I don’t know about you, but one of the last things I would have ever thought Paul Newman to be is insecure. Over the course of The Last Movie Stars, Ethan Hawke’s brilliantly realized deep-dive into the life, love, and careers of one of the true golden couples in the history of Hollywood, Newman’s inability to believe in his own value is a recurring theme.
While we may 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 from the Shaker Heights neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio, and Woodward was born in the very small town of Thomasville, Georgia. Neither were Hollywood or New York theater kids. In fact, Newman briefly ran his family’s sporting goods store after his father died suddenly 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-titan presences of Marlon Brando and James Dean when he broke into acting, and many of the parts he received were roles that Brando and Dean turned down. On the other hand, Woodward’s ascent to stardom faced no such blockades, and it was she who found large-scale success before her soon to be more famous paramour. Woodward made a strong impression in the 1956 pulpy drama A Kiss Before Dying with Robert Wagner, and just the next year she earned her first Oscar nomination (and only win) as leading actress as a character with dissociative identity disorder in The Three Faces of Eve.
Newman only found his star-making role in 1956’s Somebody Up There Likes Me after James Dean’s death led to the role being recast. Even so, he was behind Joanne when they paired in Martin Ritt’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play The Long Hot Summer in 1958 (one of sixteen times the two worked together on film). The Paul Newman we think of didn’t truly come into being until his extraordinary three year stretch from 1961-63, which included The Hustler, Sweet Bird of Youth, and Hud.
At heart, Newman believed that Woodward was not only a better actor than he, but also a more interesting person. As one takes in Ethan Hawke’s wonderfully enthusiastic docuseries (Hawke could not be more passionate), one has the realization that Newman may well have been right. That is certainly not to say that Newman wasn’t a great actor and fascinating person—he most surely was—but Joanne, who is incredibly accomplished, confident, and more at ease in her own skin, is revealed over the six hours of the series to be an utterly remarkable person and actor, even as she takes a backseat to her husband’s career when children come into the picture.
Despite having met Newman and Woodward only once in his life, a member of Newman’s family reached out to him about making 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. Much of The Last Movie Stars was made during the pandemic, and while Hawke uses a number of documentary archetypes in creating the series (interviews, stock footage, etc.), he also is shown repeatedly in scruffy Zoom videos interviewing Newman and Woodward family members as well as his own actor friends and family.
The foundation of the project is based around Newman’s interviews with writer Stewart Stern for a proposed autobiography. Eventually, Newman put a stop to the endeavor and burned all the interview recording tapes. However, Stern had all of the recordings meticulously transcribed, which allowed Hawke to tap his thespian friends George Clooney and Laura Linney on their respective shoulders to voice Newman and Woodward where their own voices could not be used. He also used such luminaries as Vincent D’Onorfio for John Huston, Oscar Isaac as Sydney Pollack, and Zoe Kazan as Jackie McDonald (the woman Newman was married to and had three children with as he was carrying on a long affair with Woodward before finally divorcing McDonald and marrying Joanne).
I suppose there is a glossy version of the tale of Paul and Joanne to be told, and while some critics might think Hawke revels too much in the joy in the wonder of their careers and relationship, I would disagree with that take. Hawke spends plenty of time on Paul’s shame over leaving his first family behind. Nor does he skirt the fact that Newman strayed from his marriage with Woodward, or discussions of the impact on Newman of having an overbearing and abusive mother, or his life as a high-functioning alcoholic. In much of The Last Movie Stars, you get the sense that Newman wasn’t just a mystery to others (Joanne is quoted as saying of him after his death, “I don’t know who you are, but I miss you anyway”), but also to himself.
Those beautiful blue eyes of his could often register as cold steel to those that knew him. There was a certain aloofness about him—that mysterious quality that registered so well as both cool and hot on screen—that could cause pain and frustration in his own relationships. His inability to connect with his son Scott (who died of an overdose at the age of 28) is a case in point.
Somewhat paradoxically, what mattered greatly off screen during Newman’s life (the Civil Rights movement, gay rights, philanthropy, etc,) was also important to him. He was a paragon of decency, and, looking back, seemed to be on the right side of every important issue of the 20th century. On the cinema side, he went to bat for Robert Redford (who was nowhere near the star 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 sort of harmony that would have given him more peace.
Newman saw himself as a person who was mostly lucky in life. Surely he was 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 most importantly, he chose the one person who could see him, warts and all, and accept him as he was while also pushing him to be better. “The art of luck,” he called it.
In the midportion of the series, you learn just how much Newman respected and loved Joanne. Driven, most likely by some sense of guilt, Newman used his own star power to reignite Woodward’s career with Rachel, Rachel (1968), the story of a woman facing down a mid-life crisis. Newman loved the script, thought it was perfect for Joanne, and when no one would direct it, decided he would helm it his own damn self. Woodward was like a newly discovered revelation in the film, earning her second of four Oscar nominations as leading 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 it’s beautiful.
Because Newman had the more fulsome career, The Last Movie Stars is weighted more to his side of the ledger than Joanne’s, but there can be no denying the anchoring force she was in his life. In her later years, Woodward turned to high-grade TV movies when her demand on film decreased. She found enormous success in that medium (as her nine Emmy nominations and two wins will attest), and like Newman, she paid her privilege forward by advocating for and mentoring others. Like Newman with Redford, Woodward fought for Sally Field to play the title character of Sybil in the groundbreaking 1976 TV film of the same name. It’s fair to wonder if Field would have escaped the shadow of The Flying Nun had Woodward not gone to bat for her.
It’s a fascinating series to take in. There is the very reasonable glorification of both of their astonishing careers, but the intimate look at Newman and Woodward as people is what stands out. They were almost unbearably hot for each other. One need only watch the sequence in 1975’s The Drowning Pool shown in The Last Movie Stars, where they have a steamy phone conversation to understand their affinity for each other. While watching that scene, I immediately thought it should come with a warning to have a cold glass of water nearby while viewing—you know, so you could douse yourself with it.
Of course, there are no small number of great moments in The Last Movie Stars for film geeks like myself to take in with a slack jaw. Such as Sydney Lumet telling Newman that he walked through Absence of Malice before shooting The Verdict, and then pulling out arguably Newman’s greatest performance from him. Or, Lumet filming Woodward in The Fugitive Kind with Marlon Brando and seeing that it’s as hard to take your eyes off of her as it is to look away from him.
These two people earned their legends, both intertwined and separate. What is most lovely about Hawke’s series is that we come away believing they were both more human than we knew while simultaneously being better than we already believed.
At one point in the series, Newman can be heard saying, “The movies became my church.” Through Ethan Hawke’s series, you aren’t just reminded of how significant these two are in the history of acting and performing, you are reminded that the theater is a temple, and a fine way to worship—especially when they were on screen.
The final shot of the series is from a scene in the largely forgotten film WUSA, that finds Newman and Woodward up their waists in a body of water, kissing as if there is not a camera for miles around. It’s so intimate that it’s like peering through a window, and you can’t help but wonder if maybe you shouldn’t be seeing 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 as if you should.
The Last Movie Stars can be seen now on HBOMAX.