Until fairly late in the making of The Last Movie Stars — a six-hour in-depth look at the on-screen and off-screen lives of Hollywood golden couple Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward now streaming on HBO Max — director Ethan Hawke resisted the Imagining that he was doing a TV series.
“I don’t like episodes. I don’t like the nature of fake cliffhangers. My brain is allergic to it,” admits Hawke, who presented an hour of the project at the South by Southwest film festival in March and two more segments at the Cannes Film Festival in May. “When I started, I really wanted it to be short enough that you could see it in one go. I wanted to tie it into the size of ‘No Direction Home’ or something like that.”
But the more he dug, the bigger it got, expanding beyond the pair’s career accomplishments — including 14 Academy Award nominations between them, a best actor Oscar, a best actress Oscar, and four Emmys — to their philanthropy, their political activism and their unusually private (for such a high-profile couple) personal life. The final episode, which begins with the couple’s death and lasts just over 90 minutes, is like a movie in its own right.
“If I had to make a feature-length documentary about Paul and Joanne, this would be it,” says Hawke. Das said: “I didn’t want to make a film about her death. I wanted to make it her life.” So she buries the last chapter in the foreground and then works backwards through the most complex part of her life. (Hawke compares the endeavor to Doris Goodwin Kearn’s nearly 800-page FDR biography, No Ordinary Time.)
It all started with a phone call from the couple’s youngest daughter, Clea Newman. Years earlier, Rebel Without a Cause screenwriter Stewart Stern conducted a series of interviews with virtually every major party for a biography of her father. But at a certain point Paul had changed his mind and destroyed the tapes.
Fortunately, a stack of transcripts has survived, including candid insights from so many key figures in the couple’s lives, from former roommate Gore Vidal and director Elia Kazan (who auditioned for James Dean’s role in Out of Eden and gave him preference over Marlon Brando for “On the Waterfront”) to Newman’s first wife Jacqueline Witte.
“I knew enough to know what a huge undertaking it was going to be. And I really wanted to say no because I knew that if I said yes, it would take a few years of my life,” says Hawke. What he couldn’t know, however, was that another totally unforeseen force would be taking everyone’s lives, making the project an ideal distraction from the pandemic.
In any case, the more Hawke thought about it, the more impressed and intrigued he was by the couple, who met early in his career and left behind an incredible legacy as activists, parents, and top-notch movie stars — two of the last surviving members of the Lee Strasberg-educated generation that pushed acting into the modern age.
“We’re talking about two white people in America who were born with a lot and did a hell of a lot with it. They gave back and made meaningful substantive art for 50 years; They gave away hundreds of millions of dollars. They gave away a hell of a lot more money than they had,” says Hawke. “I was curious how I can maintain this level of excellence for 50 years. How does a person do that?”
Because Hawke had been approached by the couple’s children, he had their support to investigate all aspects of their parents’ history, including the damage caused by the divorce and the effects of Newman’s alcoholism. “They understand journalistic integrity and they understand art, so you have to have a point of view. Every time someone does something nonfiction, it’s not the truth; it’s the truth with a point of view,” says Hawke.
“They spent their lives listening to people exaggerate their father and felt like the world was belittling the most amazing person in their life, their mother. And if it were up to them, they’d have this whole thing filmed about their mother, but you can’t tell Joanne’s story without including Paul. Their lives were inextricably intertwined.”
To bring the transcripts to life, Hawke came up with the idea of hiring other actors to perform the interviews and other archival segments in her role: George Clooney agreed to play Paul, Laura Linney (who appeared at the side early in her career played by Woodward) Read Joanne’s Words, with more than a dozen others playing close friends and associates. He conducted the sessions on Zoom with no intention of including this footage in the film.
“We started using them just as placeholders,” he said. “I hate Zoom. If I never see Zoom again for the rest of my life, that’s too much. But then I realized that Zoom has a vérité quality that is very dynamic when juxtaposed with these Technicolor Hollywood films. It’s almost like we’re pulling back the curtain and looking backstage.”
Plus, it brought another key dimension to the film: one where actors could share their insights into the couple’s craft. In an early Zoom clip, Vincent D’Onofrio demonstrates method acting. A few episodes later, Sally Field recalls how Woodward was instrumental in getting her cast in the career-building miniseries Sybil.
In the end, “it hijacked my brain, and there were a lot of times I thought I was way over my head,” Hawke admits. But the six-episode format allowed him to delve deep into various aspects of her career that he felt were important — how Woodward was the bigger, more respected star when they married (he landed mammoth roles in films like The Three Faces of Eve and The Fugitive Kind”) and how Newman’s success eclipsed hers.
One of Woodward’s greatest regrets was an adaptation of William Inge’s play A Loss of Roses, which the studio reportedly reworked and renamed The Stripper.
“She says Darryl Zanuck ruined it. He has? Was it really that much better? I do not know. The cut doesn’t exist, so we don’t know,” says Hawke. “We know the play is a lot better and I can tell by watching it scene by scene that Joanne is great in the film. Warren Beatty originally played the role on Broadway. If they had caught him, maybe it would have been better taken care of. But it certainly became the perfect metaphor for our film.”
The Last Movie Stars positions the project as one that could have been their On the Waterfront. It could have made her a contender even more than she already was. Instead, Hawke explains, “You see Joanne being forcefully herded into an alley as soon as she has kids.” At the end of the second episode, he quotes Woodward as saying, “If I had to do it all over again, maybe I wouldn’t have kids to get. Actors don’t make good parents.”
They’re startling words, but less a denial of her life choices than a frank admission that Woodward didn’t understand what she was supposed to give up, Hawke explains. “We don’t like to hear that, but that’s one of the difficult things that comes with the female experience, which is that they’re not allowed to have nuanced feelings about parenting,” he says. “Paul didn’t have to give up his career when he became a father.”
That’s one of the reasons Newman became a director, The Last Movie Stars explains: He decided to direct Rachel, Rachel so Woodward could play the lead, knowing the project would showcase her incredible range. They have made a total of 15 films together.
“You know, something I couldn’t include that I found really interesting is that, even though she said that [about being a parent]At the end of her life he really regretted missing the time with the kids and she has no regrets.”
https://variety.com/2022/tv/news/ethan-hawke-explains-why-his-paul-newman-joanne-woodward-doc-became-a-six-hour-affair-1235322374/ Ethan Hawke on why The Last Movie Stars became a six-hour affair