By Mike Hale
Ethan Hawke begins “The Last Movie Stars,” his six-hour documentary about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, with a video-conferenced gathering. Peering into a laptop, his pandemic hair curling over his shoulders, he welcomes a similarly informal procession of actors to his project: George Clooney, Laura Linney, Billy Crudup, Oscar Isaac, Zoe Kazan, Sally Field, Sam Rockwell and many others. It’s like watching a cast gather for an early-morning table read.
“The Last Movie Stars,” which premiered Thursday on HBO Max, is the story of two of America’s most honored and most famous performers, as well as the story of a particularly public, highly fraught half-century marriage. It’s a sprawling, complicated tale, and Hawke — who took it on at the request of one of Newman and Woodward’s children — responds to the challenge with an approach that’s both exhaustive and disarmingly casual. Profiling two icons of cool, he doesn’t try to match them. He adopts the role of enthusiastic fan and master of ceremonies.
The result, though it loses momentum across its six episodes, is charming, entertaining and, for the eyes, addictive. The series is in part a traditional, chronological biography, and Newman and Woodward are constantly onscreen in film and television clips, outtakes, interviews and home movies. That’s a critical mass of beauty and personality that not many documentaries can match.
What makes the show different, though, is the large group of Hawke’s colleagues who take part. They take the place of the scholarly talking heads you would usually find in a historical documentary, and part of their job is to serve as interlocutors and sounding boards for Hawke’s musings on Newman’s and Woodward’s lives and careers.
But for the most part, they’re there not to talk but to act. Hawke was given access to transcriptions of a trove of interviews conducted for an oral history that Newman never completed. (A book based on the material is scheduled for publication this fall.) So the story is told on the soundtrack through excerpts from these vivid, surprisingly frank interviews, read by Hawke’s cast: Clooney as Newman, Linney as Woodward, Brooks Ashmanskas as Gore Vidal, Vincent D’Onofrio as Karl Malden, Bobby Cannavale as Elia Kazan and so on. A biography of two consummate actors becomes an exercise in performance.
What will draw the most attention in “The Last Movie Stars” is probably its account of Newman and Woodward’s difficult personal lives: the five years they carried on an affair while he was still married to his first wife; the ravages of his alcoholism and the toll of his insecurities; the effects on their children of their commitments to work (and later, for him, to auto racing and philanthropy).
But the most engaging parts come early, when they’re young aspiring actors who can’t keep their hands off each other. There’s an electricity, and a joy, in the accounts of the Actors Studio and life in 1950s New York, and the images are often more potent for being less familiar: Newman on a horse auditioning for “Oklahoma!,” or in period costume for his embarrassing film debut in “The Silver Chalice.” As the story gets darker over the years, the series loses some of its verve, and it starts to feel like a forced march through the two stars’ movie and TV catalogs. Hawke doesn’t seem as comfortable, or as interested, whenever the subject moves away from acting.
He’s also handicapped by the unfortunate reality that many, if not most, of the movies that Newman and Woodward made, including Newman’s biggest hits, were beneath their talents. It mostly passes without comment that we’re seeing clips from one bad movie after another, though Hawke doesn’t entirely shy away from it. “The Towering Inferno,” an easy target, is skewered; more boldly, Hawke leads into “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” with a Martin Ritt quotation that damns the blockbuster with faint praise.
Soft-pedaling the deficiencies of the films is understandable in what’s clearly meant as a tribute. What’s more unfortunate, and surprising given Hawke’s focus on acting, is that Newman’s phenomenal late-career resurgence in films like “Fort Apache the Bronx,” “The Verdict” and (with Woodward) “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” is packed into the last episode and isn’t clearly delineated. Doing so would have meant pointing out how often Newman phoned it in over the previous decades. As it happens, we do hear that from one voice: Newman’s own. He rarely had anything good or kind to say about himself or his work.
Children of Newman and Woodward’s, and from Newman’s first marriage, are strong presences, especially in the later episodes, but the most brutal, insightful and often hilarious commentary comes from the vintage quotes of the two subjects, especially Woodward. (One of the few original interviewees who is still alive, she was found to have Alzheimer’s disease in 2007, a year before Newman died.) It was never a secret that she was, for much of their time together, a better actor than her vastly more famous husband, and that her career went into eclipse when she took on most of the burden of caring for their children. But it’s still sobering to hear, in her own words, how clearly she saw the disparities and how deeply she felt them.
Hawke and his editor, Barry Poltermann, elegantly weave together their assortment of material. The readings of the old interviews are played mostly on top of the film clips, with the sound mixed so that the voices in the interviews and in the movies alternate, fading in and out.
With so many movies to choose from, Hawke is almost always able to make the clips correlate with what’s being said about Newman’s and Woodward’s lives, in ways that can be obvious but are often clever. While we hear Newman’s first wife, Jackie McDonald (voiced by Kazan), talk about being replaced by Woodward, we see — but don’t hear — scenes of “From the Terrace,” in which Woodward played the wife being abandoned by Newman’s character. (A nice touch in the casting: When Robert Altman is quoted in regard to “Buffalo Bill and the Indians,” he is voiced by Native American director Sterlin Harjo.)
Hawke asks, “What was it like to be them?,” and the answer you’re likely to take away is that it was a lot like being us — difficult and frightening, happy and adventurous — with the volume turned way up. The difference that shines through doesn’t have to do with fame or accomplishment but with passion: Newman and Woodward were crazy for each other for more than 50 years, through tragedy, infidelity, drunkenness and professional jealousy. You hear it in their words, and you see it, crystal clear, whenever they’re together onscreen.