A Class Act

Something struck me with the death of the glorious Paul Newman recently. I’m reading a Steve McQueen biography and every time I mention it, someone says something about Newman. The two icons are inextricably linked in people’s collective Hollywood consciousness. They seem to sum up perfectly a sense of Americana, celebrity and classic Hollywood stardom. This is, I suppose, fair enough. They were both of a similar era, both blonde with famous baby-blues, both highly entertaining and watchable actors, and both -without doubt – absolutely beautiful looking men.

But there the similarity comes to an abrupt halt and what hit me was that, looking closely, their separate experiences are like a mutual microcosm of class differences. I’m not going to say that every difference between Newman and McQueen is down to class, but their example offers a good pop-sociology/psychology glance at illustrating the differences between class struggles, social mobility, childhood experience, relationships, and even death.

McQueen had it really tough growing up. Really tough. He never knew his dad, and his struggling mother Julian descended into a life of alcoholism and semi-prostitution. McQueen would be teased for in school for her reputation. But he hardly ever went to school anyway. They were piss-poor in a small-time dirt-town in Indiana. When his young mother couldn’t cope he was shifted to grand-parents and later a grand-uncle in Missouri. He was dyslexic and partially deaf. Always the ultimate outsider, throughout his childhood and teenage years he moved from place to place to place. His long list of jobs included a stint in the Marines and working as a towel boy in a brothel.

His various male role models beat and ragged on him constantly, and it is even thought he was sexually abused by one or more of his mam’s boyfriends. He never forgave his mam for his hard-knock childhood. He battled demons till his death which were surely born back in those rough days. But by his mid-twenties in New York McQueen had trained as an actor, and by his early thirties he was one of the most recognisable faces in the world. All the guys wanted to be him and all the girls wanted to….you get the idea.

Newman on the other hand grew up in a middle-class family from a nice suburb of Cleveland. His mam and dad did ok, and loved each other. They owned a sports goods shop and both worked together with help from the kids. They weren’t exceptionally well-off but they were fine for money. Newman went to school and then to College and ended up at Yale University to study drama. He was in the Navy for a while, and also- like McQueen- ended up in Lee Strasberg’s Actors’ Studio in New York in the 50’s. The rest, as they say, is Hollywood history.

Newman’s first marriage lasted ten years, respectable enough by Hollywood-standards. And then he met his second wife Joanne Woodward, and stayed with her for the best part of fifty. By all accounts he was faithfull to Woodward for all those years. Quite an achievement for a gorgeous Hollywood hunk. He famously once said of infidelity, ‘why go out for a burger when you can stay home for a steak’. McQueen loved burgers.

For McQueen the negative effect of growing up poor, without decent adult support and with very little love or education, was huge. You can laugh about his notorious sexual exploits, but he never managed to be faithful to any of his three wives. At times he would have multiple women, many times a day. Often under his wives’ noses. His second wife was still married when their affair started. He never really trusted women and always sought approval from men; he was happier with his ‘normal’ biker friends than other actors, for example. He also got violent and beat the mother of his two kids. He thought a wife should stay at home, give up work and put up with his often volatile behaviour. He tried to fill his social unease with drugs, alcohol and speed racing. With a 60-a day ciggie habit and wearing asbestos-padded racing gear regularly, McQueen eventually died of cancer aged just 50 in 1980.

Newman was a stable, faithful, socially-aware and self-assured man. McQueen a cocky and paranoid contradiction who was equally a loyal friend and passionate lover.

But then to their similarities. Both McQueen and Newman were huge petrol-heads, they loved and lived for fast cars and motorbikes. They were also both incredibly generous philanthropists. McQueen gave hundreds of thousands to (particularly) kid’s charities, and made regular visits to his old Boys Republic dorm and children’s hospitals. McQueen never told anyone about his charity work, and alot only came to light after his death. Newman set up a food company and donated all profits to charity, culminating in hundreds of millions of dollars to this day. They were both caring and devoted dads. And, of course, their distinct life experience gave them a unique ambitious drive to be a famous Hollywood star.

So, both men will probably be remembered in the same breath for a long time. But it’s interesting to think that the class in which they began led to one being an untrusting, paranoid ‘shit’ (his nick-name was ‘Steve-the-shit’ on many film sets), who always needed attention and approval but at the same time had a huge heart and sincere love for ‘real folk’ and close friends.The other was a devoted husband with an affable flair, good education and confident manner. One depended on pot, beer, cigarettes, cocaine and other substances, while sleeping with young groupies at the drop of a hat. The other was faithful to one woman for fifty years. One lived to 50, the other to 83.

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