The Last Movie Stars

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Ethan Hawke’s six-part documentary series on Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward The Last Movie Stars (2022) is framed around the transcripts that screenwriter Stewart Stern made of interviews he conducted for Paul Newman’s memoir. Though these interviews are rooted some thirty or forty years in the past, Hawke’s focus as a director is on how the marriage of Newman and Woodward is perceived in the relative now. One of the strangest aspects of The Last Movie Stars isn’t that Hawke casts his movie star pals to voice bygone movie stars and artists, but that so few of the major players in the lives of Woodward and Newman’s acting careers who are still living were interviewed.

This has a peculiar effect on the series. Because Hawke interviewed the surviving children and grandchildren of Newman and Woodward but not people like Robert Redford and Allison Janney, the careers of Woodward and Newman feel trapped in the past while their private family life is made to feel more immediate. Yet Hawke focuses primarily on their careers as actors, directors and producers. Even when Hawke airs their dirty laundry he couples the audio from a contemporary interview with footage taken from one of Newman and/or Woodward’s films.

One could argue that Hawke is demonstrating the intersection between Newman and Woodward’s life as a couple and their work as actors but it has deeper ramifications given this context. Hawke is so persistent in finding ways to link the images of fiction (acting performances in films) with the subjective truths of interviews with the Newman-Woodward family that he essentially dismantles all sense of performance for the viewer. The result is that both the characters that Newman and Woodward play and the people they truly and privately were become more inaccessible than ever. The mysteries of performance engulf reality and fiction equally.

Where the mystery of Newman and Woodward exists in time is unclear. Hawke seems disinterested in providing a historical backdrop for the narrative of the film as much as possible. Hawke briefly touches on the political activities of Newman and Woodward in the sixties and early seventies but he never once attempts to place their collective oeuvre in the context of film history. In The Last Movie Stars the careers of Newman and Woodward seem to exist in a kind of void. The currents and trends of American cinema that helped shape their careers into the 2000s are never treated as relevant, remaining suspiciously absent from Hawke’s portrait.

This complex of past and present, fiction and reality, Newman and Woodward is only ever disrupted when Hawke puts himself in the film. By that I mean those instances when, seemingly caught up in enthusiasm for a performance by either Woodward or Newman, Hawke and one of his chums begins to gush hyperbolically about his subjects. Perhaps Hawke is attempting to, via his own boyish excitement, stress the gravitas of a moment or to reveal something about his relationship to these larger than life figures. Whatever the motivating factor may be it is in these moments that the rhythm of the piece and its austere tone is punctured, prompting the viewer to reel back from the experience.

The Last Movie Stars is, as a whole, a very warm and compassionate portrait of a marriage and two amazing careers. The reviews of The Last Movie Stars I read by entertainment critics were disturbing only because it seems that critics didn’t know very much about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In terms of revelations about their lives Hawke’s film offers us nothing new really other than insights into their own thoughts. But it’s virtually impossible not to have known about Newman’s alcoholism if you’re at all invested in film history or physical media. Almost every anecdote involving Newman on set has some mention of a case of beer or a bottle of whiskey. Maybe our culture is amnesiac enough that biographical documentaries which reiterate well known facts will feel fresh and revelatory every twenty years.

On the whole what makes The Last Movie Stars so captivating is the charm of its subjects. Even now the screen presences of Newman and Woodward have the capacity to capture the hearts of an audience. Compared to stars today Newman and Woodward just blow them out of the water in terms of charisma and wit. The Last Movie Stars is as much a portrait of a marriage as it is a piece of nostalgia for those final remnants of the classic Hollywood age.