The Last Movie Stars Review: Ethan Hawke Directs Newman/Woodward Doc

In the midst of “The Last Movie Stars” — a six-episode HBO Max documentary series directed by Ethan Hawke — Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward appear on the cover of a 1980 issue of McCall’s Magazine. The caption reads his name first, then hers, then a reference to “their very private marriage.”

This may come as a surprise, although the order of the names and Newman’s face forcing Woodwards into the bottom half of the cover make perfect sense. With films like “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Hustler” in canon, and Newman’s face smiling benevolently across every American salad dressing aisle, the scope of his fame meant the world considered the accomplished Woodward his wife before she became an artist. But “private”? For real? The couple’s marriage was widely discussed and covered by the press; They worked together frequently, appearing as Proto-Tom and Rita, the vision of a Hollywood-style successful marriage.

Hawke has no access to his issues: Newman died in 2008, and Woodward has lived with Alzheimer’s disease for many years. But he finds a way forward. In “The Last Movie Stars,” titled after author Gore Vidal’s description of the Oscar winners, Hawke first builds the case that Newman and Woodward used art to explore their relationship. Even more poignantly, Hawke conveys the shared but unequal sacrifice both spouses made so that their longtime partnership could be a greater unit than either could be on their own. The headline makes sense in the end: The couple lived in the public eye but had unfathomable inner perspectives that Hawke’s series is only now bringing to light.

Newman, who struggled with drinking and considered himself and Woodward “a pair of orphans” since they first met, used a planned memoir to better understand himself; For reasons perhaps even unclear to him, he eventually burned the tapes, although some transcripts survive. Hawke, a family outsider, recruits notable friends to comment and comment on these transcripts, providing an intimate glimpse into the stars’ thinking. Here George Clooney plays Paul, with Laura Linney as Joanne.

There’s a shagginess that warms and distracts; Hawke’s early COVID vibes meeting friends on Zoom can feel as harrowing as pictures of young Newman and Woodward are nostalgic. But that homeliness eventually suits two stars whose rural Connecticut lives and imagery were rooted in mock authenticity. And Hawke’s eloquence — at one point he confessed to his daughter (and ‘Stranger Things’ actress) Maya that he’s figuring out what the project is about while he’s doing it — is an intriguing match with a couple who share their most personal thoughts recorded on top of each other.

These thoughts can be searing: Linney, as Joanne, reflects on how she spent Christmas Eve alone preparing presents after her husband, known to the public as a devoted family man, got drunk. Or they can be tormented, as we see in Clooney’s Paul after the death of son Scott Newman from drug abuse. Various Newman children offer loving but candid assessments of their parents, with one daughter from Newman’s failed first marriage saying, “I can be disgusted with my father when I think of my mother.” (Woodward tells us that all of their children to be loved, but that she might not choose to sacrifice her artistic self to parenthood if she could live again—a tough, complicated thought.)

What is most clearly expressed here, however, is not resentment, but a desire to think things through, a feeling that marriage, when fully realized, is a process of understanding oneself better through someone else’s eyes. That Newman and Woodward often did this on screen is a bonus. Hawke and editor Barry Poltermann skillfully arrange footage, liberally overlaying the work of both partners. Newman refers to personal demons in “The Verdict” and Woodward in “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge”, forged triumphs out of grief at the end of his career.

Newman is a star for life, and the real pain we learn he felt and caused adds shade and dimension to our understanding of him. For many, however, Woodward will be a blur, and it’s her story that will break viewers’ hearts. Deep in the couple’s public life, Woodward accepts an acting award presented to her by her husband; The event has found a way to divert the limelight away from her even in her triumph. “It’s not easy being the husband of a famous movie star,” Newman quips to the cheers of the crowd; By reversing the expectation that Woodward is a star’s plus one, the joke carries a real sting.

Hawke is an intriguing choice for this project: for one, his own movie-star marriage to Uma Thurman ended in divorce, lending wistful observations about a certain type of creative support. (He’s remarried, and his wife, Ryan Hawke, acts in front of the camera and is credited with producing.) Moreover, Hawke’s image is that of a steady student earnestly devoted to honing his craft, in stark contrast to Newman’s aloof charm.

However, something special emerges from this: Hawke seems confused about what it took to make fame and marriage look so easy, even as both partners were paddling madly beneath the surface. This documentary series might fail to convince you that its subjects were recent movie stars; Their mastery of showing what they wanted to show the world feels totally timely. But they’re unusually gifted – after spending six hours in their company, you’ll leave The Last Movie Stars wanting more.

All episodes of The Last Movie Stars will premiere Thursday, July 21 on HBO Max. The Last Movie Stars Review: Ethan Hawke Directs Newman/Woodward Doc

Charles Jones

Charles Jones is a 24ssports U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Charles Jones joined 24ssports in 2021 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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