'Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman': Film Review

Brian Nooney
Fascinating for fans of the actor and car racing alike

Adam Carolla's documentary sheds light on the legendary actor's decades-long passion for the sport

Paul Newman loved acting, loved being a world-class philanthropist, and loved racing cars. According to Adam Carolla's documentary chronicling his decades-long racing career, they weren't necessarily in that order. Putting the actor in the automotive spotlight that he determinedly shunned while he was alive, Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman, co-directed by Nate Adams, details this fascinating side of his multi-faceted personality.

Carolla's fascination for his subject is explained late in the film when it's revealed that he currently maintains and drives several of the actor's racing cars. That passion is well on display in the documentary, which recounts how Newman became bit by the racing bug when he starred in the 1969 film Winning. He started competing seriously in his late forties, and continued until shortly before his death at age 83.

Combining archival footage and interviews with contemporary interviews with his racing and show business colleagues, the film makes clear his dedication to the sport. Even Newman admitted that, like his acting, he wasn't very good when he started out. But he eventually became a world class driver who earned the admiration of his fellow professional racers, even coming in second at Le Mans in 1979. Besides winning four national championships, he would later become a successful team owner.

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Personal insights are provided by the likes of his Butch and the Sundance Kid/The Sting co-star Robert Redford, who became one of his closest friends. Amusingly, Redford relates how Newman's passion for the sport eventually became wearisome.

"He became so boring!" the actor affectionately complains. "Because that's all he talked about."

Pioneering black racer Willy T. Ribbs describes how Newman helped get him his first paid racing gig. Besides being deeply grateful, he also has compliments about the actor's racing.

"Newman was on Viagra before they made Viagra," he comments. "He was a hard dick driver."

Effusive testimony is also delivered by such other racing colleagues as Mario Andretti, Dick Barbour and Newman's longtime partner Bob Sharp, for whom he raced during much his career. One competitor comments, "If you race someone like Paul Newman you want to beat him, because you figure he's been lucky enough."

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Also testifying about Newman's love of the sport are his brother Arthur Newman, whose crystal blue eyes reveal the family connection; his Winning co-star Robert Wagner; Jay Leno, no small car enthusiast himself; Patrick Dempsey, who also races professionally; and Pixar founding member John Lasseter, who directed the actor in his final film role, voicing the tailor-made character of Doc Hudson in the animated Cars.

The film also recounts how Newman got his Color of Money co-star Tom Cruise interested in the sport, with the racing film Days of Thunder resulting a few years later. But for all his athletic prowess, Cruise ultimately lacked the natural talent of his mentor.

The archival footage of Newman racing and interacting with his fellow drivers is revelatory, with the actor's determined efforts to be just one of the guys on ample display. One of the film's most affecting moments is a haunting shot of the actor sitting mournfully in his car immediately after the death of his teammate Jim Fitzgerald during a 1987 race.

As passionate about its subject as the actor was about driving, Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman provides a fascinating footnote to his distinguished cinematic career.

Production: Mollette
Director: Adam Carolla
Co-director: Nate Adams
Screenwriters: Adam Carolla, Nate Adams
Producers: Nate Adams, Adam Carolla, Mike August
Executive producers: Norm Pattiz, Matt D'Andria
Director of photography: Marten Tedin
Editor: Simon Sandquist

Not rated, 83 min.   

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