Earlier this week marked what would have been the 60th wedding anniversary of an authentic show-business power couple, Joanne Woodward (who will turn 88 at month’s end, now frail and reportedly suffering from Alzheimer’s disease) and the late Paul Newman (1925-2008). Their marriage solidly endured for 50 years before the actor’s death. They appeared together on screen in 10 theatrical features (including The Long, Hot Summer, a Twilight Time title) and both were also featured, but did not share scenes together, in the 2005 miniseries Empire Falls. In addition to Harry & Son (1984), in which both played roles, Newman was behind the camera directing his wife on Rachel, Rachel (1968), the 1980 telefilm of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Shadow Box (1980), the second movie incarnation of The Glass Menagerie (1987) and another Pulitzer winner, Paul Zindel’s shattering drama of family dysfunction, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972). Woodward, honored as Best Actress for her work at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, played a bitter, disheveled single mother, soured on life and dubious about the prospects for the two teenage daughters in her questionable care. Memorably incarnated off-Broadway by Sada Thompson in 1970, Beatrice Hunsdorfer was a ferocious part, written with stinging humor and brutally precise cynicism en route to a hopeful conversion of character, which Newman and Woodward sought to portray convincingly and compellingly on the movie screen after obtaining the rights to the material. And making it right depended a whole lot on the couple’s mutual love and support, because on occasion, things got a bit shaky, not because the production process was fraught but because the emotional toll ran deep, even for these two who had nearly a couple of decades of professional stage and screen work under their belts.
In his anecdotal 2010 memoir Paul and Me, writer, long-time Newman pal, Newman’s Own product line and Hole-in-the-Wall Gang Camp co-founder A.E. Hotchner recalled: “Being so close to Bridgeport, I visited the film’s location several times during the weeks they were shooting, and each time I was impressed by the way Joanne had increasingly invested herself with the horribleness of Beatrice Hunsdorfer. She had cut her hair and dyed it a drab mousy color, and her makeup and clothes accentuated the self-loathing essence of her character. Even her exchanges with Paul, which had been so quiet and respectful during the filming of Rachel, Rachel (I had gone to Bethel, Connecticut, a couple of times and watched them at work on that film), were quite the opposite for Gamma Rays. Joanne retained the belligerence of Beatrice in her sometimes heated exchanges with Paul over differences in interpretations of scenes and dialogue. Joanne wanted a little humor to shine through the repulsiveness, but Paul felt that there was nothing in the script that would lend itself to that. And, as she later admitted, for the first time in her career as an actress, Joanne took her loathsome persona home with her, so that she was the same Beatrice Hunsdorfer with her own family as she was with her make-believe one. ‘I was possessed by demons,’ she said. ‘I was so depressed and suicidal during that film I couldn’t stand it. I came close to sheer insanity. It’s the one picture I wish I hadn’t done. It had a terrible effect on me. That picture left scars.’ One night, rather late, I heard a car come crunching up my gravel driveway. I flipped on the outside lights. Paul got out of his car, carrying a shopping bag with his clothes in it. ‘Hotchkin,’ he said, ‘I’d like to occupy your spare room. If I spend another night in bed with Beatrice Hunsdorfer, one of us will not be on the set tomorrow.’” Fortunately, craft and common sense prevailed, and the finished product compelled critic Rex Reed to herald “a majestic film with a special fever all its own. If you want to see truly magnificent acting, run don’t walk to see Joanne Woodward burn a hole through the screen.” Archer Winsten of the New York Post seconded that viewpoint: “Magnificent, gutsy. Joanne Woodward is simply magnificent. Paul Newman has made this picture a genuine heartbreaker.” The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, written for the screen by the prodigious Alvin Sargent and plaintively scored by the great Maurice Jarre, marks its North American home video debut February 20 on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open February 7.