You might have to love Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s movies almost as much as they loved each other to get through the six-part HBO Max series The Last Movie Stars.
The controversial title of a CNN Films co-produced project directed by Ethan Hawke and executive producer Martin Scorsese comes from a line about her good friend Gore Vidal’s married Hollywood film legends.
“I think people will think of them as the last movie stars,” says Vidal in the first episode.
I only wish my late dad Joe could have watched the entertaining six hours with me. His favorite phrase when talking about iconic movie stars was “there’s only one, just like there’s only one Clark Gable, one Spencer Tracy, one Katharine Hepburn, one Paul Newman, one Joanne Woodward”.
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At the start of the documentary, which will air July 21, Hawke recalled skipping church with his father as a young boy to see the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Newman and Robert Redford.
“From that day on, cinema was my church of choice,” Hawke said.
The creative project started in the early days of Covid, which is why Zoom plays a big part in it. Hawke explains that one of Newman’s daughters asked him to make the documentary about the couple who met when they were young actors as understudy on Picnic and Paul was married to his first wife Jackie.
Hawke knew of taped interviews screenwriter Stewart Stern (“Rebel Without a Cause”) had conducted with actors, writers, directors, friends and relatives who knew and worked with the couple. (Newman died in 2008; Woodward is alive and diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.)
Unfortunately, Newman soured the project and burned the tapes.
Luckily, Stern kept the transcripts of the interviews.
The result is an all-star cast of today’s actors reading the words of many of those interviewed, augmented with interviews Newman and Woodward have conducted throughout their 50-year careers.
George Clooney is the voice of Newman and Laura Linney is the voice of Woodward. The cast includes stage actor Brooks Ashmanskas as the voice of Vidal and Zoe Kazan as the voice of Newman’s first wife, Jackie. Several other high-profile actors were involved and read the dialogue from their homes.
The joy and pride of the actors involved in the project can be felt throughout.
Newman’s self-deprecating sense of humor comes through, sometimes in words as blue as his famous eyes.
“On the one hand, my looks were a nuisance,” he says dryly. “On the other hand, where the hell would I have been if I looked like Golda Meir.”
He also joked that he didn’t want his headstone to say, “He died a miscarriage after his eyes turned brown.”
His love for Woodward is evident, as is his sense of humor. In interviews he said: “I just enjoy her” and “I’m a creature of her invention”.
I’m sure my Jewish father would have enjoyed hearing Newman speak of his pride in being half-Jewish in episode three, which opens with excerpts from Exodus.
“The only thing my mother liked about me as a movie star was how much it impressed the Jewish half of my family,” Newman said. “She was always intimidated by them. I am half Protestant, half Jew. But I’ve always seen myself as a Jew because it’s harder.”
My father was perhaps a little disappointed to learn that Newman was a working alcoholic and used this destructive habit to understand the characters he played in many of his classic films.
The series is part homage and part psychoanalysis, noting that Newman played many characters dealing with shame.
Another highlight are the excerpts from classic films in which Newman and Woodward starred individually or together. These include Hud, Cool Hand Luke, The Hustler, The Color of Money, Rachel, Rachel, The Sting, Three Faces of Eve, The Long Hot Summer, and you Film finale together, “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.”
The documentary lets you look at some of Newman’s films differently, most notably the 1977 minor league hockey film Slap Shot.
While the documentary is overwhelmingly loving, it doesn’t ignore the tough times in the couple’s lives, including the impact of Newman’s divorce from his first wife on their three children, particularly his only son Scott, who died of a drug overdose.
Paul tried unsuccessfully to find a way to reach Scott while acknowledging that living up to his name wasn’t easy. “I don’t think I want to be my own son,” Newman told director Sydney Pollack.
There are some other candid moments, including the jealousy each had for each other’s careers and Woodward wondering how her career would have been different if she hadn’t taken so much time raising six children, including three stepchildren.
In an interview with Phil Donahue, Woodward openly admits, “The truth is, I felt a tremendous rivalry with Paul.”
“If I had to do it all over again, I might not have had kids,” Woodward said in another interview. “Actors don’t make good parents.”
Initially, Woodward had a more successful career than Newman before what became known as “Newman’s Luck” propelled his career forward. He was cast in Our Town because James Dean was unavailable in Rebel Without a Cause and was cast in Somebody Up There Likes Me after Dean’s tragic death.
His daughters are open about the difficulties in the so-called perfect Hollywood marriage.
There are many home videos and black-and-white clips from the Actor’s Studio starring Marlon Brando, Dean, and other well-known stars, acting coaches, and directors.
The reasons Newman eventually became political, including supporting anti-war presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy in 1968, are explored. He was particularly proud of being number 19 on President Nixon’s list of enemies.
Newman’s philanthropy, which has raised more than $500 million for charity through his popcorn, sauces, salad dressing, soda pop, Fig Newmans and other grocery items, is celebrated in the sweet final episode.
Linney and Allison Janney celebrate Woodward who, after winning numerous acting awards, became an acting coach and played a pivotal role in their career.
Newman, who viewed his acting career as “a series of accidents” and struggled with his confidence, didn’t win many awards and was often passed over after several Oscar nominations. When he finally won on The Color of Money, he did the movie star thing. He didn’t show up.
His co-star on Money was Tom Cruise, who some people believe deserves to be called a movie star following his recent hit Top Gun: Maverick.
I have some minor reservations about the project, which was originally scheduled to premiere on CNN Plus before it collapsed. Initially I thought it could have been done in three episodes. But at some point I didn’t want it to end.
It also made me wish I’d re-watched all of the Newman and Woodward films during the pandemic. There could be far worse ways to spend the remainder of a potentially long, hot summer.