Series Review: You won’t want to miss Newman and Woodward, “The Last Movie Stars”

The title “The Last Movie Stars” conveys a certain Hollywood mystique and history. And there’s little doubt that however they broke the mold, whatever their longevity as a couple, their acting reputations and charitable contributions, Oscar winners Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman were the embodiment of old school Hollywood image burnishing.

Together forever, with only rare tabloid hints that they weren’t the perfect couple, Actor’s Studio to “And the winner is,” theirs was a storybook/cover-story/”60 Minutes” puff piece for the ages.

Newman was the ever faithful husband, father, craftsman actor, philanthropist and man’s man, a success in every field he tackled, including race car driving. Woodward was the funny, folksy beauty, lauded as one of the great actresses of her generation, a mother who raised their children, embraced his children from an earlier marriage, and took with great humor all the “He’s with HER?” sniping that came with being married to one of the screen’s great male beauties.

She’d bring her knitting on camera for TV interviews. He’d jovially join her, worshipping her openly in joint or solo appearances, joking around with generations of talk show hosts while cultivating the guise of a smart, thoughtful, compassionate Everyman.

Golden Age MGM studio publicists couldn’t have done a better job of creating and maintaining such enviable personas.

But contrary to that genteel South Carolina image, Woodward was a fiercely competitive and breathtakingly ambitious woman, starting as a teen campaigning for this or that high school “queen” honor, driving on into her stage breakthrough, film stardom and the Oscar — for “The Three Faces of Eve” — that came all-too quickly.

“I had infinite belief it would happen,” she declared in interviews. “Acting is like sex. You should do it, not talk about it” is about as deep into her technique as she cared to get. As a mother?

“Actors rarely make good parents,” she admitted, wistfully wondering at what having children cost her career.

Woodward may have made her own dress to wear the night she won the Oscar. But that wild child floozy she played opposite Brando in “The Fugitive Kind” let her sum herself up and that thirst for fame in ways magazine cover stories never did, in words written by her fellow Southerner, Tennessee Williams.

“I’m an exhibitionist. I want people to know I’m alive.”

Newman, just “an a–hole from Shaker Heights,” as his fellow Actor’s Studio member Ben Gazarra once said, challenging a “phony” performance, was the son of a sporting goods business owner and a mother with toxic tendencies that Woodward and Newman’s first wife got to witness up close.

“I was running away from something,” Newman freely admitted about his move into acting. “I wasn’t running towards something.”

Ethan Hawke‘s entertaining revealing and definitive six part series for CNN Films and HBO Max, premiering July 22, peels away the First Couple of Hollywood’s facade even as it celebrates the accomplished talents and complicated people behind those images.

Recruited by one of their daughters to film “The Last Movie Stars,” Hawke took it on as a pandemic project, with its prospect of Zoom interviews mixed with half a century of TV talk show appearances and news profiles, as well as generous samplings of their screen work. But he was also given access to the notes of a planned memoir that Newman abandoned. Later in life, Newman commissioned screenwriter and family intimate Stewart Stern (“Rebel Without a Cause,” “Sybil,” “Rachel, Rachel”) to interview him, Woodward, legions of work colleagues, family and friends.

And although Newman destroyed most of the audio tapes of this 100 interview undertaking, the meticulous Stern had the tapes transcribed before that happened. He spoke with Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal, Kazan and Ritt and Rosenberg and George Roy Hill, Estelle Parsons and generations of directors, writers and co-stars. Newman’s first wife, the one he started cheating on with his Broadway co-star (fellow understudy) Woodward after the birth of their third child, sat for a seriously frank and pained conversation. Stern got their fellow actors and their directors to talk about their strengths, weaknesses and the personal crises they went through on and off the set over the course of their careers.

Recognizing this material as gold, Hawke then rounded up legions of his own contemporaries, actors and fellow fans most of them. He got them to voice-over narrate/act out, as “a play with voices,” these deep-dive transcribed interviews, Woodward and Newman included, and letters they exchanged. We see Hawke arrange these voice-overs, and see and hear him and his friends explain and discuss, like delighted fanboys and fangirls, what he was uncovering, what was going on in their private and professional lives, what the two of them learned in the Actor’s Studio, how the arcs of their careers diverged and what they must have cost them.

Vincent D’Onofrio, brought in to voice Karl Malden and John Huston, gives the most moving and succinct demonstration of “The Method” I’ve ever seen, showing Hawke the difference between “a line reading without a ‘choice,’ and a line reading without a ‘choice,'” breaking down, mid-Zoom call, on command. It’s magical.

Elia Kazan’s Actor’s Studio “Actor’s Oath?” Ok, that’s touching, but kind of hilarious.

George Clooney performs Newman’s no-holds-barred interview answers for Stern, Laura Linney handles Woodward’s candid chats. Sam Rockwell does”Cool Hand Luke” director Stuart Rosenberg, Bobby Cannavale does Kazan, Alexander Nivola is Redford, recalling the practical jokes the “Butch” and “Sundance” co-stars and lifelong chums shared and “never talked about” to each other or the general public.

What the always-talking-about-racing boor Newman did with the old Porsche body Redford had dropped off — anonymously — as a birthday present, is criminal. What Redford did to it after it was returned “as molten metal,” is inspired. And on and on that went.

Films and film performances are deftly deconstructed and admired. Writer and director Paul Schrader calls “Hud” “a landmark…the most important performance in the history of (American) cinema,” thanks to its “unapologetic bad guy” title character and Newman’s unsentimental portrayal of him.

While “The Last Movie Stars” is able to showcase screen tests for famous roles neither star got in their 20s — Newman was always “everybody’s third choice, after Brando and Dean,” huffs close-friend Vidal (Hilariously impersonated by Brooks Ashmanskas — well done!) — the series reminds us that there are several Newman films we never see re-broadcast on TV or available for streaming, and that there are Woodward performances that are literally lost.

Hawke has to order online an old VHS copy of Woodward and director Franklin J. Schaffner’s film, “The Stripper,” brutally recut and retitled from William Inge’s play “A Loss of Roses” by an infamous studio chief.

The series is more or less chronological, skipping back to fill in details about childhood trauma and the “real” story behind that storybook Broadway backstage romance that ended Newman’s first marriage. But Hawke shares his own process, discussing with pal Billy Crudup and his actress-daughter Maya Hawke how he should approach this or that.

“I want the ‘Cool Hand Luke’ section to be GREAT.”

What he settled on, at the suggestion of friends, family and philosophers, was to treat Woodward, Newman and their marriage as three separate characters. Hawke let’s us in on his filmmaking process as he debates a CNN producer on whether to include the post-mortem auction that saw someone pay $15 million for Newman’s favorite watch. As an interviewer, he pushes and probes their children to get at whether Paul was “a functioning alcoholic,” but intimations that he cheated on Joanne are limited to tabloid headlines and a daughter’s memory of seeing a memoir by someone who claimed to have slept with him tucked in his desk drawer.

What’s far more interesting here is the way “Paris Blues” co-star Poitier avoids labeling Newman an actor with “soul,” the way Woodward and everybody else always assumed him to be “second banana” to Brando, Dean, even McQueen and especially in his own house, an inferior talent when compared to Woodward.

Director Martin Ritt, a frequent collaborator with them both, may amusingly sniff that his “Hud” star “never wants to work with me again” because most of their films were “failures” — aesthetically and financially, at least in Newman’s eyes. “I get it, I get it. He always had enormous hits with that George Roy Hill (“The Sting,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Slapshot”). “

But “Talent is a genetic accident,” Ritt insisted. What Newman, a self-described “emotional Republican” (not a self-compliment) did with “his average (emotional) equipment” was extraordinary.

“The private nature of Paul, the unwillingness to commit, which would then make the commitment extraordinary,” was his secret.

That, Woodward would often jokingly snipe, and having roles, success and screen glory that just “fell in his lap” thanks to Brando aging out of youth roles, James Dean dying young and Newman getting his breaks in role after role meant for Dean, launching his career.

The film tilts and not-that-subtly more towards Newman, as his spotlight career was fuller and more iconic and her films more of-their-time, many of them aging badly.

Nothing Hawke uncovers here changes his first impressions, related to his fellow actors in his Zoom pitches as two film stars we associate with “love (“PASSIONATE,” several of their children call it.), family, ethical citizens” who happened to be great actors.

But telling Woodward and Newman’s stories this thoroughly, using a parade of people living, including “Color of Money” director Scorsese, with his encyclopedic memory of every film he’s seen, and long gone, actors, writers, directors — all people who take care with words and how they come off and take this “movie” and film acting business seriously — make Hawke’s documentary a new benchmark for in-depth looks at films and those who make them.

For film lovers, “The Last Movie Stars” is unapologetically essential viewing, a gold standard fitting that rare on-screen power couple whose image together transcended even the often-spectacular work they did, with or without each other, on the big screen.

By the time its touching finale plays out, the great actors who evolved into the greatest philanthropists Hollywood ever produced will have you agreeing with that bold, challenging title. They were “the last movie stars.”

Rating: unrated, profanity, adult themes

Cast: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Ethan Hawke, Laura Linney, George Clooney, Vincent D’Onofrio, Sam Rockwell, Zoe Kazan, Sidney Poitier, Martin Scorsese, Mark Ruffalo, Oscar Isaac, Bobby Cannavale, Billy Crudup, Alexander Nivola, Nell Newman, Stephanie Newman, Susan Kendall Newman, Claire Newman, Melissa Newman and Brooks Ashmanskas.

Credits: Directed by Ethan Hawke, scripted/transcribed by Stewart Stern. A CNN Films/HBO Max release.

Running time: 6 episodes @50-80 minutes each

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.