Early in The Last Movie Stars, a longform documentary that manages to be both meta and charming, cerebral and deeply felt, Ethan Hawke is geeking out on Zoom with some of his fellow actors. The object of their professional appreciation and endearing enthusiasm is Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, together and individually, the subject of Hawke’s film-in-the-making. Given how long they were in the public eye as actors, directors, producers and philanthropists — their marriage lasted 50 years and their careers even longer — fans might assume they know all there is to know. But this thoughtful exploration of the couple’s artistic collaborations and offscreen relationship offers surprises at every turn and, with no prefab treatise to prove, it gets under the skin.
Hawke’s remote gathering of thespians isn’t just a pandemic-era excuse to gab about idols. Most of them are members of his cast, voicing the words of Newman (George Clooney), Woodward (Laura Linney) and key figures in their lives, as distilled by Hawke from a revelatory piece of source material: a memoir that Newman began and abandoned. Working with screenwriter Stewart Stern (Rebel Without a Cause) in the ’80s and early ’90s, Newman collected a treasure trove of interviews with friends, colleagues and even his first wife. Then, for reasons unknown, he changed his mind and burned all the audiotapes. Only recently were Stern’s transcriptions discovered, and Hawke has put them to discerning use. (The autobiography is expected to be published this fall.)
The Last Movie Stars
The Bottom Line
Not your grandfather’s movie-star biography.
Over its six hours (the half-dozen installments each run about an hour, with the closing chapter, at an hour and 20 minutes, the longest), the series is haunting as well as celebratory, filled with reminders of unsung triumphs and forgotten corners of the filmographies and stage work. Fans both ardent and casual will find plenty to savor in The Last Movie Stars, whose third and fourth episodes are premiering in Cannes (the first chapter was presented at SXSW). Whatever fest stops are still in store, the entire series will air later this year on HBO Max and, presumably, CNN (it was originally slated for the short-lived streamer CNN+).
It was Newman and Woodward’s youngest daughter, Clea Newman, a TV producer and postproduction consultant (Big Little Lies), who asked Hawke to make the documentary. She’s also one of its essential Zoom interviewees, along with three of her four sisters. As in other recent docs that humanize showbiz legends, the involvement of stars’ children lends dimension, clear-eyed and heartfelt. Hawke’s selection of footage and stills, both public and private, is endlessly engaging, and even when examining Newman’s most famous movie roles, he often opts for less obvious, eye-opening clips — all of it shaped with a deft touch by Hawke and editor Barry Poltermann.
Many of the actors Hawke enlisted to read from the memoir transcripts and other material are associated with the New York stage, a fitting choice considering that Newman and Woodward came up in the heyday of the Actors Studio and the Neighborhood Playhouse, he a student of the former, she of the latter. They met as understudies on the Broadway production of Picnic in 1953, and it’s delightful to hear her recalling her hate-at-first-sight reaction to “this band-box creature” in a seersucker suit.
She graduated from the Playhouse to lots of work on TV (a format she would return to, prolifically, in later years) before her star-making, Oscar-winning turn in 1957’s The Three Faces of Eve. He struggled to find his footing in Hollywood, often competing against James Dean for parts. His break arrived when, after Dean’s death, he was chosen to replace him in the Rocky Graziano bio-pic Somebody Up There Likes Me. By all accounts, Newman’s especially, Woodward was the greater actor, but soon his career would surpass hers.
And by many accounts, hers especially, motherhood was a key reason she wasn’t able to pursue lengthy commitments to high-profile movies. In her own voice and in readings by Linney, Woodward’s unapologetic ambivalence about this trade-off is striking and admirable. After her marriage to Newman — the culmination of a five-year affair while he was married to Jackie McDonald — Woodward was increasingly focused on the home front. Together they had three daughters, and she built relationships with the three children from his first marriage.
Hawke’s conversations with Stephanie Newman, the youngest child of Newman and McDonald, are a searing reminder of the untold stories of famous men’s first wives. She asks the filmmaker to consider her mother’s “unbearable story” as an aspiring actor who, in quick succession, was divorced by her husband and watched his new wife receive an Academy Award. Stephanie’s account isn’t one of bitter recrimination so much as an appeal for understanding. That she has her stepmother’s name tattooed on her inner arm is a testament to Woodward’s commitment to her blended family. For his part, Newman, often heard here being hard on himself or perhaps just brutally honest, confesses: “I taught ’em how to drive well. That’s probably the extent of my parenting.”
Another confession supports one of the key arguments of the doc, that Woodward’s work should be better known: Zoe Kazan, who voices Jackie McDonald, says she doesn’t think she’s ever seen a Woodward film. The Last Movie Stars will no doubt inspire many viewers to scour streaming services for Rachel, Rachel and The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the Moon Marigolds (both directed by Newman, and the latter garnering the best actress award at Cannes), as well as A Kiss Before Dying, The Stripper, The Fugitive Kind and Signpost to Murder.
Against the doc’s narrative of the couple’s offscreen challenges (unspecified infidelities, Newman’s drinking, his troubled son), glimpses of their onscreen pairings have a scorching, poignant pull, from their youthful beauty in From the Terrace and The Long, Hot Summer (for which he was named best actor at Cannes) to later work in Winning (where Newman fell in love with racing), WUSA, an ambitious political drama that flopped, and Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, their last big-screen collaboration, excerpted to potent effect in the doc’s final chapter.
More than once, Newman is heard commenting on his life from a distance, wondering if he’s a strung-together collection of characters and moments rather than a cohesive identity. In his early days, people including Ben Gazzara and Elia Kazan were skeptics rather than fans of the cool façade. Director Martin Ritt (voiced by Jonathan Marc Sherman), who directed Newman in one of his greatest roles, in Hud, believed that his “withholding was going to make him a movie star.” Sidney Poitier, who starred with Newman in Paris Blues, is quoted regarding the hypnotic quality he believed some performers possess, and Hawke perceptively infers that Poitier didn’t find it in Newman.
But as he traces the embarrassments and duds along with the box office gold, Hawke builds toward a powerful section on Newman’s performance, in his late 50s, in The Verdict, with helmer Sidney Lumet (voiced by Tom McCarthy) challenging him to dig deep and confront himself in the character, an alcoholic lawyer. The character finds purpose, and Newman increasingly found it in his and Woodward’s philanthropic efforts (The Scott Newman Center, Newman’s Own, The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp). Politics proved less fulfilling, although like many others on Nixon’s enemies list, civil rights and antiwar activist Newman considered it an honor.
Excerpted throughout the series, Hawke’s pandemic-era Zoom sessions reveal him giving director’s notes to the actors and also trying to figure out the trajectory and the essence of the work-in-progress. In addition to the voice performers, all strong — although Clooney’s instantly recognizable voice is a distraction at first — there are also convos with Sally Field, recalling her career-shifting work with Woodward in the TV movie Sybil, and a typically enthusiastic Martin Scorsese, one of the documentary’s executive producers.
Woodward, now 92, is not among Hawke’s interviewees; she’s in the grips of Alzheimer’s disease, a sad fate for a woman of such piercing intelligence. If she wasn’t able to sustain longevity as a full-fledged movie star in the same way that her husband did, she never stopped loving the art of acting, teaching the craft to aspiring young actors (her students included Allison Janney) and, as a producer of theater, luring Newman back to Broadway, in Our Town, after a 40-year absence.
With their talent and drive and unforced glamour and, as Newman would be sure to add, their luck, they never set out to be the last of a Hollywood breed. It was easy, from the outside, to believe that two such dazzling people were living a fairy tale. “Everybody needs those kinds of heroes,” their daughter Melissa acknowledges. “But at the same time, I think they deserve more credit than that.” Delving into their experiences over six engrossing hours, The Last Movie Stars explores how two “high-living, hard-living young warriors,” as Arthur Penn characterized them in their ambitious early days, went on to build a life. Woodward puts it succinctly: “We grew up together,” she says.