It’s obvious from the opening credits of Ethan Hawke’s documentary, “The Last Movie Stars,” that he loves Old Hollywood. Hawke, who decided to direct this six-part look at acting legends Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward at the behest of one of the couple’s children, spends the opening talking to several of his famous friends via Zoom about the couple and how he entered into this project.
As he talks, his animation increases. Hawke not only loves Newman and Woodward, but he also loves acting, and the time period these two lived in where acting was transforming.
It’s this infectious adoration that certainly kept this reviewer hooked, in spite of only seeing one episode of the documentary which will air on CNN+ and HBO Max later this year. But in the span of 60 minutes Hawke not only lays the groundwork for how Woodward and Newman fell in love, but how they came to represent the last gasp of a dying era.
Hawke assembles a rogue’s gallery of stars for the project, from George Clooney, to Sam Rockwell, to Zoe Kazan. We learn that, at one point, Newman himself started writing his autobiography, interviewing dozens of people he knew, including his first wife Jackie Witte. At some point, for reasons unknown, Newman burned all the audio interviews and the book never came to fruition. (One of several great moments that could be categorized as “actors, they’re just like us” is Sam Rockwell saying how cool that is when he hears this.) But, luckily, the tapes were transcribed and fuel Hawke’s presentation of Newman and Woodward’s life.
Actress Laura Linney reads Woodward’s tapes, Clooney Paul Newman’s, and Kazan is Newman’s first wife, with the rest of the actors assembled reading other subjects. Though other docs have presented similar live readings, considering the focus on Newman and Woodward’s acting techniques, it gives an added layer of authenticity and study to the Method acting Hawke praises.
The discussion of the pair as masters of acting is interesting, especially as the work Woodward and Newman did — both as a couple and separately — is often overshadowed by their relationship; or, too often, Newman’s features tend to smother the work his wife did. Here, Hawke makes sure to give equal weight to the pair’s acting, spending the majority of the first episode focused on how the two came to prominence as actors.
Woodward, to her credit, was an actress who seemed to leap quicker to the big screen than her husband and was praised for being a true devotee to the Method. What might shock most fans who don’t know much about either performer is how often Newman was compared as a James Dean acolyte, and only after Dean’s death in 1955, at the age of 24, did Newman start to take on the roles that actor was known for.
Hawke and his friends pop up throughout to discuss their mutual fascination with Woodward and Newman, and it cannot be understated how fun these sequences are. Hawke jumps around and conveys so much excitement. At one point, Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio break down what Method acting is. D’Onofrio gives a crash course that transforms into him sobbing on cue only to immediately snap back and say, “That’s Method acting.” If anything, there needs to be an extended cut of this doc with the actors assembled as talking heads discussing their love of classic film.
At the same time, “The Last Movie Stars” is also a love story about Woodward and Newman’s 50-year marriage. Some of Newman’s quotes about his early days with Woodward are saucy as hell, especially with George Clooney reading them. The doc doesn’t have to necessarily rely on showing clips from the pairs respective movies, where they were each ridiculously sexy, because the actual words of both are intoxicating on their own.
The only member of the Newman clan who pops up in the first episode is Stephanie Newman, Paul’s daughter from his first marriage, who is eager to have Hawke tell her mother’s story. It’s unclear whether Jackie’s narrative continues into other episodes, but Hawke has no problem examining Newman and Woodward’s open affair while the former was married, which lasted five whole years before the two finally wed.
With five additional chapters to “The Last Movie Stars” still to go, it’s unknown whether the doc will maintain the balance of documentary with acting class that Hawke presents in episode 1. No doubt the story will show how Newman and Woodward would go on to work together in 16 features, both as actors and with Newman directing. It probably will look at Newman’s both becoming a respected director and a businessman whose numerous food items litter grocery store shelves. Maybe we’ll get lucky and see a glimpse of Woodward herself, who is still with us at 92 years old. Either way, if you’re a classic film fan or just a devotee of cinema make it a point of seeing “The Last Movie Stars.”
“The Last Movie Stars” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Festival. The six-part documentary will premiere on CNN+ later this year.