‘The Last Movie Stars’ review: Ethan Hawke’s behind the scenes of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s personal and professional lives is gracefully, passionately archived [A-]￼
Since the beginning of Hollywood’s existence, audiences across the world have fallen under the spell of movie stars. From watching their films to reading about their lives in news articles and gossip magazines to even fantasizing about a life with their favorite male or female star, we are a celebrity-obsessed culture. For the stars, it is a different experience, one where they juggle many mental and physical hats both professionally and within their private’s lives. Most lay out a positive image or persona at the beginning of their career, something to distract the world from the harsh realities we must face, and thus we see all smiles and laughter from people who we truly know little about. Within this persona lies the subjects of The Last Movie Stars, the legendary acting couple Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who starred in over a dozen films, as well as stage plays and television mini-series together. Known throughout their community as the shining example of what not only what a famous relationship should look like, but what hard work within acting can provide two people who became the best of their generation.
In his new six-hour documentary series, actor-director Ethan Hawke takes an honest, emotional look at the lives of Newman and Woodward, cutting back all the fluff, and showing two imperfect souls managing to build two special lives. Each episode is built on the back of their own words, as well as the stories and reflections of their closest friends and family, and the body of work they did together and separately that made them giants in the film, stage, political, and humanitarian world. Using hundreds of transcripts Newman collected from interviews of a memoir he was going to write but scrapped due to his own insecurities, Hawke enlists fellow actors Billy Crudup, Sam Rockwell, Sally Field, Oscar Isaac, Ewan McGregor, Vincent D’Onofrio, Josh Hamilton, Melanie Griffith, Zoe Kazan, Steve Zahn and more, via Zoom as things were opening back up after the COVID-19 pandemic, to play fellow actors, directors, friends, and family members that did interviews with Newman for his book. George Clooney and Laura Linney were tasked with bringing the iconic couple to the piece, as well as Hawke interviews with modern directors Martin Scorsese, Richard Linklater, and Paul Schrader, in which they bring their film historical perspective to this enormous undertaking. The decision to do this type of storytelling within the documentary is downright brilliant and perfectly bridges the present into the past.
In 1953, in a Broadway production of Picnic, Newman and Woodward met for the first time and fell madly in love with each other. Woodward, an up-and-coming actress on the stage, was the understudy for the play, while Newman was making his Broadway debut. As time went by, the two started to see one another, not being able to stay away from each other. It was clear to everyone that they have an instant connection, and while this new fling turned into something special, Newman was already a married man to actress Jackie Witte. Their marriage ended after nine years of slowly fading away from one another, leading Paul into the arms of Joanne. With this covered in the first episode of the series, Hawke gets shocked reactions from his collective voice cast and interview subjects that didn’t even know Newman had a first wife, to honest, candid moments of deep emotions from Newman’s children, and what they feel about this moment in their parents lives that changed their family forever.
After being exclusive with each other for a while, the young Hollywood couple got married and started a family. At this time, just five years after meeting, Joanne has become a sensation on both screen and stage, winning the Oscar in The Three Face of Eve, wildly considered one of the best Oscar wins within the category of Best Actress in the Academy’s long history of great performances. She was on top of the world, while Paul was still trying to figure out his place in business, doing small roles, working on his craft. Come to learn throughout the show’s runtime, to many in the industry, Paul wasn’t the most naturally gifted actor of his generation, but he put in the most time of anyone and did things he knew could excel at. In doing this, his life changed with his role in the 1963 film Hud, and from that moment, he became the superstar actor we’ve all known him to be. It is at this point too that Newman and Woodard started to have a family, with kids of their own, while also integrating Newman’s other children from his first marriage into their home. It was at this moment where Joanne shifted away from her stardom to take care of everyone at home, while Paul became Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy, as well as a race car driver, and many other things in between. Within this sacrifice by Woodward, she built other long-lasting ways to grow her legacy that reached as many people in the film and theater business as the audiences watching Newman on the big screen.
Sliced into this series are so many highs and lows for the two icons, not just within their careers, but within their marriage and personal struggles. From Joanne accepting her place as an actress within Hollywood and not having a “look” that would get her the roles that her contemporaries were getting, to Paul’s alcohol addiction towards the middle of his career getting worse, to losing a child to drug addiction, to even coming to terms with their mortality. In doing this, Hawke shows the tough, honest beauty inside a human when they are at the most trying, difficult moments of their lives. It was all smiles for them in front of the cameras, yet behind the scenes, there was betrayal, anger, jealousy, and even the notion of quitting on each other. But they did because it all comes back around to one constant thing, their love. While as hokey as it seems, we learn that these two could leave each other because they needed each other to survive and were the best versions of themselves when they had their partner by their side.
Hawke, a famous actor, director, and writer within his own generation who was once in a famous marriage and is raising kids within the entertainment business, uses these six hours to not reflect on what Paul and Joanne meant to him and the other artist he is interviewing as actors, but rather as parents and individuals that are looking to use the responsibility of being a star and giving people joy and lasting memories without asking for anything in return. As Paul and Joanne got old, they remained as close as when they first met on stage but spent most of the time creating charities that would last long after they are gone. For them, it was about using their voices for good and hoping the next generation would pick up the mantle and leave their selfishness and ego at the door to help others that need them. It’s inspirational without becoming preachy, and Hawke delicately sticks the landing of this endeavor, proving he was the right person to tell Newman and Woodward’s romantic, touching love story. It is the best thing he has directed in his career and ranks up there as one of the best documentary series in recent memory.
The Last Movie Stars is an elegant, poignant look at how two legends built a lasting legacy while living an imperfect, challenging life with the person they love the most.
The 6-part docuseries The Last Movie Stars begins streaming July 21 on HBO Max.