Long before the line “Who are these guys?” It became a gag in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the audience wondering the same about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Millions knew them, especially him, without knowing anything about the inner workings of their partnership. They were defined by the fifteen films they made together, many with Newman directing his wife, and they became the industry standard for relationship success. Other famous couples broke up. They remained attached. “But it wasn’t easy,” Woodward once told an interviewer. “I don’t think any relationship is correct.”
“The Last Movie Stars,” premiering July 21 on HBO Max, does a great job of revealing the other side of the facade, without the fawning or structured summaries of judgment. It’s six of the most irresistible hours of TV watching this year.
Here is the origin story. In the late 1980s, Newman began working on a memoir with screenwriter Stuart Stern. They recorded hundreds of hours of interviews with Newman and Woodward, their friends, co-workers, and family members. They talked to directors (Elijah Kazan, Sidney Lumet, Martin Rhett, George Roy Hill), famous actors and writers, non-famous people. A high school lover from Woodward’s, for example.
Newman grieved over the book project. One day, he lit a match and burned the tapes – but not before copying them onto paper. Once Ethan Hawke looked at the scripts, he knew he had a movie. He hired actors he knew to read some excerpts, into his character.
Early on and then throughout “The Last Movie Stars,” we see Hawke calls in Zoom, mid-pandemic, explaining his approach with Laura Linney (who voices Woodward’s stuff), George Clooney (Newman) and a deep seat from a troupe that includes Sally Field, Sam Rockwell, Oscar Isaac etc. There’s enough Hook talking about the project, while we’re watching the project, to prosecute a disaster. The director wants “The Last Movie Stars” to be a real-time account of his filmmaking process, as well as a job well done by Newman Woodward.
Inevitably there are moments when you think: Well, how about getting back to the topics at hand? But miraculously, the six parts come together and build in wonderful ways. The episodes are wide enough to accommodate everything Hawke has in mind (which includes his previous directorial work, “Seymour: Introduction”). More importantly, his fascination with two great puzzles, here – satisfactorily – made him less of a mystery.
Amplifying a treasure trove of audio scripts, “The Last Movie Stars” is drawn from a wealth of existing films and still shots of Newman Woodward, over the decades. (Woodward is still with us; Newman passed away in 2008.) At the massive training ground, studio cast, Newman, of Shaker Heights, Ohio, felt that hares like Marlon Brando, James Dean, Ben Gazzara, and Rip Torn completely outdid them. They were all “confidence and energy… without speech, without ‘acting’.”
Woodward, who hails from Thomasville, Georgia, was soon accepted into the ranks of the Actors Studio. Both were set in William Inge’s heart-wrenching drama The Picnic, which premiered on Broadway in 1953. Newman played country club Alan Millquitost, although he was eager to play Hal, eventually replacing Ralph Maker in the lead role .
Rehearsing for Hull, he would practice a sexy dance duet with fellow alternate, Woodward, on the wings during performances. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Newman’s wife and three children eventually found out what was happening years later. In the documentary, Newman’s daughter, Stephanie, said she was “disgusted” with her father. But, she adds, disgust “wasn’t the only feeling.”
Woodward married Newman in 1958, a few months before their on-screen pairing on “The Long Hot Summer”. This movie, which appeared before Newman co-starred with Elizabeth Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” cemented Newman’s blue eyes and sweaty torso in the eyes of a voracious audience. Woodward’s allure was not the same. Neither her collection nor her originality was unpolished. She knew who she was, and how to play who she wasn’t. Newman was more cautious in terms of temperament and talent. At one point, Clooney S. Newman admitted that he felt “like a bunch of old characters (I played), ‘strung together’ into a kind of human.”
For Newman, the unpleasant early comparisons to Brando and James Dean were hard to ignore. His luck, which he says began with “being born white in America in 1925”, continued when he got his big break in films as Rocky Graziano in “Somebody Up There Loves Me” (1956). He only got the role because Dean, originally, died in a car accident.
“His equipment was emotionally average,” director Martin Rhett said at one point in the documentary. or below average. But he worked hard and improved, and by the time of “The Hustler,” “Hud,” and “Cool Hand Luke,” Newman had become his own movie star.
Director Hawke addresses the possibility of Newman’s alcoholism (there is nothing “likely” about it, according to at least two of his children) and, even more strangely, an affair that coincided with Newman’s self-confessed low and heavier wine intake. It all comes out and through the themes in “The Last Movie Stars” as parts of a whole. Hockey editor, Barry Polterman, is a magician at interlaced clips from news strips. stills (at one point we see Newman in the back seat of a limousine with uncertified Roger Ebert); Screen magnifications and wisely chosen examples of Newman and Woodward’s screen careers, from early live television to “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” (1990).
For Newman, Woodward was the real actor in the family, not as fake or pretended as he was. She was a hit sooner than he did, winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for “The Three Faces of Eve” (1957). She then revived her career to raise her three children, as well as the three from Newman’s First Guild. Lenny (as Woodward) said at one point, “If I had to do it all over again, I might not have had children.”
The private correspondence between Paul and Joan highlights the calm and intimate quality of confession in marriage. “I miss you,” Woodward writes to Newman at one point. “I don’t know who you are. But I miss you anyway. I just hope you’re happy, and that you can say how you feel, not just what you think.” You don’t have to be Joanne Woodward or Paul Newman to get a feel of the emotional terrain of this scene. “The Last Movie Stars” is more than just a note. It’s a triumph of love for movies as well as a nuanced exploration of two completely different characters who had an imperfectly perfect meaning together.
“The Last Movie Stars” – 4 stars (out of 4)
Content Rating: TV-MA (language)
running time: Six episodes, about six hours
How to watch: All episodes premiere July 21 on HBO Max
Michael Phillips is a critic for the Tribune.
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