WINNING (1969)

Auto racing is a particularly special subject for a film.  The speed, the danger, the flashy cars and people make for a larger than life story.  Technically, race day (and night depending if you are doing a 24 hour event) offers the opportunity for interesting camera work.  All these come together in WINNING (1969), plus the on screen presence of Paul Newman and his real life wife Joanna Woodward; toss in some strong support and you have something.   That something was a routine, often clunky film set against the racing circuit of the time.

WINNING (1969) was directed by James Goldstone, who was mostly a fine television director with many top credits.  Shooting for the small box is quite different as well as pacing the story into the moments between commercial cuts.


Paul Newman is driver Frank Capua. He lives a lonely nomadic existence of hotel rooms, long nights fixing cars and drinking with his younger friends on the circuit. One of these friends of is Erding, played by Robert Wagner.  Capua meets Elora (Joanne Woodward), who has a full grown son from a marriage that ended.   Elora and Frank fall in love in story book fashion with kisses by a romantic lake. Frank wants to adopt her son Charlie (Richard Thomas’s first feature role).   Interspersed with this is authentic footage of driving at Daytona and other tracks plus working on cars and parties.

This is Capua’s life, and Elora begins to find dull as time goes on.  One night Frank and the younger Erding, with whom he has a good natured rivalry, are at a bar.   Frank has to go to bed early as he has a qualifying trial and work to do in the morning. Erding stays in spite of having the same duties. He catches the eye of Elora and the inevitable tryst results.   The film then becomes one of revenge on Erding and to an extent Elora with racing in between.

James Goldstone makes the best of what he has with good editing and clever camera angles, particularly in the close-up passing attempts for Frank Capua in a race that ends the picture.  Paul Newman, with those legendary blue eyes, does well even if he is not routinely in the story.

As you may expect, he has lovely chemistry with Joanna Woodward on screen.   An opening  bringing to mind a walk in the street at the beginning of  COOL HAND LUKE (1967) starts off the  relationship. These two talents are not tested as they are in their comfort zone, so perhaps this was primarily a chance for them to work together.  Newman is an uncredited producer and that could also stand to reason.

Where both Newman and Frank Capua do shine are in the moments with Elora’s son Charlie.  Richard Thomas does a good, if not slightly over the top, angry youth trying to find himself a job.  The best moment is when Frank shows Charlie how to drink beer in the garage while they are working on cars. The two talk about girls Charlie knows and has dated. He has had beer before, too, so it become a contest of sorts.  Charlie ends up spinning himself around on mechanics’ boards on the floor and carried up to his room where he stands proudly smiling when told by Elora that he is, in fact, drunk.    Great times on screen with genuine laughs and the humor of a father trying to get to know his adopted son.

Charlie wonders out loud what will happen to him and why he doesn’t get a say in his fate. He hero worships Frank Capua and grows to hate Erding and, to an extent, his mother. All the factors of disaffected youth that were happening in the early sixties in film happen to Charlie.


WINNING (1969) does become a sort of a soap opera. A shame considering the talent on and off screen, from Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward to the supporting roles and real life cameos by drivers such as Bobby Unser.

The party scene at the end threatens to dissolve in to a cross between a sixties adult drinking party and a ’hippie happening,’ and it has Frank wondering if it was all worth it. He goes through the crowd, bottle in hand, being touched or stroked, even partially seduced by a female voice that seductively breaks the din with ‘hello.’

WINNING (1969) works as a television episode for the time but not as a story for a motion picture of the sixties.  Its pace can be taunt in some places and routine in others, leading one to believe it is a soap story with racing footage added later.   To be fair, the racing footage with Newman and Wagner driving is excellent for the time.   The sound editing with the engine pitches and quick cut work well on the large screen.

Newman learned how to drive a car at motorsport with drivers Bob Sharp and Lake Underwood at a high performance driving school to prepare.   Newman’s aptitude and his enthusiasm lead him to take up the sport in real life, forming the Newman/Haas racing team with longtime driver Carl Haas. The team won over 100 races and eight driver championships but never the Daytona 500 race.

The name Elora means My God Is My Light and is of Hebrew origin, which is interesting as Paul Newman  had no religion yet he would describe himself as being Jewish. Capua is a name for an important ancient Roman city that was located on the Appian Way. Frank Capua as gladiator who sees the light with Elora?

Steve McQueen, another real life racing fanatic, was incensed that his acting rival was doing WINNING. He was preparing his own picture: the troubled on again, off again project that became LE MANS (1971).  The films could not beat the bench mark production with James Garner called GRAND PRIX (1966). It is far superior in blending a similar story.  Paul Newman would go on to horses, guns, a delightful kick and Robert Redford next.

I found the film to be like a wonderful car that you sit behind the wheel in the lot, you find the sticker price works for you, get the options you want and then find out it doesn’t come in your favorite color.  It will never come in that color unless you redo it with non-stock paint. Deal breaker.  While that expense may be nothing for some people, for most getting several coats of candy apple red done by George Barris’s custom shop in Los Angeles is not something that happens. Neither does this picture.

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