Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman were movie stars – The Last Movie Stars, if you agree with the title to director, Ethan Hawke’s, new docu-series about their lives. Hawke got the title from a quote by the couple’s friend, Gore Vidal. Despite their fame, Woodward and Newman often came across as down to earth and The Last Movie Stars stays true to that lack of pretension. Filmed over Zoom during the pandemic, it can feel quite casual, visually (which probably has to do with how customary Zoom interviews have become since the pandemic began). Rather than try to mask these filming challenges, Hawke uses them to show that celebrities are people, too (and sometimes they have bad internet connections).
Photograph by Courtesy of HBO Max
The Last Movie Stars is a six-episode series that primarily uses transcripts from a memoir Newman had been working on with his friend, Stuart Stern. Stern (who also wrote the screenplay to Rebel Without A Cause) conducted interviews with Newman’s friends and colleagues, but when Newman changed his mind about the project he also burned the recordings to the interviews a few years later. For that reason, Hawke’s docu-series casts different actors to play the interview subjects – or more specifically voice them since the actors usually aren’t on screen while their in-character. This makes it easier to forget that that it’s not Paul Newman who’s speaking, but George Clooney as Paul Newman, and so on and so forth.
Clooney’s casting seems especially on point, since he has the star power to match Newman’s. Laura Linney voices Woodward, Sally Field voices herself, but Robert Redford is voiced by Alessandro Nivola. While Nivola does a fine job, Redford’s absence is felt.
While the voice actors aren’t visible, Hawke instead shows clips from Woodward and Newman’s movies while they’re talking. In doing so Hawke makes connections between the roles they played and what was going on in their personal lives. Sometimes this feels presumptuous. Who knows what they were drawing on for those performances, but it is effective (especially the clips from Winning that play during a section about Newman’s relationship with his son, Scott).
The series’ focus on the transcripts does have a downside. While presumably other co-stars, like Richard Thomas (who played Newman’s son in Winning) weren’t involved in the original interviews, it would’ve been great to hear from them now (though it’s also possible Hawke did reach out and they declined). Newman and Woodward’s children provide new interviews (it was one of their children who approached Hawke and his wife – producer, Robin Hawke – about doing this project). There’s a reason their interviews stand out. For one thing, they’re able to provide a different perspective on their parents, but it’s also great to hear what they have to say now, versus how they might have felt years ago.
Newman and Woodward were married for fifty years and worked together multiple times, but that doesn’t mean everything was always rosy. Newman was married when they met and episodes four and five deal with Newman’s alcoholism.
Highlights of the documentary include the space given to Newman’s first wife, Jackie (voiced by Zoe Kazan) as well as the ability to dive deeper into Newman and Woodward’s filmography than their greatest hits. Episode six begins with Newman’s death but then changes course to look at Newman’s philanthropy, as well as Woodward’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis (Woodward’s mother also had Alzheimer’s and in 1985 Woodward starred in a TV movie about the disease called Do You Remember Love).
While the docu-series tries to be about Newman and Woodward, it’s not evenly split, and Woodward definitely pulls the short straw (with episode two being the most Woodward heavy). While the transcripts are the new material, they were meant to be used for a memoir on Newman, not a book about the couple, and while Newman kept working after having children (both with his first wife and with Woodward), Woodward’s career took a hit (though she did keep acting and was always a massive talent). While it would’ve been nice if even more time was spent on Woodward’s TV movies and theater work, fans of either star will want to see this series.
The Last Movie Stars starts streaming July 21st on HBO Max. I’ve seen all six episodes.
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