Ethan Hawke may have officially won the lockdown. After creating and starring in Showtime's adaptation of James McBride's novel The Good Lord Bird, his work as director of The Last Movie Stars is a breathtaking feat of restoration.
It all started when Clea Newman, the youngest child of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, pitched Hawke the idea of doing a film about her parents' relationship. Her sisters Nell and Melissa joined in, as did Stephanie Newman, Paul's daughter from his first marriage.
Then came the pièce de résistance: In the 1980s Newman commissioned his friend Stewart Stern to work on a biography, for which Stern interviewed dozens of colleagues, friends, family members, and even Jackie McDonald, Paul's ex-wife. At some point, though, Newman changed his mind and got rid of the tapes. What he didn't get rid of, for some reason, were the transcripts, which were duly handed over to Hawke.
And that was all he needed to pull off this audacious work. The Last Movie Stars is told through clips from the couple's screen ouevre, archival interviews they gave over the years, home movies, Hawke's Zoom chats with surviving family and friends and above all, the film's secret sauce — those long-locked-away interview transcripts, read by the likes of George Clooney as Paul and Laura Linney as Joanne. Brooks Ashmanskas does a fabulous rendition of Gore Vidal, a friend since their salad days in theater, whose Vidalian wit is on full display as he shares insights into what made the union of these two headstrong actors work. Other parts are read by Bobby Cannavale, Billy Crudup, Zoe Kazan, Sam Rockwell, Josh Hamilton and Steve Zahn.
The marriage of Newman and Woodward was the stuff of legend: two movie icons who made 18 films together, kept a normal home life, and stayed hot for each other over 50 years together. As Newman (who died in 2008) was said to have told an actor having an extramarital affair, "Why go out for hamburger when you can eat steak at home?" But the complex portrait that deliciously unspools in The Last Movie Stars reveals the trials as well as triumphs behind their partnership (which itself started as an extramarital affair).
For one thing, it was she who was the undisputed star when they said their vows in 1958. While Paul struggled to get decent roles, Joanne picked up an Oscar. She was gorgeous and did everything brilliantly, whether on stage or screen. Then came a role reversal, as Paul Newman matured into a sex symbol in his thirties. It was one of the more remarkable turns in Tinseltown history, as he well knew: "There should be a parade in Joanne's honor as the creator of the symbol," he joked.
But stardom came with a heavy price to them both. Woodward's profile dimmed as she was expected to stay at home raising children. Newman struggled to keep his feet planted on the ground, and he anguished as Scott, the son from his first marriage, became distant and reckless.
Yet the happy ending to this docuseries — six hours of film clips perfectly matched to interview snippets and biographical details, forming a video tapestry that frankly feels not quite long enough — is that the partnership between Joanne and Paul survived and thrived. Instead of untouchable stars, the show reframes them as two utterly relatable people who weather many of the trials of young couples growing up in the 1950s and 60s and manage to keep their relationship strong. "We had three things: my ego, his ego, and our ego," Woodward once said. "For our marriage to survive we had to put the his and hers on hold and just go for our."
It's a tribute to their heirs that they understood this was the time to tell a warts-and-all version of the story. Melissa Newman tells Hawke she got sick of hearing people say her parents had a perfect marriage. "I think they deserve more credit than that," she says.
To be clear, despite their conflicts, Paul and Joanne still come off as normal, decent people who happened to be movie icons. Newman lent mainstream support to the nascent Civil Rights Movement, Woodward turned to directing and helped launch the careers of Sally Field, Allison Janney, Linney, and many others. And then there's the food brand that has raised close to $1 billion for charity. You're left with the sense that none of this great stuff would have happened without the tending of the fire that burned between these two.
It also seems unlikely that The Last Movie Stars would have been this good without Ethan Hawke, who understands how arduous it was for these two Method actors to summon the inner vitality to create all these memorable characters. He finds emotional tethers not only in scenes from Newman classics like Cool Hand Luke and The Sting, but also in lesser-known films they made and even clunkers like WUSA and The Stripper. In the affecting fourth episode, he finds Newman working out unresolved feelings about himself, his son, and his wife in a series of mid-career roles. "Everything he was hiding from the world, he put on the screen!" Hawke exclaims at one point.
Hawke also welcomes us behind the scenes, dropping in snippets from Zoom chats with his collaborators to explain his process. His geeked-out zeal for the details of these two lives, and the lifetime of work they produced, injects the whole project with a joie de vivre that its three subjects — Woodward, Newman, and their marriage — demand.
Tip: Have a pen handy, because after watching The Last Movie Stars you'll want to explore many of the films of Newman and Woodward referenced in this series. Many are on streaming as well as the services Hoopla and Kanopy.
All six episodes of The Last Movie Stars premiere on HBO Max Thursday July 21, 2022.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.