spent more hours alone learning what was in essence the three separate characters she would be required to alternately assume, sometimes switching from one to another in just a few seconds of screen time. "It was frightening," she said, "but it was a great opportunity for any actress." The daily rushes caused such excitement at the studio that Joanne immediately started production on another picture, No Down Payment, as soon as Eve wrapped; and when Eve previewed in August 1957 before its national release Woodward, it was said, was destined for an Oscar.

The attention was agonizing for her, since Hollywood gossips were already wondering when Newman would divorce his wife to marry Woodward. The talk escalated when the two stars worked together on screen for the first time in The Long, Hot Summer, a steamy romance set in a small Southern town in which Joanne's Clara Varner falls for Paul's knockabout vagabond Ben Quick; and it reached such intense speculation that gossip columnist Sheila Graham finally asked Woodward point blank when she and Newman would marry. Joanne evaded the question by pointing out that because of her own parents' divorce, she was being especially cautious about marrying. But just after shooting wrapped on The Long, Hot Summer, Newman left Hollywood for Mexico and obtained a divorce from Witte. On January 29, 1958, Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman were married in Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, The Three Faces of Eve had opened nationally in the late fall of 1957. It was a tremendous hit, Joanne's name appearing at the top of lists of "most important new actresses" of that year; and true to predictions, she received her first Academy Award nomination for her work in the film. But by now, Woodward had acquired a reputation for speaking her mind and began to make Fox executives uneasy with her nonchalant attitude toward her chance for the industry's top award. "If I had an infinite amount of respect for the people who think I gave the greatest performance, then it would matter to me," she said, adding that she herself thought Deborah Kerr , who had been nominated for Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, deserved the Best Actress Oscar. "It's not telling the truth that would destroy me as a person and destroy my integrity as an actress," she claimed. But on Oscar night, 1957, Woodward leaped to her feet, jubilant, when John Wayne opened the envelope and announced she had won the award. Even Hollywood insiders hadn't expected the award to go to a relative newcomer, and one who didn't fit the mold of a glamorous movie star. "She did it on acting ability," one of her classmates from the Neighborhood Playhouse later said, "because that part was incredibly challenging. It just never occurred to anybody that you could win an Academy Award just by being good."

For awhile, it seemed she might be too good, for the studio was unsure how to follow up Woodward's stunning work in Eve and Joanne herself rejected several parts offered to her. It was Newman who managed to sell the studio on the idea of following up their work together in The Long, Hot Summer with another pairing, but this time in a spoof of American suburbia called Rally 'Round The Flag Boys. Joanne soon discovered, however, that her considerable talents did not lie in light comedy and complained that all she was doing in the picture was "making faces." The film was moderately successful at the box office, but it would be some years before Woodward would tackle another purely comic role. The experience, in fact, soured both of them on traditional studio films, and Newman, exercising a clause in his contract that allowed stage work in New York, agreed to take the lead in the Broadway premiere of Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth. By early 1959, the couple had moved back to New York's Greenwich Village with great relief; and in April of that year, Joanne gave birth to the couple's first child—a daughter they formally named Elinor Teresa but nicknamed Nell (Nell Newman ).

Woodward returned to work soon after in The Fugitive Kind, a film adaptation of Williams' Orpheus Descending shot by Sidney Lumet in a small town in upstate New York, and then went back to Los Angeles to co-star with Newman in Fox's adaptation of the John O'Hara novel From the Terrace. She caused further discomfort for the studio's publicity department when she said in one interview that she had taken the part of O'Hara's lonely heiress only because of the glamorous wardrobe. Both films were only moderate successes. An international phase of her career ensued during late 1959 and early 1960 as Newman shot Exodus in Israel and both Joanne and her husband appeared in Paris Blues, filmed in that city during a time Joanne would later remember as one of the happiest of their marriage. The film, directed by Martin Ritt, featured Newman and Sidney Poitier as itinerant jazz musicians in Paris who fall in love with two American tourists, played by Joanne and Diahann Carroll .

After nearly a year of travel and work, Woodward and Newman returned to Los Angeles, where Paul began work on The Hustler and Joanne turned to family matters. To begin with, she was pregnant again while little Nell was going through "the terrible twos"; and there were the difficulties to be expected between Joanne and her three stepchildren from Newman's previous marriage, all of whom were considerably older than Nell. But by the time Joanne gave birth to a second daughter, Melissa Newman (the daughter who was nicknamed after Joanne's favorite character, Lissy) in September 1961, domestic harmony seemed restored. Both parents were intent on giving the children as normal a life as possible. "As a child, my parents hid me from the theater, the press, and all those other chaotic elements," Scott Newman, Paul's eldest son, later said. To prove their point, the Newmans returned to the East Coast and bought a house in Westport, Connecticut, where Paul's older children attended local schools, and the family lived as quietly as possible in between pictures.

After playing the real-life part of mother and homemaker for nearly a year, it must have been with some degree of irony that Woodward chose as her next film role a fading showgirl who can only keep working by turning to stripping. Her work in The Stripper (for which Joanne was coached by Gypsy Rose Lee , who has a small part in the picture) was followed by the kind of film with Newman she had sworn she would never do again—a sex comedy called A New Kind of Love, in which Newman played a sports journalist who mistakes Woodward's fashion-model character for a high-priced call girl. Both pictures performed poorly at the box office. Friends concerned about Joanne's career urged her to be more careful about her roles and her image … any image, since it was apparent the public preferred stars, not actors. "It isn't important for me to have an image," Woodward insisted. "If you have an identifiable personality, you end up playing the same role all the time." (Newman, on the other hand, was solidifying his image as the rugged, brooding leading man with the successful release of Hud and The Prize.) Once again abandoning Hollywood, the couple returned East to star in an Actors Studio production of a new play by James Costigan called Baby Want a Kiss? that played to sold-out houses for four months.

After the show closed, Woodward retired to Connecticut to give birth, in April 1963, to her third daughter, Claire Newman , nicknamed Clea. But she returned to work in two films she hoped would help restore her career after several mediocre and, sometimes, disastrous films. (Signpost to Murder, shot before her pregnancy but not released until after it, had been so poorly received that some critics predicted her career was over.) The first new project was a comedy set in the Old West, A Big Hand for the LittleLady, in which she played Henry Fonda's pokerplaying wife; in the second, she was Sean Connery's wife in A Fine Madness. Although both pictures played well, neither was the major vehicle Woodward was looking for. She realized she would have to try something more daring to regain her professional footing. She candidly admitted that raising a family and pursuing an acting career were not compatible activities, and that she now wanted to focus on her work. "I've done my bit for the population explosion," she said in 1966, "and raised the children to where I feel I'm not depriving them if I'm working." Newman, too, was looking for a new challenge after a successful string of what he called his "H" pictures—The Hustler, Hud, and Harper, in all of which he had played the tough. The result was another joint venture between husband and wife, but this time Newman would direct Woodward. "Why merely be a first violinist," he said, "when you feel you can conduct?"

Rachel, Rachel did for Woodward's later career what Three Faces had done for her early working years. Newman himself had developed the adaptation of Margaret Laurence 's A Jest of God, about a prim New England schoolteacher forced to face her inhibitions; but Warner Bros. was the only studio that would take the picture on, despite the value of his name on any film, and only if Newman and Woodward would accept a percentage of the box office rather than a salary. Further, Newman would have to agree to star in two future pictures of Warner's choosing. "So much for loyalty," Newman groused, although the project was important enough to both of them that the terms were accepted. Shooting began in the summer of 1967, not far from the couple's Westport home, and all went smoothly despite dire predictions that an actor-husband could never direct his actor-wife. (The couple's eldest daughter Nell also had a part in the film, playing Rachel as a child.) "Who could direct better than the person you live with?" Joanne later said. "He knows all there is to know about you." After six weeks of shooting and eight months of meticulous editing, Rachel, Rachel premiered in New York and Los Angeles in the fall of 1968 to great acclaim. "Beautifully sensitive," one critic wrote of Wood-ward's performance, while another thought the picture was "visually impressive and compelling." The picture garnered an armful of Academy Award nominations—for Best Picture, for Joanne as Best Actress, and for screenwriter Stewart Stern for his work in adapting Laurence's novel to the screen. Woodward won the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Golden Globe for Best Actress while Newman won the same for Best Director for his work; and the National Board of Review named the picture one of the best English-language films of 1968. "I guess Rachel has revived my career," Woodward finally admitted. "Some people thought I'd gone underground."

But the increased public scrutiny after their success proved difficult. There were reports of Newman's problems with alcohol and of strains within the marriage. Gossip columns claimed the pair intended to divorce, forcing them to take an ad in The Los Angeles Times denying the reports and leading Paul to famously declare that "for two people with almost nothing in common, we have an uncommonly good marriage." Paul's infatuation with race-car driving, born from his research in preparation for the racing film Winning, and Woodward's mounting anxiety for his physical safety, added further tension, as did the worsening alcoholism of Newman's eldest son Scott, now 19 and said to be psychologically troubled. Within the film business, traditionally conservative Hollywood worried about the couple's political liberalism, Woodward being a vocal supporter of Planned Parenthood and several environmental and feminist causes, while Newman was said to be contemplating a run for one of Connecticut's Senate seats at the urging of Gore Vidal. (Newman ultimately chose not to run.) Both of them were openly critical of the Nixon administration. "I am in despair about this country," Woodward said, "and working very hard to do something about it in as many ways as I can."

Propelled by the success of Rachel, Rachel, she returned to film work nearly fulltime; but while Newman's career went from strength to strength with such films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, Woodward's failed to reach similar heights. "He's the big movie star, and I'm the character actress," she said after the lukewarm reception for her next film, They Might Be Giants, a dark comedy in which she played a psychiatrist who becomes involved in the fantasy of one of her patients, played by George C. Scott. Hopes rose when Newman directed her a second time in the film version of the Broadway play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, but a slow-paced adaptation and Joanne's painful portrayal of a monstrous mother who dominates and bullies her daughters again left audiences cold. Drawing on her Actors Studio training, she was so submersed in the character's self-loathing that it took a toll, and the entire family avoided her even at home. It wasn't until 1973's Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams that critics and audiences alike were again drawn to Woodward's meticulous character work as she portrayed a middle-aged woman's efforts to conquer sexual frigidity. The role brought her a second Academy Award nomination.

Tragedy struck the Newmans in 1978 when Scott Newman died of a drug and alcohol overdose. Although Scott's interest in acting and his budding career in small film roles had been a bond with his father (he had had a small part in Towering Inferno, in which Newman starred), relations between the two had been distant. Scott was said to resent his father's abandonment of his mother Jacqueline Witte and to have never felt comfortable in the new family Newman built with Joanne. The family did not attend the public memorial service for Scott, Newman remaining at Kenyon College in Ohio, his alma mater, where he had agreed to direct a student production. Later, however, he and Joanne created and endowed the Scott Newman Foundation for troubled young people.

Woodward herself didn't return to feature film work until the mid-1980s. She decided, instead, to return to the medium that had given her a start in the business, appearing in a string of quality television movies. "See How She Runs," about a bored housewife who wins the Boston Marathon, won her an Emmy Award, as did her portrayal of a woman suffering the first stages of Alzheimer's disease in "Do You Remember Love?" It wasn't until 1990 that she turned in another of her signature feature film performances, and once again with her husband, in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, a touching domestic drama set during the 1930s and 1940s based on the three "Bridge" novels by Evan S. Connell. The role brought her a third Academy Award nomination. It was quickly followed by a third Emmy nomination for her performance as the hapless Maggie Moran in the television adaptation of Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons.

With her marriage to Paul Newman intact and thriving and unqualified recognition as one of America's finest actresses of the second half of the 20th century, Joanne Woodward can look back on a satisfying, if occasionally tumultuous, personal and professional life. But looking back isn't Woodward's style. "You never really make it once and for all," she has said. "Every new part, every picture, you have to make it all over again."


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.

Morella, Joe, and Edward Epstein. Paul and Joanne. NY: Delacorte, 1988.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York

About this article

Woodward, Joanne (1930—)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article