Mr. Joanne Woodward: Paul Newman Directs His Wife

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972) | 20th Century Fox

Of all the superlatives you could lob at Paul Newman—award-winning actor, decorated racecar driver, charitable condiment connoisseur—Wife Guy likely isn’t anywhere near the top of the pile. That’s exactly what he was, though (perhaps more than any of those other accolades): a married man infatuated with his other half, fellow actor Joanne Woodward. Wed from 1958 until he died in 2008, she and Newman shared a love unlike any other Hollywood couple, then or now. The duo weren’t just frequent co-stars and philanthropists. They also engaged in a different kind of professional relationship: that of director and lead. The latter is where I see Newman’s spousal sensibilities shine the brightest.

Newman directed just five features over his more than 50 years in film (six, if you count the made-for-TV movie The Shadow Box [1980]), and for the majority of these works—namely Rachel, Rachel (1968), The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972), and The Glass Menagerie (1987)—he doesn’t appear onscreen once. His blue eyes stay behind the camera, while Woodward gets the spotlight. Typically coy on the subject of his marriage, I see Newman’s direction in this triad of films as more affectionate and revealing than any action of his in the public eye. This makes for an interesting contrast to the stereotypical male gaze: in these films, Woodward is glorified, not objectified, and her performances are emphasized instead of her looks—and though there is still palpable sexuality at times, it’s not of the lecherous kind.

I’m not saying that Rachel, Rachel, Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, and The Glass Menagerie are a trinity of doting exaltations of Joanne Woodward by her husband. I’m not saying that they’re products of quixotic cronyism devoid of any real talent at the helm, either. In truth, Newman’s frequent casting of his wife is not some vain public display of affection, but an act of love done in service of something even grander: the facilitation of three profoundly rich, incredibly raw character studies that let Woodward dazzle in ways only Newman seemed to have known how to evoke.


Rachel, Rachel—Newman’s directorial debut—opens in silence with a series of shots of Japonica, Connecticut. It’s a podunk place with a downtown no bigger than a few blocks, and main roads still paved with dirt. We hop from a sparsely filled cemetery to a quaint stretch of downtown shops to the town’s lone schoolhouse before settling at the Japonica Funeral Chapel. The first person we encounter is a sleeping Rachel Cameron (Joanne Woodward), the trill of her alarm cutting through the euphonious sounds of nature that have served as the score up to this point. Newman’s camera swirls around Woodward’s face, moving from her left profile to her right as Rachel’s thoughts are heard aloud: “Don’t let it be day. Get up! Not yet. I’m having a heart attack. Every day is the same: heart attacks, cancer. Get up! I’m dead. Can I move my arms?” Her scrawny limbs rise with the camera, forming shadow puppets on a wall covered with photos of her, her mother (Kate Harrington), and her father (Donald Moffat). 

Already, mere minutes into his first effort, Newman establishes that his primary instinct as a director is to step back and allow Woodward to work her magic. This proclivity wasn’t unwarranted: married a year after she won the Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve (1957), Woodward was already a proven talent before she began her relationship with Newman. He didn’t discover her, he didn’t prove her worth, he didn’t make her a star—she’d already done all of that on her own, and it was part of what drew him to marry her a decade before he directed her in Rachel, Rachel

Newman’s delicate, restrained focus on Woodward contrasts with the coarseness of Rachel’s troubled life and invasive thoughts. Plagued by an obsession with death and traumatic flashbacks to her upbringing in her late father’s funeral home that she and her elderly mother still occupy, Rachel’s insipid life as a shy and passive schoolteacher in her mid-30s has left her internally pleading for the sweet release of death. (That is, until a string of awakenings pulls her back from the edge.) It’s such a vulnerable role, and one that must have been daunting to take on, but Newman’s direction and Woodward’s performance manage to bring forth the best work of her career thus far. His camera refuses to flinch, not because he loved looking at her, but because the material demands this kind of unyielding focus that highlights every look, every movement, every inflection on Woodward’s face. Together, they make Rachel, Rachel a triumphant joint effort—a successful wedding of their respective skills and a sympathetic portrait of a woman whose own self-doubt and repression have led to her being left behind by life.

This shared triumph did not go unnoticed, either: the film racked up four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Woodward. It’s the most lauded film that Newman ever helmed, and by a wide margin, too. This speaks to the sheer power of what the two have done with Rachel, Rachel: the source material by Margaret Laurence is rife with quietly intense, deeply mysterious characterization that was pure manna for Actors Studio alums like the two of them. By utilizing narration to vocalize Rachel’s inner thoughts and splicing in her dark fantasies, Newman constructs a pedestal for Woodward to glisten from. She takes this platform and refuses to squander it, delivering a sympathetic and moving interpretation of Laurence’s main character. It’s an outstanding accomplishment that could only come from close collaboration between director-husband and actor-wife.


The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds came four years later, when Woodward reunited with Newman to star in his adaptation of Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. His follow-up to Rachel, RachelSometimes a Great Notion (1971), in which he also starred—had done well enough with critics and audiences, and he and Woodward had just played the leads in Stuart Rosenberg’s divisive drama WUSA (1970), but neither had done any work on their own that compared to what they’d done together on Rachel, Rachel. Here, in the middle of their respective careers, we see Newman once again step out of the spotlight and into the director’s chair to showcase Woodward in another complex, demanding role: this time, she’s playing Beatrice, a hard-edged single mom struggling to raise her two young daughters, Ruth (Roberta Wallach) and Matilda (Nell Potts). Unsurprisingly, Newman and Woodward’s work is exactly the kind of extraordinary follow-up that Rachel, Rachel deserves.

Woodward’s role as Beatrice touches on several key themes seen in her previous Newman film: this character struggles with similar feelings of loneliness, hopelessness for the future, and disdain toward her mother. However, it’s dialed up several notches. Where Rachel is primarily a quiet, acquiescent woman with a sense of innocence to her, Beatrice is loud, abrasive, and confrontational, not afraid to hit back when life takes a swing at her. But while Woodward tones it up, Newman actually reins in his direction. Unlike with Rachel, Rachel, where occasional flashes and frills are seen in fantasies and flashbacks whenever Rachel lets her intrusive thoughts win and imagines something horrible happening, Newman opts for simple setups that accentuate Woodward, Wallach, and Potts. He captures lightning in a bottle simply by setting up the camera and letting his wife turn in the unbelievable performance he knows she can give. 

I should note that Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds is truly a family affair: Potts is the daughter of Newman and Woodward, seen only occasionally in Rachel, Rachel as a younger version of the title character but given a real leading role here. Could Potts have worked as well with another director handling the same material, I wonder? Could Woodward have committed as fully under the direction of someone else? There’s no way for me to say for sure, but I can only imagine that the family members’ proximity to each other made for a much more comfortable, much more welcoming environment to deliver a pair of remarkably empathetic and emotionally challenging performances. 

Playing Beatrice had to have required a lot more than mere comfortability, though. The Actors Studio teaches its students to disappear into their roles by finding themselves within the character, and as graduates of this school of acting, it’s entirely possible that both Newman and Woodward knew that casting Potts could bring forth an even stronger performance from Woodward. In order to enter her character’s ugly, angry headspace—a terrible mother, an awful friend, and an all-around unpleasant person who’s been screwed over by life so many times that she’s started to do the same to others—maybe Woodward needed to look her actual daughter and real-life husband in the face.

While Newman and Woodward’s work is as exceptional here as it was with Rachel, Rachel, a popular but wrongheaded critique of Newman emerges with the release of this third directorial effort of Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds: that he’s clearly an actor first and foremost, prioritizing performance over even the most basic visual elements. This criticism implies that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing behind the camera, which couldn’t be more wrong. Rachel, Rachel suggests it, but Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds proves it: Newman directing Woodward is not ostentatious or nepotistic. It’s a lesson in resourcefulness. He knows what she can do, and he lets her do it. This is underlined by Newman’s own words: “We have the same acting vocabulary. [While shooting Rachel, Rachel] I would tell her, while she was reading a line, ‘pinch it’ or ‘thicken it,’ and she knew just what I meant.”


The Glass Menagerie—Newman’s third and final film starring Woodward, not to mention the last directing gig of his career—puts Joanne back at the center of Newman’s gaze one more time. They had appeared in a couple of films together in the 15 years between Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and The Glass Menagerie—namely The Drowning Pool [1975] and Newman’s own Harry & Son [1984], which he also acted in—but this stripped-down Tennessee Williams adaptation is what ultimately completes the stunning triptych of Newman-helmed Woodward-starrers, which spans 25 years of filmmaking and nearly 30 years of marriage at this point. While it’s the least well-received of the bunch, it’s their most enlightening collaboration for the way that they vanish into their respective roles.

Williams’s dreamlike autobiographical play, set in the claustrophobic confines of a St. Louis apartment in the 1930s and centering on a histrionic matriarch, an aspiring poet, and his highly sensitive older sister, makes for the perfect conclusion to Newman’s Woodward trilogy. Newman plays it completely straight with the script, choosing to adapt Williams’ play directly and crediting him as the sole writer of the film. Same goes for his direction, which is more nondescript than it’s ever been. Throughout Rachel, Rachel and Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Newman shows that creating space for his leading lady’s performance to flourish takes precedence over sets, lighting, cinematography, score, and other elements of film production. With The Glass Menagerie, this becomes more obvious than ever; while his earlier work had been critiqued as nothing more than filmed plays, this film is unabashedly that: an unvarnished one-room melodrama that’s the closest thing to a filmed play short of literally placing a camera in front of a staged performance. He leans into the naysayers, embracing pure theatricality with an enormous bear hug, and encouraging his actors—especially Woodward—to do the same.

While Newman becomes invisible by doing less, Woodward achieves this by doing the most. In her place, Amanda Wingfield appears. A gray-haired, squeaky-voiced, frantic-eyed old woman, Amanda is both a huge departure and a natural endpoint for the kinds of roles that Woodward had played in Newman’s earlier films. In the quarter-decade since Rachel, Rachel, Newman has promoted Woodward from the role of the shy daughter to that of the neurotic mother. She has, in essence, come full-circle with The Glass Menagerie: the very character she played against in Newman’s debut is now exactly who she has become in his directorial swansong. Spending the duration of the film scolding her son Tom’s (John Malkovich) artistic hopes and dreams, and fretting over her diffident daughter Laura’s (Karen Allen) social ineptitude and lack of a man, the sympathy at the heart of Woodward’s characters in Rachel, Rachel and Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds has been replaced by an uncaring, unrelenting figure that bears no resemblance to the actor credited as her.

Woodward had played a mother for Newman once before already, as Beatrice in Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, but that character was given significantly more agency. In The Glass Menagerie, the weary, plaintive Amanda is nearly indistinguishable from the peremptory, feeble woman who rules over Rachel’s life. This is particularly apparent when you observe the way that Woodward-as-Amanda treats her self-effacing daughter. Newman’s direction might be as subtle and concise as can be in The Glass Menagerie, but his use of Woodward is just as unerring as it’s always been. Her role has changed, but her talent—and his eye for it—has not. Therein lies the thing that surely drew Newman and Woodward to these projects in the first place: he understood her, and she allowed herself to be understood by him. This falls in line with Newman’s thoughts on the secret to his lasting marriage to Woodward: “Some combination of lust and respect and patience. And determination.”


Paul Newman’s marriage to Joanne Woodward spanned 50 years, 10 onscreen roles, three children, and—coincidentally—three outings as director and lead actress. Through all of this, one thing remains unmistakable: these two worked well, especially when they were working together. From Rachel, Rachel to The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds to The Glass Menagerie, each demonstrates such a fundamental understanding of the other person’s artistic wants and needs that hadn’t been seen in Hollywood before, and hasn’t been seen since. 

Newman and Woodward didn’t need to be collaborating to do notable work. They established their careers separately while Newman was still married to his first wife, Jacqueline Witte, in the early 1950s—Woodward with a series of television and stage appearances, and Newman with a spot in a few summer stock theater companies at that same time. They won their Oscars separately—Woodward for The Three Faces of Eve and Newman for The Color of Money (1986). It’s abundantly clear that she didn’t make him, nor did he make her. This independence only makes these three films all the more special, though. Infrequent and spaced out as they were between 1968 and 1987, they represent the very best of Newman and Woodward: a trio of knockout performances by her, each extracted with care and precision by him. No male-gazing, no self-centered vanity projects that position him as the real star and leave Woodward with some reductive or superficial role—just a tri-part, career-long appreciation of the woman he loved until his death in 2008.

Newman honored Woodward with his films; she was never an object to him. This, in turn, is how she benefited from his films. She deserved roles that permitted her to flex her greatest, most underutilized acting muscles, and he—a fan of hers since they first met on Broadway in 1953—knew this better than any other filmmaker in the business. Not because he was also an actor, not because he was her husband, not because he was her biggest admirer, but because he was all three. I can see this not only in his work as a director, but also in his own oft-quoted words: “I don’t like to discuss my marriage, but I will tell you something which may sound corny but which happens to be true. I have steak at home. Why should I go out for hamburger?” Newman truly was a Wife Guy—a badge of honor he was proud to display for a spouse as talented as Woodward.