Who is Joanne Woodward — the Hollywood star who was also Paul Newman's wife?

Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman.
(Image credit: HBO)

To many Hollywood aficionados, Joanne Woodward is best known as one half of one of the all-time great actor power couples. But there’s far more to her than her admittedly enviable marriage to the iconic Paul Newman. She was a celebrated actress in her own right who more than deserves the decades of praise she earned.

When was Joanne Woodward born?

Joanne Gignilliat Trimmier Woodward was born on February 27, 1930, in Thomasville, Georgia. Her mother named her after Joan Crawford and it was her love of movies that encouraged Woodward to become an actress. After graduating from university, Woodward moved to New York to perform on the stage and study at the Actors Studio. At the time, the studio was considered the hub of a new evolution in acting, focusing on the method and encouraging a more naturalistic approach to the craft that often went against the theatricality of glossy Hollywood productions.

After university, she moved to New York to work on the stage and study at the famous Actors Studio (where Paul Newman also studied). The studio was seen as the epicenter of the evolution of acting, moving away from the artifice and theatricality of early Hollywood to embrace a more naturalistic approach to the craft.

Joanne Woodward’s most famous movies

Joanne Woodward in "A Kiss Before Dying."

Joanne Woodward in A Kiss Before Dying (1956) (Image credit: United Artists)

Woodward made her TV debut in 1952 and appeared in many shows before making her first film, 1955's Count Three and Pray, in 1955. She signed a contract with 20th Century Fox and quickly became a critical darling. That fervor reached a peak with The Three Faces of Eve (1957), a drama inspired by true events centered on a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder. The film required Woodward to play three distinct characters in one woman: a timid Southern housewife, a seductive bad girl and a more stable figure. 

The universal acclaim resulted in her winning the 1958 Academy Award for Best Actress (famously, Woodward sewed her own Oscar dress for the occasion.) Woodward received a further three Best Actress Oscar nominations over her long and distinguished career — for Rachel, Rachel (1968), Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973) and for Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990). Woodward also won an Emmy for the TV movie See How She Runs in 1978, about a teacher who decides to enter the Boston Marathon.

After this, Woodward established herself as an actress of immense range who was willing to take on prickly and decidedly un-leading lady-like roles. She played an aging sex worker in The Stripper, a troubled political idealist in WUSA, and a drunk libertine in The Fugitive Kind (1960. She acted sporadically in the 80s but received her fourth and final Oscar nomination in 1990 for Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, the Merchant-Ivory drama she starred in alongside Paul Newman. She also narrated Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of The Age of Innocence and appeared in various TV productions.

Marlon Brando and Joanne Woodward in The Fugitive Kind (1960)

Marlon Brando and Joanne Woodward in The Fugitive Kind  (1960). (Image credit: United Artists)

How long were Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman married?

Woodward’s most frequent collaborator was her husband, actor Paul Newman. The pair, both regulars of the Actors Studio, met in 1953 while performing in the Broadway play Picnic. The pair made many movies together, including The Long Hot Summer, A New Kind of Love and Winning. They worked together on Broadway and Woodward featured prominently in Newman's films when he moved behind the camera to work as a director. The first example of this, 1968's Rachel, Rachel, about a sheltered schoolteacher's sexual awakening, landed them both Oscar nominations. She was named Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival in 1974 for her performance in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, also directed and produced by Newman (the film also starred one of their daughters, Nell Potts.) They made their final on-screen appearances together in the HBO miniseries Empire Falls, for which they both received Emmy nominations.

After marrying in 1958 (Newman divorced his first wife to be with Woodward), the pair had three children and stayed together for 50 years, until Newman passed away from lung cancer in 2008. Since then, Woodward, who is now 92, lives a quiet life out of the spotlight in Westport, Connecticut. Her last appearance on film was a voice role in 2013's Lucky Them.

Woodward and Newman’s legacy as an iconic power couple is the stuff of romance novels and Hollywood movies. Newman is purported to be the man who, when asked about his fidelity to Woodward, said, "Why go out for a hamburger when you have steak at home?" When she won her Oscar, she made a consolation “Noscar” for Newman (he eventually won his own real one, but not until The Color of Money in 1986.) In an industry where glitzy couplings are prone to public dramas, divorces, infidelities and all manner of messes, it’s remarkable that Woodward and Newman retained their pristine image as a talented and ridiculously good-looking pair who loved one another and made incredible work together.

Joanne Woodward’s legacy

Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman in "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge."

Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman in 1990 movie Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. (Image credit: IMDb // Miramax)

In the HBO documentary The Last Movie Stars, director Ethan Hawke posits that Woodward and Newman weren’t just a glowing fairy-tale: they were key figures in the generation that radically reinvented what acting could and should be for decades to come. Woodward, much like Newman, was prized for her nuances and ability to delve beneath the surface of even the most staid characters. Allison Janney name-dropped her in her own Oscars acceptance speech, citing Woodward as one of her greatest mentors.

Crucially, Woodward also had longevity on her side. While many of her contemporaries retired, found trouble getting work, or sank into career lows, Woodward kept working with top directors and receiving immense critical acclaim. Her four Oscar nominations occurred over four decades, with is rare for even the most celebrated performers. Those early films, while varying in quality, are held together by the freshness of Woodward’s performances. Her roles feel as vital and flinty now as they did at the time and have aged far better than many similarly celebrated work from the 50s and 60s. Nowadays, she’s curiously underrated, seldom discussed as a great in the vein of other Golden Age actresses like Elizabeth Taylor, but she certainly deserves that acclaim.

Kayleigh Donaldson

Kayleigh is a pop culture writer and critic based in Dundee, Scotland. Her work can be found on Pajiba, IGN, Uproxx, RogerEbert.com, SlashFilm, and WhatToWatch, among other places. She's also the creator of the newsletter The Gossip Reading Club.