In his forthcoming book, Sometimes a Great Movie: Paul Newman, Ken Kesey and the Filming of the Great Oregon Novel, Oregon Coast author/publisher Matt Love blends reportage, memoir, oral history and film criticism, along with 125 photographs from the filming of Sometimes a Great Notion. In this essay, Love tells us about two tavern scenes that inspired the book. Find out how to help with its publication at the end of the essay—and learn about a contest, too!
Not long after Ken Kesey died in 2001, I staged a private wake for my literary hero by drinking beer in the Bayhaven, an ancient tavern on Newport’s Bayfront. There, I noticed a framed poster of promotional stills from Sometimes a Great Notion the movie. The cinematic adaption of Kesey’s novel was filmed in Lincoln County on the Central Oregon Coast in the summer of 1970 and included scenes shot in the Bayhaven, which stood in for The Snag saloon from the novel.
I asked the bartender and a few other patrons if they had seen the movie. They all had and uniformly agreed that the most memorable scene was when one of the characters drowns under a log in an estuary as the tide rises. I also asked if any had read the novel, which unfolds the epic story of an obstinate family of gyppo loggers embroiled in conflicts with each other and their community. The novel takes place in the fictional town of Wakonda on the Oregon Coast and is a dense, sprawling, manic 600-page book with multiple narrators (sometimes within the same paragraph!), looping storylines, and stream-of-consciousness explosions of nature that pretty much make it the greatest novel set in the Pacific Northwest. Many readers never finish Sometimes a Great Notion, but those who do become fanatics and read it like scripture.
As we talked about the book and the movie, a thickly bearded man wearing a red baseball cap emerged from an alcove sheltering the video poker machines. He moved toward me holding a Hamm’s can and sat next to me at the bar. He said he had a story, a story about Paul Newman, who starred in the movie. Would I like to hear it? Yes, I would. I ordered him another Hamm’s. He appeared anywhere from 40 to 70 years old, or what I call OTA, Oregon Tavern Age.
The story went: one rainy night in 1970, the man was drinking in a tavern in Toledo, eight miles east of Newport. In walked an unaccompanied Paul Newman carrying a chainsaw. “He was wearing a fake chest,” said the man. The man explained that Newman wore some kind of padding under his shirt. That Newman still wore the padding and carried the chainsaw meant he might have come right off location in and around Toledo, where many scenes were filmed.
According to the man, Newman didn’t say anything. The patrons recognized him, because, well, at the time he was the biggest movie star in the world. He fired up the chainsaw, sawed the legs off a pool table and sent the slate crashing to the floor. Then he left without saying a word.
“C’mon, you’re bullshitting me!” I said. I reminded him of the scene from the movie where Newman’s character enters a union office with a chainsaw and cuts up the place.
“I know that scene,” he said. “That was acting. I was in a bar in Toledo. Newman was there. He was drunk out of his mind. I have no reason to lie. I don’t even know you.”
A few minutes later, the man disappeared and I never got his name.
I didn’t investigate this fantastic story back then, but knew one day I would undertake a mission to discover if Paul Newman really did enact the greatest drinking story in Oregon history.
That mission is over, and in my new book, Sometimes a Great Movie: Paul Newman, Ken Kesey and the Filming of the Great Oregon Novel, I hunt down the legend and discover the truth.
Matt Love wants to buy you a beer. But first you have to do your part. Love is making available 300 hardback versions of Sometimes a Great Movie as part of three one-of-a-kind packages that will help finance the book.
The $100 “Deluxe Package” will land you a numbered and signed hardback book and an original black-and-white photograph of a studio publicity still or a color Polaroid taken by a local during the film’s production. The photos for these 65 packages will be chosen at random, but each is guaranteed suitable for framing. Purchasers of the Deluxe Package also receive an invitation to join a one-time-only guided tour of the Stamper House, on the Siletz River; a special letterpress bookmark; recognition at the book launch at Powell’s on May 25; a seat in Portland’s Hollywood Theater for a screening of the film and a can of Olympia beer, the film’s beer of choice.
The $75 “Grand Package” lands the hardback, the house tour, the bookmark, recognition at the release, the movie and the Oly. And $50 buys the “Basic Package,” a signed hardback and the bookmark.
Visit Nestucca Spit Press for ordering details, and if you’re not interested in the Oly, Sometimes a Great Movie comes out in paperback in May. Look for it at your local independent bookstore or visit Nestucca Spit Press.
You can also toss your hardhat into the ring and win a hardback copy of Sometimes a Great Movie right here at NW Book Lovers. Leave a comment on this post with your Sometimes a Great Notion story. Anything goes, from selling Paul Newman a fudgesicle to that thesis you wrote in college. We’ll select the winner at random and let you know.