Written by Marya E. Gates
Few movie star marriages are as hallowed as that of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Two of the most talented actors of their generation, they shared a life together as artists and lovers for nearly 50 years. In “The Last Movie Stars” actor/director Ethan Hawke excavates their story from movie clips, archival interviews, and Newman’s abandoned memoir. The resulting six-hour docuseries explores their careers and their love through all its ups and downs with clear-eyed precision, exuberant passion, and unflinching honesty.
But this is no Ken Burns style documentary. Hawke uses the transcripts of Newman’s abandoned memoir to craft a sort of radio play from the interviews, casting George Clooney as Paul and Laura Linney as Joanne. Newman had tasked his friend, screenwriter Stuart Stern, to interview everyone in his life from co-stars like Robert Redford to key directors like George Roy Hill and Martin Ritt. Even Newman’s ex-wife Jackie is interviewed giving her perspective on Paul’s first marriage. Actors like Zoe Kazan, Sam Rockwell, and Alessandro Nivola bring these transcripts to life over a patchwork of archival footage from Newman and Woodard’s stellar careers. Interviews with Newman and Woodward’s children and grandchildren also help paint a richer portrait of the couple, beyond their artistic accomplishments.
More than just catnip for classic movie fans, “The Last Movie Stars” is a fitting tribute to two astonishing people who lived their lives together with intensity, empathy, and purpose. Over Zoom, RogerEbert.com spoke to Hawke about telling Newman and Woodward’s story through archival materials, the raw quality of Zoom conversations, the interconnectedness of the movie business, and the importance of life over art.
You use so many clips so wonderfully to underscore the narrative that you pulled from the memoirs. Which came first: the scripts that you wrote or the clips you wanted to use?
I don't know if this is too minutia, but the process I developed with my editor was really fun and was strange. I would take one transcript, take Gore Vidal’s, for example, and I would have Brooks [Ashmanskas] read it. Then I would make a little short film of the Gore Vidal transcript. I would just cut images that might speak to what he was talking about. Then I would put that one aside, and I would do the director of “Cool Hand Luke,” or I would do George Roy Hill. Then I started weaving them. So the movie at first was just these little clips that were totally not time oriented. I flipped back and forth through time, the only map I followed was whatever the transcripts had. Then we went like, alright, let's try to intercut them but staying in sequential order. If Gore is talking about the '50s, who else is talking about the '50s? Let's stay in the '50s and we'll build these. That's kind of how we did it.
There was a lot of footage from Joanne’s harder to find projects, her telefilms like “The Stripper,” which many had never heard of. How many of those you were able to actually watch and how did you find them?
Pretty much all of them. The archivist, their job would be to go find me the films. Like, she won the Emmy for this film that I've never even heard of. How can I see it? They would send me a link and I just tried to march through them all like that. Some of them were really hard to find. “The Stripper” is particularly hard. What was disappointing for us is a lot of those are lost, or you can't find a good quality version, like image-wise for “The Stripper.” Whereas a lot of Paul's movies have really lasted through time. They're famous movies. So you can get a good Blu-ray of “The Hustler,” but you can't get a good Blu-ray of Joanne's TV movies from the '80s. That's just the realities of the life of an actor. Sometimes we work on these things, and they're really successful, and they age really well. Other times you put your heart and soul and all the same fire and passion into something that doesn't age well, that people don't care about. But it doesn't mean you didn't do a good job or you didn't try your best.
I was hoping for a shot from “A Big Hand For A Little Lady” because that was the first Joanne film I saw. That was my mom's favorite when she was a kid.
That’s a really sexist movie.
It is, yes.
One of the things that's weird about the editing room floor is that for a while there were a lot of shots of that movie and I never deliberately cut it out. It's just those sections of the storytelling didn't work.
In an interview someone asked Joanne what parts she related to the most and she said all of them are parts of her, that that’s the joy and trauma of being an actor. I was wondering if you found that to be similar for your own self as an actor? Absolutely. I was so happy when I found her saying that. My feeling is you have to make them all personal. See? That's my job. My job is to try to put something real in front of the camera for you to watch or else it’s a waste of your time. So I love that she said that. In those TV clips you and the archivist unearthed of Joanne she was so candid. She's so present. She doesn't ever seem like she's bullshitting. She's not selling. I mean, there's even that amazing moment where the guy says to her, you're so good for your age, and you just see her just give him ice. You know, she has no comment about that. She's very Southern. So she doesn't ever want to be rude. Like when they tell her the thing about “why go out for the hamburger steak at home” and you just see her go, "I’m a vegetarian."
I'd never seen her reaction to that quote before. That was very revelatory for me. Getting into the nuts and bolts of the radio play aspect of the film, obviously many of the voice cast are either your friends or people who have connection to Paul and Joanne. How did you find who was the right person to voice each person?
You know, I just followed my nose. I mean, George Clooney was the first person I thought of for Paul, because there's just very few people who have maintained that level of excellence at the top of our profession and I thought that he might have some insight into some of the things that Paul was saying, know what Paul was talking about. Laura is a friend of Joanne. Joanne was one of her great mentors. Laura speaks so beautifully about acting and she's such a great actor. I knew that those two were the perfect people to start with. I reached out to LaTanya Jackson because I did my first play with her, she was directed by Joanne, and she's married to Sam Jackson, a card-carrying movie star. They've been married 40 years so I thought she might have something to bring to it. Zoe Kazan is Elia Kazan’s granddaughter and Elia was Paul's great mentor. Tom McCarthy was directed by Joanne and knew Sidney Lumet. So I was trying to make these connections from things I remembered, like how Tom knew Sidney Lumet so maybe he could do him justice. I just followed my nose about it.
I thought that connections were really interesting, where you could see how there was a connection from Paul, from Joanne to Paul, and then from Paul to you and back again. It shows you how interconnected the industry is even from the '50s to today.
We're only as good as our generation, right? I mean what our audiences are interested in
determines a lot about what movies get made and don't get made. Paul and Joanne are defined by those filmmakers they worked with. You'd see her talking about Shirley MacLaine or talking about Jane Fonda and you realize we don't live in a vacuum. We're all impacting each other all the time. Just like this generation now. Billy Crudup, Sam Rockwell, they're huge inspirations to me. We're in this together.
Did you feel that in using Zoom to interview the family and friends that you were able to get more raw connections or natural conversations than if you had done more of a sit down CBS Sunday Morning style interview?
Yeah, I mean, I never when I first started, I never planned on using any of these Zoom interviews. That I did didn't even occur to me. I was just kind of doing reconnaissance and finding out information. But when I started intercutting these Zooms with these old Technicolor Hollywood movies, to my mind, it felt like we were pulling back the curtain from the glamour aspect of it and that it was more raw. It was extremely vérité.
Paul’s daughter Stephanie got very vulnerable. It was really wonderful to see her talk so openly. How many times did you talk with her?
Three or four times. What would happen at first is I would just talk to her and I didn't even know what were the right questions to be asking. I just needed to know more before I could ask any questions that might be revelatory. Then she started saying "Hey, interview me again there's something I didn't say that I really want to say." She's a great one. I love her. She called me up and said I forgot to tell you the greatest piece of advice my father ever gave me and it's just “if you're going to crash, crash decisively.” I love that.
How did you direct the voice performances? I thought Zoe Kazan's performance as Paul’s ex-wife Jackie in particular was really impactful.
One of the things about being an actor for this long and knowing good actors is I know not to over direct people. With somebody as talented as Zoe, I want what she wants to do, what she wants to do is going to be more interesting than anything I can think of. The same with Clooney. These people are all really good at my profession, you know? So, really, all I would do is communicate to them the context that these interviews happened in. The fact that they're talking to somebody they know they're safe with. They're not being interviewed on the Charlie Rose show. They're being interviewed by Paul's best friend. They're completely safe. There's a lot of funny things I had to cut out. But like, oh, you know, people bad mouthing each other. Karl Malden saying, "Why did Paul cast that guy? He should have put me in that movie.”
In episode five, Zoe Kazan asks you how this project made you reflect on yourself and you cut before you answer the question.
I cut before I answer the question, but I cut to their grandkids. That's kind of my answer. That we make this big deal about accomplishment, but it's really the living that matters.
That's what I was hoping you would say. I thought that was a beautiful cut. And thank you for this project. It made me want to find all these rare movies. I'd seen a lot of the big ones, but there's so many Joanne ones where I was like, what the hell is “Winning”?
I know. That's what I felt as I was making it. It was always like whoa. Like discovering “WUSA” and going there’s another movie they made together that I've never heard of? Or her film “A Kiss Before Dying.”
I've seen that one. She's so good, but that movie is a lot.
It is a lot. Have you seen “No Down Payment”?
No, that one's on my list. I added probably 15 movies to my Letterboxd watchlist while I was watching this.
Watch that one. That one is great.
"The Last Movie Stars" is now playing on HBO Max.