This story about “The Last Movie Stars” originally appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
As actor-director Ethan Hawke was working on “The Last Movie Stars,” he showed a rough cut of the six-part Max docuseries about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward to his mom. She told him, “Well, you managed to make two of the greatest icons of my life completely human. Though I’m not sure if anybody’s gonna like that.” Although “The Last Movie Stars” is chock-full of clips from Newman and Woodward films (from “The Three Faces of Eve,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Verdict” and many, many more), the series beautifully folds in themes of family, betrayal, aging, grief and healing. We spoke with Hawke about his labor of love.
The series is so artful and impressionistic, but it’s also impressive as an act of profile journalism. What was that like for you?
Years ago I wrote a profile of Kris Kristofferson for Rolling Stone, and when I was doing that, I channeled those early Rolling Stone profiles by Cameron Crowe and Hunter S. Thompson that I enjoyed. They’d kind of inserted themselves into the story and so the point of view became clear. And there’s something about the admission of a point of view that always relaxes me as a reader.
So that was on your mind as you began this project?
Yeah, but one of the first problems to solve is the structure. Especially when you’re dealing, in this case, with two 50-year careers. How do you create an architecture for the audience so they feel it has a beginning, middle and end?
You discovered that in 1986, Newman had hired a screenwriter, Stewart Stern, to write his memoir. But after abandoning the book idea, Newman burned all the tape recordings.
Exactly. But all the transcripts were preserved. And I was fascinated by these tapes, which I didn’t have the audio for, so I started getting on Zoom during the pandemic with actor friends to have them read the transcripts. I would send these Zooms to my editor and we started cutting them into the doc, simply as placeholders, to have a framework. And strangely, I started seeing the architecture. It became clear, with all these different performers on Zoom, the story we were telling and who was telling it.
Was it always planned to be this length?
No, I was hired to do a two-hour documentary. But at a midway point, I went to the producers and said, “The problem with a two-hour film is that Paul and Joanne are so famous, that if we try to reduce their lives to two hours, it’s just going to be the high-water moments.” It could still be very good, like an A&E documentary about a famous person. But my worry was that it would rush by too fast. I thought it could be much more dynamic if we moved a little slower. So I sent a five-hour cut to Richard Linklater and asked him what hour or so he’d cut out of it. And he said, “It’s too short! Slow down more!”
At this length, you get to paint a much more complex portrait of their human faults, especially Newman, who was an alcoholic and an adulterer.
It was a real dance with not being gossipy or crass. And yet if you don’t have shadow you don’t have light. That’s when the humanity of Paul and Joanne’s journey starts to become evident. How does Newman’s Own come to be? It comes to be through great maturity. How do you mature? Sometimes it’s by crying salty tears.
In interviews, Woodward was also astonishingly frank about the mix of career and family, saying, “If I had to do it over again, I’m not sure I’d have children.”
To be clear, this is a woman who raised six kids and adored them all. But she said versions of that quote in later years and I came to see it as her way to help young women understand what they were giving up. Joanne thought that, like Paul, she’d have children and a full career. But unlike Paul, a lot of her career dreams were taken away. She wanted women to understand what they were up against.
Late in the series, Zoe Kazan asks you, “What are you learning about yourself, making this?” In a way, is the whole series your answer?
Right after Zoe asks that, I cut to Paul and Joanne’s grandchildren. And yeah, I tried to answer the question with the rest of the doc, which is about the end of Paul and Joanne’s lives [together]. There’s something about our culture that hero-worships youth. But there’s such great value in living and utilizing your experience to continue to grow. When you tell people that the best years of your life are 23 and 24, you’re completely undermining grace, wisdom, education, maturity, excellence, experience. Without these things, we’re nothing.