They were two actors, who happened to briefly meet in the New York office of their mutual manager; the beautiful blonde from Georgia said she initially “hated him,” what with this blue-eyed Greek god looking so damned gorgeous in his seersucker suit. But let’s not kid anybody — it was lust at first sight. When the two of them were cast as understudies in the original Broadway production of William Inge’s Picnic, they’d watch the play together in the wings. During a scene in which the lead characters would seductively dance with each other onstage, they would be doing their own sultry tango behind the every night, until he eventually leveled curtain up to a spot in the cast. The spark had been lit, however, and even though the handsome young man was already a tied-down family man, they carried on a hot-and-heavy affair for almost six years.
In 1958, after his divorce was finalized, they married. This new husband and wife would raise six kids (including three from his previous union), win countless awards, campaign for Civil Rights and presidential candidates, launch a food line, give millions of interviews and give away millions of dollars. She liked to knit. He liked to race cars and happened to be one of the most famous people alive. They made 16 films together. They also harbored respective resentments over the other’s critical praise and careers, dealt with unflattering gossip, drank too much too often and fought a lot. Not even Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, the first couple of Hollywood, were immune to the drudgery and petty squabbles that follow when you say “I do” and try to keep the doing part going for better or worse, in sickness and in health, for five decades.
The Last Movie Stars is, above all else, a love story about two people who represent the twin gold standards of their profession — what director Ethan Hawke refers to as “first-ballot hall-of-famers who also happen to be married [to each other].” And for a certain type of viewer, the kind who studies the TCM schedule every month like it was the Torah and argues about the careers of Jean Arthur versus Jean Simmons on Twitter [sheepishly raises hand], this kind of walk down a memory lane located at the corner of Old Hollywood and Vine is pure, uncut catnip. Both Newman and Woodward’s tenure on the silver screen intersects with stations so many eras and way of 20th-century cultural history: the Actor’s Studio generation, the Method-mad 1950s, the rise of TV, the theatrical revolution happening on Broadway, the socially conscious Sixties, the anything-goes New Hollywood Seventies. Not to mention socially accepted ideas about gender, political activism, fame, and sex-symbol facial hair. (You can take the zeitgeist’s temperature in the archival footage by the shagginess factor of Newman’s beard.)
But this six-episode docuseries (it begins streaming on HBO Max on July 21st) also doubles as a portrait of the agony and ecstasy of matrimony — an affectionate yet psychologically fraught, zero-prisoners-taken look at a union that had been lionized as a fairy-tale come true and was anything but. Hawke could have called this Scenes From a Celebrity Marriage and it would still have been 100-percent accurate. During one of his many onscreen Zoom interviews (more on that in a second), Ethan mentions that, having been asked by one of the couple’s children to make this doc, he’s unsure how to make it work. His daughter, Maya Hawke, reminds him of some paternal advice he once gave her: Every relationship is made up of two partners and a third party, ie the relationship itself. What the filmmaker has now done is put that particular third party under the microscope. It’s a picture-perfect look at a highly imperfect show-biz-royalty relationship, one which brimmed with love and anger, just as messy and mistake-filled and made on the fly as our own. They may have been sold as the anti-Liz Taylor and Dick Burton. The reality, however, was a lot more complicated.
It’s that tightrope-strut between burning the Dream Factory mythology behind the Newman/Woodward duo — it’s called The Last Movie Stars, and makes a strong case for the title; trust us, you’ll want to binge on both of their filmographies before this docuseries is done — and peeling it back that makes this such a great watch for non-film nerds as well. That, and the ingenious work-around that its creator has constructed to make this story come alive. Once he came on to the project, Hawke found out that Newman had begun working on an autobiography in the late Eighties with his friend, the screenwriter Stewart Stern. Dozens upon dozens of interviews with the couple’s friends, family, colleagues, directors and, naturally, Newman and Woodward themselves, were recorded. Then, impulsively, Newman asked Stewart to stop the project. One day, on his way to a fishing trip with one of his daughters, he stopped by a dump and burned all of the tapes. What few survived, Hawke found out, were unplayable. All was lost.
Except Stern had managed to have all of these tapes transcribed before Newman went pyromaniacal on them, and Hawke managed to get his hands on the hundreds upon hundreds of pages of interviews with famous, non-famous and infamous folks waxing about Paul, Joanne and their work. So he enlists a who’s who of people from his Rolodex and asks them to read these transcripts as a form of both narration and living theater. George Clooney is recruited to voice Newman. Laura Linney signs up for Woodward. Vince D’Onofrio takes on John Huston, theater veteran Brooks Ashmanskas does an uncanny impersonation of Gore Vidal, and Zoe Kazan lends a sense of pathos to the testimony of Paul’s first wife, Jackie Witte. Everyone from Karen Allen to Oscar Isaac, Sam Rockwell to LaTanya Jackson joins in on the fun. “A play of voices,” is how Hawke describes the end goal. “A community looking back.” It sounds pretentious as hell on paper. It works like gangbusters onscreen.
So yes, you do get a sort of once-in-a-lifetime, all-star recounting of the Saga of Newman and Woodward, from their illicit supernova beginnings to their autumn years as doting grandparents, right up to Newman passing away from cancer in 2008. You get an impeccable film history lesson, centered around two of the brightest talents to come out of American movies. You get a genuine sense of who these two people were, to each other and to their family (most of whom gave new interviews to Hawke), to their industry and to the world. And while Hawke, no stranger to performing nor to celebrity unions given the unflattering autopsy treatmentknows when to be sensitive to the fact that these married stars were also human beings, he’s also got a keen sense of when not to print the legend. Almost half an episode is devoted to Newman’s drinking problem, which caused numerous problems for his marriage and his kids. Their arguments and resentments — over his fame, over her having to put an ascending career on hold for domestic reasons — are analyzed as much as their joint film projects.
And because of his willingness to look at all of it, the good and the bad and as much of the truth of it all he can track down, Hawke’s efforts pay off in a spectacular fashion. The Last Movie Stars is a valentine to the collective illusion, those tricks of the light played by shadows on a wall, we still cling to known as “the movies” and those who become larger than life because of them, certainly. It also respects and admires them enough not stop there, and try to let the world know that it wasn’t all happiness and photo spreads of familial bliss. It got ugly. But they loved each other, and they stayed together even when the odds suggested they call it quits like so many celebrity couples before them. They loved each other, even when they hated each other, for 50 years. Roll credits. How heartbreakingly romantic is that?