A Book Review by Tony Williams.

Compared to the acting studies of the type produced by Richard Dyer and James Naremore (neither of whom receive mention in either text or bibliography), this study is severely lacking.”

This book promises much but delivers little. Far from being “the first to be solely devoted to Woodward’s life and career, which were often overshadowed by the successes of her late husband Paul Newman”, it is in fact another regurgitation of celebrity gossip telling us little, if anything, about Woodward’s acting abilities and why they were distinctive. In fact, one wonders, yet again, why McFarland’s editors allowed such a book to be published without external reviewers checking the quality. The company seems to be slipping of late, The Nosferatu Story being another relevant example, and one wonders whether certain in-house staff are capable of maintaining the publisher’s reputation of producing worthwhile books often unjustly neglected by mainstream and university presses. The author has already written ten books for McFarland and the subtitle of one of them, A History of Hag Horror from Baby Jane to Mother (2009), should have sent alarm bells ringing had I not decided to set initial prejudices aside.

Compared to the acting studies of the type produced by Richard Dyer and James Naremore (neither of whom receive mention in either text or bibliography), this study is severely lacking. Although Shelley appears to have made diligent efforts to see as many of Woodward’s film and television performances that have survived, he devotes little time in this study to in-depth analysis and criticism of her performances that would duly inform the reader of the particular nuances of performance that appear in each role. Such detailed examinations would be valuable exercises especially in the light of Bela Belazs’s studies of thespian facial motifs.  

The statements below suggest foreboding and a sad sense of what this study has missed:

Her hair by Helen Turpin is shoulder-length blonde, worn with a side part and bangs (italics mine) and clothes by Mary Wills include a gauche-flowered cap and fox fur piece. She uses a Southern accent since the Boones come from Tennessee, and the role allows Woodward to cook pancakes and gargle.” (32)

“Her shoulder-length blonde hair is by Helen Turpin and mostly tied back with bangs (italics mine). Her clothes by Adele Palmer favor pastel colors with matching hair ribbons, with glasses when she is seen at school.” (33)

“The Newman gets the gravy but the Woodward gets the bangs, bangs, bangs, bangs, bangs bangs….”1

(Bang! Bang! …. [Peter Shelley] Shot me down!” 2)

For Shelley, Woodward’s greatest strengths as a performer were her “pragmatism and likeability…Woodward’s training with the Neighborhood Playhouse and the Actors Studio had her perceived as a Method actress” (1).

Fair enough, but the generality of the first statement needed particular refinement and specificity perhaps in terms of Woodward’s acting training. Sadly, this book does not rise above the general to supply us with the nuanced study this actress deserves.

Instead, we have copious descriptions of her life and performances that are merely catalogs. What are the particular emphases in this study? Descriptions of costumes and hairstyles, easily seen though internet searches, in themselves are not enough to justify any serious consideration.

Shelley appears to take an over-emphatic interest in Woodward’s various dresses (see e.g. 59, 62, 68, 69, 81, 84, 89, 93, 96, 101, 104, 105, 106, 107, 111, 119, 125. 129, 132, 132, 133, 134, 135, 147). Yet this never approaches the level of costume scholarship by Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog and the over-abundant references evokes another mischievous parallel.3 He similarly has a fetishistic fascination with Woodward’s hairstyles, especially her “bangs” (as noted above) that evoke Luis Bunuel’s references to foot fetishism in his films. But I doubt that they have similar surrealistic associations. (See e.g., 69, 73, 78, 81-82, 84, 88, 89, 93, 98, 99, 101, 104, 105, 106, 197, 111, 116, 117, 125, 129, 133, 134, 136, 147 – but here she has a partial ponytail, not “bangs”.) These multiple references expect the reader to receive a “big bang” theoretical explanation but little occurs of a groundbreaking universal dimension concerning this origin of this actresses’ thespian universe.

Important instances are scattered in his text such as the matching petticoat she had worn for a wedding anniversary falling “off just as she was leaving the house” (116) though they are buried in pieces of gossip more appropriate to an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous than a serious study of Woodward’s abilities and achievements.

For the interview, she sat on a sofa in the library eating chocolate chip cookies and drinking iced coffee, and later was in the kitchen, with the baby in one arm and two dogs lapping at her feet.” (70)

A book on what makes Woodward a distinctive actress, this isn’t.

Notes

1. My profound apologies to Jerry Lewis for reworking his famous number from At War with the Army (1950) – The Navy gets the gravy but the Army gets the beans, beans, beans, beans, beans, beans, beans…” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNkLTAd68KY

2. With apologies also to Nancy Sinatra whose video I would prefer watching again rather than reading this book. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSHYlSxQyJM.

3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfRdur8GLBM.   

Tony Williams is an independent writer and a Contributing Editor to Film International.

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