HBO Max: “The Last Movie Stars” directed by Ethan Hawke
In the early 1950’s, two young understudies for the leads in “Picnic” met in New York City and fell in love. The romance had complications from the get-go: the man was already married, with three small kids. But as they say, love will find a way, and eventually they wed. Thus the legendary marriage-cum-working relationship-cum-acting dynasty of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward began.
There had been previous show-biz couples (e.g., Lunt-Fontaine, Olivier-Leigh) but nobody as cool and approachable as N&W. For the next 35 years they proceeded to make some of the most memorable (and most forgettable) movies the world had ever seen.
Woodward started out of the gate fast, winning a Best Actress Oscar in 1957 for “The Three Faces of Eve.” Newman initially couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood; it was suggested by Gore Vidal that James Dean’s untimely death propelled Newman’s career forward.
All this is covered in a splendid six-part documentary series, “The Last Movie Stars” directed by Ethan Hawke and currently showing on HBO Max. Hawke as show runner has assembled a dazzling array of contemporary film stars and directors via Zoom to voice-over largely undiscovered transcripts of N&W interviews over the years. Delightful to hear George Clooney as Newman, Laura Linney as Woodward, as well as Billy Crudup, Alessandro Nivola and Zoe Kazan portraying others in the couple’s lives. These are intercut with N&W’s real-life interviews with David Frost, Dick Cavett and David Letterman.
The series does not shy away from the troubles the couple faced: Paul’s drinking, Joanne’s frustration at being a stay-at-home mom, and their troubled son Scott who died of a drug overdose in 1978. Scott’s death drove his father to become a philanthropist and create a number of charities for disadvantaged kids. It was also the impetus for Newman’s Own: a line of salad dressings and spaghetti sauces whose profits went straight to N&W’s charities, not their own pockets.
Newman was diagnosed with cancer in 2008; Woodward with Alzheimer’s shortly thereafter. As we reflect on their careers, one asks: Was it talent alone that made them so successful? Their fanatical devotion to each other? Or was their success largely due to luck? As Newman once said, “luck is an art.” It’s what you do with it that counts. Binge-watching this marvelous series will convince you they did a helluva lot.