Ethan Hawke’s ‘The Last Movie Stars’ explores the lives of Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and the art of luck

I don’t know about you, but one of the last things I would have thought Paul Newman was was insecurity. During The latest movie starsEthan Hawke has brilliantly done a deep dive into the life, love and career of one of the true golden couples in Hollywood history, Newman’s inability to believe in his own worth is a recurring theme. .

While we can think of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward as perhaps the last enduring couple of Hollywood’s Golden Age, it’s instructive to note that Newman was a middle-class kid in Cleveland’s Shaker Heights neighborhood. , Ohio, and Woodward was born in the tiny town of Thomasville, Georgia. Neither the theater children of Hollywood nor those of New York. In fact, Newman briefly ran his family’s sporting goods store after his father’s sudden death in 19500.


Both Newman and Woodward were too restless and artistic to be confined by their humble beginnings, and soon into adulthood both sought their fortunes as actors. Newman was largely stymied by the twin presences of Marlon Brando and James Dean when he broke into acting, and many of the roles he received were roles that Brando and Dean turned down. On the other hand, Woodward’s rise to stardom faced no such obstacles, and it was she who found wide-ranging success before she soon became a more famous lover. Woodward made a strong impression in the pulpy 1956 drama A kiss before dying with Robert Wagner, and just the following year she earned her first Oscar nomination (and only win) as a lead actress as a character with dissociative identity disorder in The Three Faces of Eve.

Newman didn’t find his star role until 1956 someone up there loves me after James Dean’s death, the role was recast. Even so, he was behind Joanne when they teamed up in Martin Ritt’s adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play. The long hot summer in 1958 (one of sixteen times the two worked together on a film). The Paul Newman we think of didn’t really see the light of day until his extraordinary three-year run from 1961 to 1963, which included the scammer, Sweet bird of youthand HUD.

Deep down, Newman believed that Woodward was not only a better actor than him, but also a more interesting person. Watching Ethan Hawke’s wonderfully enthusiastic docuseries (Hawke couldn’t be more passionate), one realizes that Newman might have been right. That’s certainly not to say that Newman wasn’t a great actor and a fascinating person – he most certainly was – but Joanne, who is incredibly accomplished, confident and more comfortable in her own skin, reveals herself over the course of of the show’s six hours as an utterly remarkable person and actress, though she takes a back seat to her husband’s career when the kids come into the picture.

Although he only met Newman and Woodward once in his life, a member of Newman’s family contacted him to make a documentary series about the couple. I can only imagine what that conversation must have been like. Hawke immerses himself wholeheartedly in the lives of Newman and Woodward. A lot of The latest movie stars was made during the pandemic, and while Hawke uses a number of documentary archetypes to create the series (interviews, stock footage, etc.), he’s also shown numerous times in scruffy Zoom videos interviewing members. of the Newman and Woodward family as well as his own actor friends and family.

The project’s foundation is based on Newman’s interviews with writer Stewart Stern for a proposed autobiography. Eventually, Newman called a halt to the effort and burned all tape recordings of the interviews. However, Stern had all the recordings meticulously transcribed, which allowed Hawke to tap his theatrical friends George Clooney and Laura Linney over their respective shoulders to voice Newman and Woodward where their own voices could not be used. He also used luminaries such as Vincent D’Onorfio for John Huston, Oscar Isaac for Sydney Pollack, and Zoe Kazan for Jackie McDonald (the woman Newman was married to and had three children while he had a long affair with Woodward before to eventually divorce McDonald and marry Joanne).

I guess there’s a brilliant version of Paul and Joanne’s story to tell, and while some critics might think Hawke is reveling too much in the joy of wondering about their career and relationship, I wouldn’t be. disagree with this interpretation. Hawke spends a lot of time embarrassing Paul for leaving his first family behind. Nor does it sidestep the fact that Newman has grown distant from his marriage to Woodward, or discussions of the impact on Newman of having an overbearing and abusive mother, or his life as a high-functioning alcoholic. In a large part of The latest movie starsyou feel like Newman wasn’t just a mystery to others (Joanne would say of him after his death, “I don’t know who you are, but I still miss you”), but also to himself.

His beautiful blue eyes could often be seen as cold steel by those who knew him. There was a certain distance in him – that mysterious quality that registered so well both cool and hot on screen – that could cause pain and frustration in his own relationships. Her inability to connect with her son Scott (who died of an overdose at the age of 28) is a case in point.

Somewhat paradoxically, what mattered a lot off-screen during Newman’s lifetime (the civil rights movement, gay rights, philanthropy, etc.) was also important to him. He was a paragon of decency and, in hindsight, seemed to be on the right side of all important issues of the 20th century. On the film side, he fought for Robert Redford (who was far from the star that Newman was at the time) to play Sundance in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Yet in his personal life he struggled to find the kind of harmony that would have given him more peace.

P0F124 Original Film Title: RACHEL RACHEL. English Title: RACHEL RACHEL. Director: PAUL NEWMAN. Year: 1968. Stars: JOANNE WOODWARD; PAUL NEWMAN. Credit: WARNER BROTHERS / Album

Newman considered himself a person who was mostly lucky in life. He must have been lucky, but much of that luck he made for himself. He worked hard to become a great actor. He fought for the causes he believed in. And perhaps more importantly, he chose the one person who could see him, warts and all, and accept him as he was while pushing him to be better. “The art of luck”, he called it.

Midway through the series, you learn how much Newman respected and loved Joanne. Driven, most likely, by a sense of guilt, Newman used his own star power to relaunch Woodward’s career with Rachel, Rachel (1968), the story of a woman facing a midlife crisis. Newman loved the script, thought it was perfect for Joanne, and when no one was directing it, he decided he would direct it himself. Woodward was like a newly discovered revelation in the film, earning her second of four Oscar nominations as lead actress. Newman was between Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at the time – that is, his star was never hotter – and he chose to step behind the camera to serve her (as she had in life for him), and that’s wonderful.

Because Newman had the fullest career, The latest movie stars carries more weight on her side of the ledger than Joanne’s, but there’s no denying the anchoring force she’s been in his life. In her later years, Woodward turned to high-quality television movies when her demand for films waned. She found tremendous success in this medium (as evidenced by her nine Emmy nominations and two wins), and like Newman, she paid for her privilege by advocating for and mentoring others. Like Newman with Redford, Woodward fought for Sally Field to play the lead character in Sybil in the groundbreaking 1976 TV movie of the same name. It’s fair to wonder if Field would have escaped the shadow of The flying nun if Woodward hadn’t gone to bat for her.

It’s a fascinating series to understand. There’s the very reasonable glorification of their amazing careers, but the intimate look at Newman and Woodward as people is what stands out. They were almost unbearably hot for each other. Just look at the sequence in the years 1975 The drowning pool shown in The Last Movie Stars, where they have a steamy phone conversation to figure out their affinity for each other. Watching this scene, I immediately thought it should come with a warning to have a glass of cold water nearby while watching – you know, so you can wash yourself down.

Of course, there are not a few great moments in The latest movie stars for movie geeks like me to take with a loose jaw. Like Sydney Lumet telling Newman he’s been through Lack of malice before shooting The verdict, then pulling arguably Newman’s greatest performance out of him. Or, Lumet filming Woodward in The fugitive kind with Marlon Brando and seeing that it’s as hard to take your eyes off her as it is to look away from him.

These two people have earned their legends, both linked and separate. What’s most charming about Hawke’s series is that we come away thinking they were both more human than we knew while being better than we already thought.

At one point in the series, Newman can be heard saying, “Movies became my church.” Thanks to Ethan Hawke’s series, you are not only reminded how important these two characters are in the history of acting and the stage, you are reminded that the theater is a temple and a beautiful way to worship, especially when they were on screen.

The final shot in the series is taken from a scene from the largely forgotten film WUSA, which finds Newman and Woodward waist deep in a body of water, kissing like there’s no camera for miles around. It’s so intimate it’s like looking through a window, and you can’t help but wonder if maybe you shouldn’t see this at all. But there they are, in all their love and beauty, so imperfectly perfect that you can’t look away even though you feel you should.

The latest movie stars can be seen now on HBOMAX.