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Newman Downshifts For The Media

May 13, 1987|JACK MATHEWS | Times Staff Writer

CANNES, France — With the look of a man being led to the guillotine, Paul Newman--daring race car driver, publicity-shy personality--met the press in France on Tuesday. It was not a pretty sight.

Newman, slender and gray at 62, led his wife, Joanne Woodward, and other members of the cast for "The Glass Menagerie" to the dais of the ballroom of Cannes' Grand Palais for an international press conference.

Showing up personally for a press conference is one of the conditions for having a film in competition for the Gold Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, and Newman, who hasn't been here since his "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" in 1972, was grudgingly paying the price.

"These public contests are not very easy for me; I'm not all that public a person," Newman said when asked how it felt to be facing the crowds at Cannes. "(But) I want the film to be successful. . . . I want it to be seen. A festival can be helpful. The people here can be helpful."

Using limousine decoys to sidetrack photographers outside, festival organizers had hustled Newman and his entourage through side entrances to the Palais, and then shoehorned through the clotted entrance to the upstairs ballroom.

There hasn't been such a fuss over a movie star--in this instance, a movie director--since Clint Eastwood popped in for "Pale Rider" two years ago.

Unlike Eastwood, who invited American journalists out for lunch on his yacht and further interviews, Newman limited his exposure to the 45-minute press conference and nervous appearances at an evening reception and the formal world premiere of "The Glass Menagerie."

"The Glass Menagerie," which will be released by Cineplex-Odeon in the United States this fall, was screened for a frenzied overflow press audience the night before, and as Newman faced the press Tuesday, he seemed simultaneously confident and ill at ease.

Newman was in complete control when explaining why he shot "The Glass Menagerie" the way he did--as a filmed play with no attempt to "open it up"--and speechless when hit with questions like these:

--From a French woman: "Mr. Newman, are you free for lunch?"

--From Paul Diamond of Cable News Network: "My wife is absolutely nuts about you. She's in Los Angeles. She wants to know if you'd come to our house and autograph 300 bottles of salad dressing."

--From another French woman: "I would like to know from you, Mr. Newman, and from your wife, what does the verb to dream mean?"

When one reporter asked him what he felt a star's responsibility to his fans should be, Newman simply responded, "Thank you."

The unwritten rule of Cannes press conferences is that questions be confined to the movie being shown here. When one reporter's question began to wander toward "The Color of Money," for which Newman recently won an acting Oscar, the panel moderator quickly cut it off.

So what do you want to know about Newman's $3-million version of "The Glass Menagerie"? Why he wanted to film it?

"I've always thought that even in the films I've done of Tennessee Williams, the destruction of the poetry was the destruction of the playwright.

"Now that I had the opportunity to do it in a way that was comfortable for all of us, we kept the poetry and simply shot the play. We may be more archivists than we are film makers. . . . I did this as an historian."

Newman and Woodward are no strangers to Tennessee Williams' work.

Newman has been in two filmed versions of Williams' plays--"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Sweet Bird of Youth"--and Woodward has appeared in "The Fugitive Kind," a film adapted from Williams' play "Orpheus Ascending."

Woodward has also worked in four different productions of "The Glass Menagerie," playing both the crippled daughter, Laura, and the overbearing mother, Amanda.

"I had met Tennessee several times but I did not know him very well at all," Woodward said. "My feeling is that he is the finest playwright America has ever produced and that this is his finest play."

Woodward co-stars in the four-character film/play with John Malkovich, Karen Allen and James Naughton. Allen and Naughton, who plays the gentleman caller portrayed in the previous film adaptation by Kirk Douglas, were in the stage productions of the play with Woodward in both Williamstown, Va., and at the Long Wharf in New York.

Malkovich, a stage actor who has become busy in films, joined the cast for the movie.

All four actors were in Cannes with Newman, but it was Newman, sweating through his attempt to sell a labor of love, who was getting all the attention.

Newman was mobbed by fans later in the day as he was being escorted--by car--from the Majestic Hotel to a surf-side restaurant across the street. People pounded on the car as it crawled along and the screams could be heard a block away when he finally emerged.

Things were only marginally better after a phalanx of several dozen police cut a path through the crowd and delivered Newman to the restaurant. There, television camera crews--ignoring Woodward, Malkovich and the others--scrummed with each other to keep Newman in view.

When Newman was asked during the press conference earlier if he would be back next week for the closing night festivities if "The Glass Menagerie" were to win one of the major awards, he said no, he would be at Indianapolis, where Mario Andretti, who drives for his racing team, is on the pole for the Indianapolis 500.

After running the gauntlet into the beach reception, and with the crowd scenes still awaiting his arrival at the Palais for the gala screening, Newman was asked if he would rather be out of control in a race car at high speeds or fighting the crowds in Cannes.

There was no hesitation.

"Put me in the race car," he said, smiling broadly.

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