According to actor Ethan Hawke, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward “are dreams.” A Hollywood power couple, each an Oscar winner, had been together for more than half a century before Newman died in 2008.
A fairy tale, right?
The truth is more complicated. Hawke delves into Newman and Woodward in his new six-part series “The Last Movie Stars,” which premieres Thursday, July 21 on HBO Max. It’s a fantastic documentary on acting skills as Hawke talks about the art form and Newman’s influence – the star of many classics including “Liar,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Butch Cassidy and St. Danse Kid” and “Stinger” – and Woodward – “The Three Faces of Eve,” “The Fugitive Kind,” “The Long, Hot Summer” – with fellow stars George Clooney, Laura Lynn Nei, Sally Field, Zoe Kazan, Oscar Isaac, Karen Allen, Billy Crudup, Sam Rockwell, Ewan McGregor and many others.
But it’s also an insightful look at celebrity marriages that have survived huge challenges, which Hawke admits helped lure him to the project. After all, he was involved in his own movie-star marriage to actress Uma Thurman, but the marriage only lasted seven years.
“They are connected,” Hawke told New York’s Chronicle in a video chat. “When I first fell in love with acting, they (Newman and Woodward) were my dream. Continued excellence and love, and doing it together. So when my first marriage ended, it was the end of the dream It’s a dream that doesn’t happen to me that way.
“I think it might have something to do with why I’m so obsessed with them. They take care of each other, fail each other, forgive each other.”
“The Last Movie Star” is based on interviews with friends, actors, directors and family members Newman had in the 1980s when he was commissioned to write a comprehensive memoir. In 1991, Newman burned the tapes, but the records remain.
Hawke reworked the interview to have actors voice the parts, including Clooney as Newman and Linney as Woodward.
Q: This is a big project. When the Newman-Woodward family approached you, what made you do it, especially in the midst of your busy acting career (“Moon Knight,” “Black Phone”)?
A: I know this is going to completely hijack my life. I know any smart person would reject this. So I called (director and friend) Richard Linklater. “What should I do? How do I get out of this?” He was like, “You know, I think you might be the right person for the job.”
The problem, I learned quickly, was that what was truly revelatory about their lives was their wholeness. It wasn’t their performance that changed the world. Or this moment. Whether as a lover, as a family, as an artist or as a member of the community, it’s a long-term commitment to excellence day in and day out. It’s its wholeness that makes it so overwhelming and impressive. So I knew I needed to cast a big net.
Q: They made 16 movies together (from “The Long Hot Summer” in 1958 to “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” in 1990). As actors, do you think they are stronger together or in separate projects?
A: You know how Lennon and McCartney shared the credit, whether it was one of them who wrote the song or the other, because their impact on each other was so profound? It’s hard to say, “I wrote that song myself.” They are connected psychologically.
As (Newman) said in the documentary, it is she Faith makes him. He adored her as an artist, believed in her as an actress, and liked her ideas.she really believes he. This gave him the confidence to keep growing and keep trying to be the man she thought he was. Likewise, he is her greatest champion.
He directed her in “Rachel, Rachel,” which brought her to retire while raising children, and she was nominated for an Academy Award; he directed her in “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Marigolds,” for which she won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. He directed her in TV movies.
So each of them took turns playing the gardener and the rose. That’s why the fire keeps burning. It’s them being together and loving each other. I think that’s what drives the whole thing.
Q: What did you learn from them in the process of making this project that really surprised you?
A: so many things.First of all, I don’t think I really realize a great actor she used to be. Before I started, I knew a lot about him and less about her. And she’s a woman… It’s inspiring to see a lifelong dedication to the profession through the eyes of a woman. How difficult it is – the way men talk to women, the lanes they keep trying to force her into.
I think the biggest surprise is how fun they are. They’re so disrespectful, stupid, and I think that’s how they stay sane.
Q: You’re not ashamed to highlight some of the difficulties in their marriage. How do their families feel about this?
A: Without shadows, there is no light, right? How we overcome our weaknesses, how we survive our failures, and of course any possible success, we show ourselves best. So they get it.
Also, at the end of Paul’s life, he was very candid about everything. Certain mistakes he made paid a very high price. The question is, would you crawl into a hole and hate yourself for dying? Or do you study and put one foot in front of the other, trying to be a better person? I think we all have a lot of respect for someone who overcomes demons.
I find it really rewarding to watch the two move on live. Seeing them at their peak in their 70s, I found that as a human being is capable.
“The Last Movie Star” (Not Rated) Premieres Thursday, July 21 on HBO Max.