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Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and the complex legacy of 'The Last Movie Stars'

Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman are the subjects of the new series <em>The Last Movie Stars</em>.
Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman are the subjects of the new series The Last Movie Stars.

Ethan Hawke's documentary series about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, called The Last Movie Stars, is an unmistakably pandemic-era project. It's full of video calls, with all of their impulsivity and informality, with director Hawke in a variety of sometimes neat and sometimes chaotic hair configurations (both facial and head). We see Hawke talking to his daughter and his wife, talking to Newman and Woodward's kids, talking about what he's learned with Vincent D'Onofrio and Laura Linney and Zoe Kazan. Most of what you will see on screen is these calls alongside hours of clips of Newman and Woodward (and occasionally other actors) working. And it all feels of its isolated moment, because it is a project perfect for a time of restless introspection about life in general, and thus about celebrity, marriage and art.

Newman laid the groundwork for the documentary

The birth of the series came, Hawke says, from a treasure trove of interview tapes with everyone from Newman's first wife, Jackie Witte, to directors George Roy Hill and Sidney Lumet — tapes that Newman commissioned for a planned memoir and then, much later, burned on what appears to have been something of an impulse. But Newman's kids (he had three with Witte and three with Woodward) later learned that there were transcripts of those tapes, and they asked Hawke if he'd like to direct a documentary using them.

Hawke's solution for making transcripts something to watch rather than to read is to gather actors to read from them as if they were scripts, usually over all those clips of decades of movies and other footage. So, for instance, George Clooney reads Newman himself; Laura Linney reads Joanne Woodward; Vincent D'Onofrio reads John Huston; and Brooks Ashmanskas has a fantastic time wrapping his voice around the words of Gore Vidal (a close friend of the couple who gave the series its name by referring to them as such).

One film, three stories

The Last Movie Stars tells three stories, really, all of them effectively. One is the history of a marriage: Newman and Woodward meeting as young actors; starting a relationship that all seem to agree was intensely carnal from practically the day they met and remained so forever; studying at the Actors Studio; growing older and seeing their careers diverge as he became a megasuperstar; staying together despite a path more rocky than their legend has sometimes left room for; finding new paths in philanthropy and television later in their lives. (Newman died in 2008; Woodward is still alive, but has Alzheimer's and didn't participate directly, although she appears in archival television interview footage.)

The second is a Hollywood history. Hawke explores how Woodward made her way through an industry that didn't celebrate her nearly as much as it did her husband. We learn how today's prestige TV series are not the first such opportunities for actresses neglected by Hollywood. We learn that Newman sank into what some considered a fallow period during his time as an established movie star and how he rebounded with The Verdict. There is even space for Vidal, from beyond the grave, to darkly muse on how the tragic death of James Dean paved the way for Newman's success.

And the third is how Hawke and his contemporaries who do voices in the series and chat with him on Zoom, some of whom you can find with their arms slung around him in old wire photos from the '90s, look on these legends who inhabited a different Hollywood than the one that they've known. Hawke, for instance, is gently led by his wife in one conversation to think about his own starstruck attachment to Newman's legend before he judges too harshly how stardom commodifies human beings. Revering Newman for being from the Actors Studio and not for having blue eyes does not, after all, make Hawke less hungry for connection to someone he didn't know.

How to have heroes

In fact, this third story may be the one that was the least likely to work and the one that feels most unusual. It's easy to understand why the story of Woodward and Newman's marriage and careers is fascinating and why examining it more closely is satisfying; they genuinely did lead extraordinary lives and leave behind great art. It's the director and his friends entering the conversation and musing to each other in video calls that could seem aimless or self-indulgent. But here, it gives the series something fresh and timeless to be about, beyond acting and beyond this industry. It becomes at some level a story about how to have heroes in the first place.

Hawke begins the series talking to these Zoom friends about how remarkable Newman and Woodward were: the art they made, the kids, the charity work — and he raced cars, too. Several times, you can see Hawke trying to figure out how to convey how massive they loom in his mind (especially now, having done all this research). Can you imagine, he keeps telling people. Can you imagine, being at the Actors Studio with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando? Can you imagine?

How to process the flaws

But it's a complicated story. You can see Hawke wrangling on camera with what Stephanie Newman, one of Newman's daughters with Jackie Witte, tells him about how agonizing the long affair and eventual storybook marriage of her father and her stepmother was for her mother, who she says also had wanted to be an actress. "She was left with three kids under the age of five," Stephanie says. "I was a baby."

Hawke is making a series about people whose careers he admires that is absolutely written as a love letter to much of what they were and did. But where does the pain they caused others live within that story? Where does Hawke, as an ardent admirer of Newman and a father himself, put the fact that Newman felt he was too much of an absent parent for too many years, and that it clearly caused pain to his kids? What role does the extraordinary privilege of having been an absurdly handsome (even he admitted this about himself, essentially) white actor in the 20th century play in contextualizing what Newman was able to accomplish? Not its role in the documentary, so much as in the shape of the reverence itself?

It's not as simple as "nobody's perfect"; making allowances is easy. The thesis of the series on this point, I think, is that you learn the most from your heroes by not excepting their faults from your admiration of them but by embracing those faults as integral to who they were and letting all that you admire coexist with all that you don't. And, in this case, paying close attention to how Newman, in particular, behaved after he made some of these errors, and what he did about feeling boundlessly lucky — a theme that comes up over and over.

A word you hear a lot about famous couples like Newman and Woodward is royalty. "Hollywood royalty." The Last Movie Stars suggests that perhaps royalty is both too much and too little of a label for anyone you admire. Too much, because it puts a dishonest polish on their flaws. Too little, because it robs them of the very things you can learn the most from, which is a thorough understanding of how they dealt with the times when they were vain or stubborn, not good to each other, not good to others, not easy to love, or not easily loving.

This is a terrific history; it is an absolute feast of film clips, full of things I didn't know, full of things a lot of people probably don't know. It is rich and thorough when it is operating as a biography. But there is something especially welcome in the moments in which it steps back and becomes a study of generations of artists and of legend itself, legend as a thing so big it can block out the sun and obscure the messy lessons of other people's lives that are, after all, the best reasons to study them.

All six episodes of The Last Movie Stars are streaming on HBO MAX.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.