The last few days have been extremely difficult for me with the passing of my favorite star ever, the incredible Ms Doris Day. Hopefully, writing about the first film that paired the very talented Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward will be the distraction I need. Based on Faulkner with a dash of Tennessee Williams, no one could ever accuse The Long, Hot Summer (1958) of being boring! If you missed it on TCM last week, the film is also available on Amazon.
I’ve seen The Long, Hot Summer once before this week. I was young, probably between ten and twelve years old, and all of the dramatic and romantic elements of the picture went right over my head. All I remember taking away from the film was:
1. Orson Welles was scary (and in my young mind, how did he ever snag the beautiful Rita Hayworth for his wife!).
2. Paul Newman’s bowtie looked better than Bill Nye’s.
3. Joanne Woodward had the most beautiful voice. Woodward’s voice in the film remained a vivid memory for me, and hearing it again all these years later, I was not disappointed!
Small Town Meets Mischievous Drifter
The finer points of the plotline were not lost on me this time around. The Long, Hot Summer is about a mischievous and ambitious drifter, Ben Quick (Paul Newman), 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. His reputation precedes him, and the people of Frenchmen’s Bend (haha…yes I am that juvenile, sorry!) know of his past as soon as he arrives in town and gives his name.
The Varner Family
Frenchmen’s Bend is basically owned by the exceptionally wealthy Varner family.
Will Varner (Orson Welles), the patriarch of the family, is a pushy, confident, self-made man. He is disappointed in his two children, Jody (Anthony Franciosa) and Clara (Joanne Woodward). Will is disappointed in Jody because he does not show any of the drive or smarts of his father. All Jody really wants to do is stay in bed all day with his wife, Eula. (Played by the ever-cute and charming Lee Remick in her second film role.)
Will is disappointed in Clara because he knows she is super classy and a real catch, but she’s still unmarried after wasting five years dating their mama’s boy neighbor Alan, who won’t ever propose because his mom is the number one woman in his life. FOREVER.
“None of that now! Way past son’s naptime!”
Alan’s mom announces when she catches Clara trying to kiss her son on a date in their front yard. Ummmmmmmmmmmmm Alan is at least 30…how would you like to date this guy?!
The Ambition of Ben Quick
Ben Quick is hired by the Varner family, first 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 Jody lacks.
“You’re a young dangerous man. I’m an old one”
Will tells Ben, sensing a kindred spirit. Embers fly between Ben and Clara, though Clara will not allow herself to fall for him until she is convinced Ben can see all of the wonderful qualities she has to offer a man. 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 seems to want 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 his dad in their barn and sets it on fire! Luckily, his father’s pleas to unlock the barn door get to him, and Jody saves Will before it is too late.
Don’t ask me why, but Jody trying to kill his dad and then deciding to save him at the last minute is seen as a great mark of character by his father, and after the incident, Will is incredibly proud of his son and suddenly thinks he is a great kid who is clearly on his way to accomplishing amazing things! To me, Jody just seems foolish and maybe legitimately crazy after trying to kill his dad, but whatever…??!
Of course, all the townspeople want to blame the barn burning on Ben because of his reputation. Clara saves Ben from the mob, and in the process learns that he is in fact a multifaceted human being who sees and appreciates her for who she really is.
Will tells the townspeople the barn burned because he accidentally dropped his cigar in the hay (OOOPS!), Jody happily agrees with him (DOOFUS!), and Clara and Ben begin their relationship, presumably with a marriage in the near future. The End!
The Method Actors. And Orson Welles.
Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Anthony Franciosa, Lee Remick. These were all 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 new wave of talent was revolutionizing the way film actors, well, acted. This was a group 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 directors.
Not so with Orson Welles. Welles belonged to the previous generation of Hollywood movers and shakers. Remember Citizen Kane (1941) and everything that film pioneered? Orson Welles was one of the cool guys of the previous era, no doubt about it. But he didn’t really get all this method acting stuff. And it led to much publicized conflicts on the set, notably between him and the director, Martin Ritt, who was also part of the Actors Studio crowd.
It is rumored that Welles purposely mumbled through a lot of his lines in The Long, Hot Summer, resulting in painstaking post-dubbing efforts by Ritt. Why would Welles purposely mumble his lines? Because it was his way of thumbing his nose at the Actors Studio! (Think Marlon Brando and James Dean, mumbling actors are a Method acting stereotype.)
And speaking of noses, Welles’ prosthetic nose in the film—he most always used prosthetic noses in his movies—was constantly slipping off his real nose during filming because it was so darn hot! The film was shot on location in Louisiana, and that long, hot, southern summer made the whole cast, the heavy Welles especially, less than comfortable most of the time.
Joanne Woodward Gets the Role. And the Oscar.
This was the first film that teamed Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. And it almost didn’t happen. Eva Marie Saint was the first choice for the role of Clara Varner. She was already a star (think 1954’s On the Waterfront). 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 air. In the end, the reputation she garnered for her work on Eve was enough, and Joanne landed the role of Clara Varner in The Long, Hot Summer.
The 1958 Oscar ceremony just preceded the April 3rd release date of The Long, Hot Summer. And it ended up being great publicity for the film: guess who won the Best Actress Oscar for her first feature film role? Ok ok, I kind of gave it away with my heading already. Yes, it was Joanne, for her performance in The Three Faces of Eve! The newcomer was up against some classic names—Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner, and Deborah Kerr, and the great Italian actress, Anna Magnani. Woodward was sure that Kerr would win, and said so publically. Actually, Joanne did absolutely no campaigning herself to win the Oscar. Pretty refreshing, right?
Joanne was so grounded about the whole Oscar-nomination-for-your-first-film-thing that she wore a gown of her own making to the ceremony, which really made some of the old-time glamour queens mad, namely Joan Crawford (who Joanne was named after, by the way). In Joanne’s own words:
“I spent a hundred dollars on the material, designed the dress, and worked on it for two weeks.”
Paul and Joanne. Not so Secret Love.
The 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, but Newman had made friends with some of the local guys in Clinton, Louisiana where the film was shot, and 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 Newman’s new friends.
Anthony Franciosa joked that he thought Paul and Joanne were already married when filming began, they were just so close and obviously so in love on set. And this love translates well on screen—my goodness the chemistry between these two is electric! But it was after filming was completed, though before The Long, Hot Summer was released, that Paul and Joanne tied the knot.
Top Priority: Marriage
And with very few exceptions, after she became Mrs. Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward decided to 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 Newman’s were a part of.
In this day and age, Joanne’s decision to put her marriage above her career may be looked at as old fashioned, but I think it’s awesome. The Newman’s enjoyed a happy and successful, 50-year marriage, and had three beautiful daughters. Though Paul and Joanne both carried their weight, so to speak, I am sure that Joanne’s decision to base her career moves around her husband played a huge role in the success of their marriage.
And it’s not like Joanne’s career suffered—she may have made more films if she would have taken on projects that did not involve Paul, but the films she did make after her marriage were all quality productions. And there was the whole Oscar win thing, and another three Oscar nominations, and being able to use her husband’s super-stardom to make films out of stories she found interesting, so I’d say Joanne did alright. (:
And with that, I close!
I would definitely recommend watching The Long, Hot Summer. It’s entertaining, it’s fun, it’s a two hours well spent!
Have any of you seen The Long, Hot Summer? Did you enjoy it? What did you think of the Newman/Woodward chemistry?
Be sure to check out the TCM film schedule for the Newman films playing — Some real classics are coming our way!