I remember the one and only time I met Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. As most Broadway performers do after a show myself, Tony winner Lillias White and some cast members hopped over to Barrymore’s (a now defunct favorite Broadway hang) to chop it up. As we loudly got our giggle on, I could see Ms. Woodward walking toward us. They finally made their way to our table and she introduces herself and the mysterious man, who removes his jet black glasses to exchange pleasantries. There was no mistaking those ocean blue eyes belonging to the one and only Paul Newman. With that, they excused themselves and departed the premises as we all sat stunned trying to catch our breath. There are simply no words to describe how absolutely stunning, gracious and kind they both were. It’s a moment etched in my memory I shall not soon forget.
When you hear the phrase “movie star,” one is inclined to recall them. For decades, the Hollywood publicity machine released images of them the perfect family without a care in the world, when nothing could be further from the truth. They may be been movie stars, but they are still human.
The Last Movie Stars is a 6-part documentary from CNN Films and HBO Max which chronicles Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s iconic careers and partnership debuting July 21st. Ethan Hawke’s direction brings to life their adefinitive history through long lost transcriptions of interviews with Paul, Joanne and those close to them in the form of vocal talents from George Clooney, Laura Linney, Sam Rockwell, Billy Crudup, Sally Field, Zoe Kazan, Karen Allen, Steve Zahn, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Oscar Isaac and Mark Ruffalo. If one were going to recreate a project from scratch, I’d say this is an ingeniously, creative method to pull it off.
So, how did Hawke obtain these tapes? Apparently, it’s a culmination of tapes gathered from an abandoned project that Newman commissioned from Stewart Stern (screenwriter for Rebel Without a Cause). Stern interviewed close friends, family, and artistic collaborators Elia Kazan, Sidney Lumet, Karl Malden, Sidney Pollack, Gore Vidal, Jacqueline Witte (Newman’s ex-wife), Joanne Woodward, and others for a planned memoir. Then, for reasons unknown, Newman changed his mind and all the audiotapes were burned and destroyed. It was Newman and Woodward’s youngest daughter, Clea Newman, who reached out to Hawke about making the documentary after Stern’s transcripts were discovered.
The Last Movie Stars is a treasure trove into their personal and professional lives. Did you know the couple met as understudies in the hit Broadway show “Picnic?” Or, that Newman was often seen as a mediocre actor who was super handsome? Or, how Woodward was seen as the real star of the family as her career literally was set on fire with her award winning portrayal in “Three Faces of Eve?” Or, how he and Joanne had been in an affair with for five months before he left his first family behind?
As an actor, learning about how Woodward approached her roles down to the slightest nuance of a walk and Newman crafting his characters from the inside out is fascinating to learn and watch. As a human being. I learned that even those you revere in our craft are flawed at best, which makes them the best type of artists- not perfection but humans who make mistakes like the rest of us.
Loved hearing Joanne famously quip, “…acting is like sex, everyone should do it.” How the individually and collectively approached their craft can be summed up best with The Actor’s Vow by Elia Kazan and how Joanne literally tbecame the nucleus of the entire family – old and new.
“The Actor’s Vow” – Elia Kazan
I will take my rightful place on the stage
and I will be myself.
I am not a cosmic orphan.
I have no reason to be timid.
I will respond as I feel;
awkwardly, vulgarly, but respond.
I will have my throat open,
I will have my heart open,
I will be vulnerable.
I may have anything or everything
the world has to offer, but the thing I need most,
and want most, is to be myself.
I will admit rejection, admit pain, admit frustration,
admit even pettiness, admit shame, admit outrage,
admit anything and everything that happens to me.
The best and most human parts of me are those
that I have inhabited and hidden from the world.
I will work on it.
I will raise my voice.
I will be heard.
This journey is one of wonderment, surprise and admonition for these icons have now become humanized through their own words and experiences beautifully and strategically placed cinematically like pieces in a puzzle waiting to be solved. Ethan Hawke was the perfect director for this project as his enthusiasm and respect for the subjects only matches what is shared on the screen. Living in the microwave, tabloid cesspool of celebrity where some are famous for absolutely having no talent whatsoever, it’s nice to take flash back to true artists who were wonderfully philanthropic beings and literally became the last movies stars for a century.