‘The Last Movie Stars,’ an intimate look at an old-school Hollywood power couple
The Last Movie Stars, a six-part docuseries streaming on HBO Max, examines Hollywood golden couple Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman as multi-faceted, flawed people and contemplates their cultural impact and legacy.
Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman became Hollywood legends as much for their long-lasting marriage as for their impressive bodies of work. In a new documentary series actor/director Ethan Hawke presents an intimate look at their fifty-year relationship and how, together, they made their stamp on cinematic history.
The real meat of this documentary comes from transcripts of interviews with the couple’s family, friends, and colleagues for a planned Newman biography. After deciding to abandon the project, Newman himself destroyed the actual recordings. However, the transcripts survived. Many of Hawke’s famous friends, including George Clooney as Newman and Laura Linney as Woodward, voiced them. Hawke uses well-curated clips from the couple’s films to illustrate the events from their private lives.
There seems to be a recent spate of documentaries about well-liked public figures that basically amount to “he was a real nice guy, wasn’t he?” And while everyone who knew Woodward and Newman seem to agree that they were fundamentally good people, the series does not balk at showing the less flattering aspects of their lives including the messy way they got together, Newman’s alcoholism, and Woodward’s complicated feelings about motherhood.
The interjection of footage from Hawke’s Zoom interviews with the Newman family, as well as conversations with other actors, creates the odd sense that he made this documentary because he got bored during COVID lockdown. But despite Hawke’s near constant presence, the series just manages to avoid feeling self-indulgent. You feel Hawke’s enthusiasm and empathy toward his subjects.
As an actress, the public still probably best knows Woodward for her Oscar-winning performance in 1957’s The Three Faces of Eve, which was only her third film. By 1958, she was Mrs. Paul Newman and as his star rose throughout the sixties, she found fewer film opportunities. From the late 60s on, most of Woodward’s films either starred Newman or were directed by Newman. However, her reputation as an artist never waned and during the heyday of the TV movie in the 70s and 80s, she earned an armload of Emmy awards. She also appeared on stage and mentored younger actors, including Allison Janney and Laura Linney. It is to the series’ credit that Woodward’s perspective gets roughly equal screen time to Newman’s. Her candid expressions of regret about losing career momentum due to motherhood are still painfully relevant sixty years later.
The series gives Newman’s legacy as a leading man greater context through explorations of his private character. While illustrating how his relationship with Woodward was essential to his ultimate happiness and success, the series offers a blunt portrait of Newman’s alcoholism, fueled by guilt and shame regarding his first failed marriage and shortcomings as a father. Episode five delves into the fraught relationship between Newman and his son Scott, who tragically died of a drug overdose at age 28. Newman excelled at portraying characters who were emotionally closed-off, with anger boiling just under the surface, perhaps because those traits were present in his actual persona.
At over six hours, the series is a lot to digest for a casual film fan. Classic movie buffs will likely eat it up if only for the numerous film clips and behind the scenes tidbits. However, one hopes that a new generation of viewers – those that may only recognize Newman as a face on salad dressing or the voice of a Car, and may not know Woodward at all – can discover and appreciate the films these two made.
And it just so happens that HBO Max is currently streaming a handful of Newman and Woodward films. Check these out (while you still can):
The Long, Hot Summer (1958) – Newman is a sweaty drifter in a tank top; Woodward is a prim Southern heiress. Is this odd couple a perfect match? Her desperate-for-grandkids father thinks so! Though based on several works by William Faulkner, the characterization and melodramatic tone of this film feels more like watered-down Tennessee Williams. Released the same year as the two stars married in real life, this film highlights their undeniable chemistry.
Harper (1966) -In this wryly funny neo-noir, Newman plays a private eye investigating a millionaire’s disappearance in the seedy corners of Los Angeles. Following up on the success of The Hustler and Hud, this film cemented Newman as an icon of sixties cool.
Empire Falls (2005) – This critically-acclaimed HBO miniseries about the interconnected residents of a New England town features Woodward as the town matriarch and Newman as the town rascal. It was the final on-screen role for both actors before Newman’s death in 2008 and Woodward’s retirement.