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Paul Newman made his auspicious feature film directing debut with the powerful character study Rachel, Rachel (1968). Newman's wife Joanne Woodward stars in the title role as Rachel, a repressed 35-year-old small town schoolteacher who is at a crossroads in her life. Stuck in a codependent relationship with an overbearing mother (Kate Harrington), Rachel has never allowed herself the opportunity to experience all that life has to offer. When she embarks on her first love affair with an old high school friend (James Olson), Rachel makes plans to finally break free of her humdrum existence.
Rachel, Rachel was based on the novel A Jest of God by Canadian author Margaret Laurence. Paul Newman's business partner, John Foreman, had come across the book while it was still in galley form and sent it to Joanne Woodward as a potential project for her. Woodward liked it immediately and optioned the property, hiring writer Stewart Stern to turn the story into a screenplay.
At first Paul Newman reportedly dismissed A Jest of God as "not movie material." Woodward and Stern, however, believed strongly in it and shopped the script (eventually called Rachel, Rachel) around Hollywood looking for a director. Despite the high quality of the screenplay and the fact that Joanne Woodward was an Academy Award-winning actress, no one was interested. "[Stern] and I went around offering ourselves to everybody," said Woodward according to Shawn Levy's 2009 biography Paul Newman: A Life, "but I'm afraid offering the package of the script and me was hardly like offering Elizabeth Taylor and Tennessee Williams."
Eventually, Paul Newman took an interest in the project. Newman, Woodward and Stern began to work on the screenplay together. "I got involved in it about the same way the United States got involved in the Vietnam War," joked Newman in an interview with The Times of London. "I came in as an adviser and found the whole process was escalating until I was directing...There were a few conflicting discussions between myself and the writer, Stewart Stern, until I gradually realized I just had to direct it. It was the only way to settle the conflicts we were having!"
Paul Newman, who had studied directing as well as acting while a student at Yale, decided that he would both direct and produce Rachel, Rachel, but not appear in it. Even with Newman attached to the film, however, the studios were not clamoring to do the project - especially since Newman, one of the biggest box office stars in the world at the time, would remain strictly behind the camera. "I got total rejection of this picture, massive rejection," said Newman. "I finally had to go off in a corner and say, 'No, my taste is better; ultimately, I'm more perceptive than they are.'"
Eventually, Warner Bros. agreed to make Rachel, Rachel with a few conditions. Newman and Woodward would, according to Shawn Levy, forego their usual salaries and agree to make other films for the studio in exchange for being given the modest budget for the film as well as one-third of its profits. Newman formed his own production company called Kayos in order to make the film and agreed that any expenses would come out of his own pocket if the film ran over budget.
Newman was excited at the opportunity to finally direct his first feature film - even if the thought terrified him at the same time. "I'm curious about my taste, my dramatic selection, my technical ability with the camera," Newman said at the time. "There's no way to find out but to get up there and do it, and then let people hit you with baseball bats." Writer Stewart Stern was impressed. "He's the only man I ever met," said Stern about Newman, "who decides what makes him nervous - like directing a movie - and then, with his hands sweating and his feet sweating, goes right into it."
Rather than shoot the film in California, Newman decided to make Rachel, Rachel in Connecticut, where he and Woodward lived. The reason, Newman said, was "because I very much wanted to contrast the schoolteacher's rather arid, dry existence with the lush, verdant spring background - it would have been far too obvious to have placed a barren life against a barren setting."
Newman and Woodward carefully selected a distinguished cast of supporting actors for Rachel, Rachel including Oscar®-winning Estelle Parsons (Bonnie and Clyde ) as Rachel's vivacious friend Calla, James Olson as Rachel's dubious suitor Nick, and Kate Harrington as Rachel's demanding mother. Eight-year-old Nell Potts, the daughter of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, was hired to play Rachel as a little girl in the film's many flashback sequences. "It's cheaper to use your own children," joked Woodward at the time. Added Newman, "[Nell's] not impressed with movies. The only reason she made this one was to earn money to feed her pigeons...I refused to subsidize them anymore, so she had to go out to work."
Newman and Woodward worked extremely well together during the making of Rachel, Rachel. Their relationship enabled them to communicate in a special language on the set that only they could understand. "We have the same acting vocabulary," said Newman. "I would tell her, while [she was] reading a line, 'pinch it' or 'thicken it,' and she knew just what I meant...You could see her start off the day, and her toes would start to turn inward and her smile would become forced. She would just inhabit the part completely."
Newman found directing a stimulating departure from acting. "I didn't get anywhere near as tired directing as when I act," he told the New York Times. "As an actor you stop and start the motor all day; it's like running a hundred yards two feet at a time. When you're involved with every facet of the production - script, attitudes, lighting, makeup, wardrobe - you're constantly pumped up and you don't have an opportunity to slow down."
Rachel, Rachel opened to much critical acclaim. "The New York Times called it "the best written, most seriously acted American movie in a long time." Life Magazine praised Paul Newman for having "a sensitive, slightly melancholic eye for something most American movies miss - the texture of ordinary life. He displays, moreover, a feel for emotional nuance and a technical sureness; he is neither too radical nor too conservative. This is remarkable in a first movie." Time Magazine singled out Joanne Woodward, calling her "an actress who inhabits her part as a soul does a body...It is in the transcendent strength of Joanne Woodward that the film achieves a classic stature. There is no gesture too minor for her to master. She peers out at the world with the washed-out eyes of a hunted animal. Her walk is a ladylike retreat, a sign of a losing battle with time and diets and fashion. Her drab voice quavers with a brittle strength that can command a student but break before a parent's will. By any reckoning, it is actress Woodward's best performance."
Newman and Woodward were extremely proud of the film and worked hard to promote it. "I had so much at stake," Newman said according to Paul Newman: A Life. "I was putting my taste up against eight major studios who refused to buy Rachel. I had something to prove, really. I was terribly afraid the film would get sloughed. I don't think the people who distributed it had any real faith in it."
"I hope it's successful," Newman told a reporter at the time, "not because of any financial reward - hell, both Joanne and I did it for nothing - but to prove to Hollywood you can make a film about basic, simple people without violence."
Rachel, Rachel did respectable business at the box office and earned four Academy Award nominations: Best Actress (Woodward), Best Supporting Actress (Estelle Parsons), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. The only disappointment was that Newman had been passed over for a Best Director nomination. However, the blow of the oversight was cushioned somewhat by Newman and Woodward both winning top honors at the Golden Globes that year as well as being named Best Director and Actress by the New York Film Critics Circle.
Producer: Paul Newman
Director: Paul Newman
Screenplay: Stewart Stern (writer); Margaret Laurence (novel "A Jest of God")
Cinematography: Gayne Rescher
Art Direction: Robert Gundlach
Music: Jerome Moross
Film Editing: Dede Allen
Cast: Joanne Woodward (Rachel Cameron), James Olson (Nick Kazlik), Kate Harrington (Mrs. Cameron), Estelle Parsons (Calla Mackie), Donald Moffat (Niall Cameron), Terry Kiser (Preacher), Frank Corsaro (Hector Jonas), Bernard Barrow (Leighton Siddley), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Rev. Wood), Nell Potts (Rachel as a child).
by Andrea Passafiume