When Ethan Hawke read a quote from Gore Vidal saying that he saw Hollywood royalty Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward as “The Last Movie Stars,” he couldn’t resist making that the title of his documentary film about the couple. But Hawke said he realized in the course of making it that they may not have been fond of that title.
“Paul and Joanne were movie stars, but it was a hard earned title. They were students of acting in a way that you don’t have to be anymore. They dedicated their life to this profession and worked hard at it, and the reason why they’re [stars] was because of a love of craft, not a cult of personality,” Hawke told TheWrap. “I also think they would hate the title, because they thought of themselves as actors, not as ‘movie stars,’ but I think therein lies the reason to make it the title. You can be a movie star these days without being a great actor, and therein lies the rub.”
Hawke’s film “The Last Movie Stars” profiles the careers and the relationship between Oscar-winners Newman and Woodward, who lived a happily married life for 50 years while still managing to become the biggest acting icons of their generation. Hawke is presenting the film in six parts that will launch on CNN+, and the first chapter, “Cosmic Orphans,” is premiering at SXSW on Monday.
Hawke would be the first to acknowledge though that making a movie about a lengthy, successful and happy marriage isn’t exactly the stuff of scandal or excitement. But compared to other acting icons of their generation like Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift or James Dean, whose stories were all sad or tragic, Newman and Woodward’s careers and romance were the rare few success stories in Hollywood that were worth telling.
“(Newman) and (Sidney) Poitier are really the two of their generation that really kept evolving as leaders in their community and kept continuing to grow as actors and as human beings,” Hawke explained. “So he’s a great subject matter if you’re looking to tell a story about, ‘What does maturity and grace look like?’ So many documentaries, particularly in the arts, have to do with how people burned out, or how people kill themselves or how people get lost. So many of them end in some kind of tragedy, because that lends itself to drama. A 50-year successful marriage doesn’t lend itself to drama, but it creates this feeling that it’s impossible to do, but it’s just incredibly hard.”
The first chapter of “The Last Movie Stars” looks at how Newman and Woodward fell in love with each other and with acting, and each subsequent chapter explores a different decade in their life and career. The film then explores when they both reached the peak of stardom in the ’60s, when in the ’70s, Woodward started losing roles as a woman and mother in Hollywood while her husband became a legend. It also touches on how they coped with the loss of their son Scott in 1978 and the late period of Newman’s life and career.
The film’s final chapter also grapples with how Woodward, who is still alive at 92, has been dealing with Alzheimer’s for “a couple of decades,” a diagnosis she received just nine days before Newman was diagnosed with terminal cancer (he died in 2008). And Hawke says that sadly she’s “not in a position right now” to talk about her own history.
It’s a slow burn over many years, but Hawke added that a simple 90-minute documentary would have seen him merely going from “red carpet to red carpet and not explore anything that was nuanced or interesting to me.”
Rather, if you really want to see what excites Hawke about the project, you merely have to watch the first five minutes of “The Last Movie Stars.” In making the documentary, Hawke was presented with a lengthy series of transcripts of interviews with Newman, Woodward and many of their peers for a separate project that was never completed. But the audio was destroyed, leaving only the text. And in a montage of clips, we see Hawke eagerly explaining to friends like George Clooney, Sam Rockwell, Zoe Kazan and many more just what he’s been presented with and begging them to read the transcripts out loud.
“I really had no idea what I was doing,” Hawke said. “I never thought when I first did these Zoom calls that I would use them in the movie. I was really just trying to explain to my friends what I was trying to do. And through talking to other actors and other people, I started to learn what was interesting and what was revelatory about these experiences.”
While rare, Hawke points to Samuel L. Jackson and LaTanya Richardson as one other example of a Hollywood couple who has managed to stay happily married and successful for as long as Newman and Woodward. But in telling the story of two actors who dedicated their life to the profession of acting, Hawke hopes their journey can be aspirational for himself and others.
“Rarely do you get an opportunity to talk about what is the attempt at a meaningful, substantive life in the performing arts look like? I thought, maybe this could be a real gift to myself and others to do a meditation on these two people who function as a North star, for whatever you think it’s not possible to have family, to have love, to be a part of your community, to be an ethical citizen and to be dedicated to your craft, it is possible. Paul and Joanne did it,” he said. “You can be born with a lot and give back. You can be part of the solution. It ain’t going to be easy, but I started to feel like it was worth it.”