At a Detroit Grand Prix held so many years ago that there were no smartphones to record the occasion and no Instagram on which to share a brush with an actual Hollywood god, I was lucky enough to interview Paul Newman in person.
What I remember most, aside from my extreme nervousness, were those eyes. Newman’s famous eyes were silvery-blue and could take your breath away. Today you might say they seemed photoshopped. Back then, they looked like a natural wonder of the world.
In the HBO Max’s “The Last Movie Stars,” Ethan Hawke, who directed the six-part docuseries, and his actor pals share their own fan worship of Newman, who lives on in classic films and yet may be better known to Gen Z for Newman’s Own salad dressing and other products that have fueled more than $500 million in donations to charities.
Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, were a legendary couple who were defined by many things, including his firm belief that she was the better actor. Yet his fame hasn’t persisted at the same level as his. It’s a shocking reminder for those over 50 that they’re old when actor Zoe Kazan says in the series’ second episode that she researched Woodward on Wiki and doesn’t think she has seen any of her performances. (Just wait, in 30 years or so, Kazan may be stunned when a younger colleague says the same thing about Glenn Close or Helen Mirren.)
So why devote more than six hours to an admiring, leisurely, almost obsessively detailed documentary about two celebrities from another era who did 16 films, three Broadway shows and numerous TV productions together? Because, in ways that will enlighten viewers and slightly break their hearts, “The Last Movie Stars” is a surprisingly honest look at two imperfect people who managed to achieve well-lived lives in spite of the chaos and pressure of fame. Underneath the glamour, they endured the same tragedies and ambitions, made the same mistakes and harbored the same fears and insecurities as everyone who pursues a better version of themselves.
The docuseries, which arrives Thursday on the streaming site, also doubles as a history of American popular culture from the 1950s through the 2000s, an era of great change in society at large and the film industry specifically. It was a time when the old system of molding and manipulating talent for a studio’s financial gain collapsed. Nowadays, the business model is creating franchises, not individual stars.
Through the decades, Newman and Woodward rubbed shoulders with a sweeping list of greats that included playwright Tennessee Williams, novelist Gore Vidal, acting teacher Lee Strasberg, dancer Martha Graham, James Dean, Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Sally Field, Harry Belafonte and many, many more. In a clip of the Beatles visiting America, one of them says he wants to meet that other idolized Paul.
But what stands out most about Hawke’s telling of their story — which he made after being contacted by their daughter, Clea, with the idea — is its unvarnished intimacy. As the first episode explains, Newman had been working on a memoir with his screenwriter friend Stewart Stern, that involved taping interviews with everyone from directors to his first wife. In the early 1990s, he apparently had a change of heart about the project and burned the tapes.
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The transcripts of the taped conversations, however, survived. To bring those words to life, Hawke enlisted an A-list cast — George Clooney (as Newman), Laura Linney (as Woodward), Karen Allen, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Sam Rockwell and others — to lend their voices to key passages. The audio portions are so well done that it’s often hard to tell which clips are the real Newman and Woodward talking and which are done by Clooney and Linney.
Using the transcripts, archival footage, scenes from their movies and new interviews with the likes of Martin Scorsese and the actors’ children, Hawke crafts a warts-and-all portrait that is complicated and often not so pretty. In 1953, Newman and Woodward were young actors on Broadway who fell passionately in love and lust with each other. Their lengthy affair and subsequent marriage inflicted deep pain on his first wife, who was left to care for three small children while her ex-husband and his next wife went off to achieve cinematic greatness.
Although Woodward was an instant hit, winning an Oscar in 1958 for “The Three Faces of Eve,” Newman had to settle for parts not taken by Dean and Brando. It was only when he played boxer Rocky Graziano in 1956’s “Somebody Up There Likes Me” that he scored his first big film break. The role originally was intended for Dean, who died in a car crash in 1955.
As Newman’s career soared and he became an international sex symbol, Woodward spent much of her time raising their three daughters. At one point, the documentary reveals her admitting that if she had to do it over again, she might not have kids. “Actors don’t make good parents,” she observes.
Still, Woodward by all accounts was a devoted mother and stepmom who eventually re-emerged with superb performances in films centered on women dealing with unfulfilled dreams and midlife issues. Newman, of course, became a global star in dramas like “Hud” and “Cool Hand Luke,” which cemented his antihero status, and later in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting,” which showcased his humor and innate charm. But he also took every opportunity to co-star with Woodward and directed her in films like 1968’s “Rachel, Rachel,” a sign of his admiration for her talent.
During those glory years, Newman drank so heavily that the general consensus is that he was a functioning alcoholic, according to the docuseries. He had a strained relationship with his son from his first marriage, Scott, who died at 28 of a drug overdose. In what probably was his finest performance, Newman likely tapped into his own experiences and feelings of guilt in “The Verdict” to play an alcoholic lawyer who makes one last bid at professional redemption.
Through the rough periods (and there were many more than outsiders would imagine), Newman and Woodward hung in there together, even when she moved with the kids to another house and he slept in the driveway. They maintained their own hobbies and interests, reached an understanding about their imperfections and chose to renew their vows at a time when such ceremonies weren’t yet trendy. As Woodward said, their relationship involved “my ego, his ego and our ego.” Eventually, their ego won out.
That sense of commitment extended beyond each other to political and social causes like civil rights and drug abuse prevention. Newman founded the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for children with serious illnesses and their families. Woodward mentored young actors. Newman’s political activism for Democratic candidates was so well-known that he was proud of earning the 19th spot on Richard Nixon’s notorious enemies list.
Ultimately, they focused on being artists instead of stars, choosing work that was challenging at every age. They got their start in theater and returned there later in life, most touchingly when Newman in his late 70s portrayed the narrator in “Our Town” on Broadway. The production got its start at the Westport Country Playhouse, where Woodward was artistic director.
Newman and Woodward were married for 50 years. He died of cancer in 2008. She is 92 now and has been living for more than a decade with Alzheimer’s disease. More than all of the the beautiful glossy photos and the luminous motion pictures that they left behind, their journey as human beings is what makes “The Last Movie Stars” so compelling to watch. As one of their daughters puts it in the final episode, they deserve more credit than the myth of happily ever after.
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘The Last Movie Stars’
Six one-hour episodes begin streaming Thursday on HBO Max