Until quite late in the process of crafting “The Last Movie Stars” — a six-hour deep dive into the on- and off-screen lives of Hollywood golden couple Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, now streaming on HBO Max — director Ethan Hawke resisted the notion that he was making a TV series.
“I don’t like episodic. I don’t like the nature of false cliffhangers. My brain is allergic to that,” admits Hawke, who unveiled an hour of the project at the South by Southwest film festival in March, then two more segments at the Cannes Film Festival in May. “When I started, I really wanted it to be short enough that you could watch it in one sitting. I wanted to lasso it into the size of ‘No Direction Home’ or something like that.”
But the more he dug, the bigger it grew, expanding beyond the couple’s career successes — which include 14 Academy Award nominations between them, a best actor Oscar, a best actress Oscar and four Emmys — to their philanthropy, political activism and unusually private (for such a high-profile pair) personal lives. The final episode, which begins with the couple’s deaths and runs slightly more than 90 minutes, is like a film unto itself.
“If I had to make one feature-length documentary about Paul and Joanne, that’s what it would be,” Hawke says. That said, “I didn’t want to make the movie about their death. I wanted to make it about their life.” That’s why the last chapter buries them up front, then works backward through the most complex portion of their lives. (Hawke likens the undertaking to Doris Goodwin Kearns’ nearly-800-page FDR biography “No Ordinary Time.”)
It all started with a phone call from the couple’s youngest daughter, Clea Newman. Years earlier, “Rebel Without a Cause” screenwriter Stewart Stern had conducted a series of interviews with practically all the key parties for a biography about their father. But at a certain point, Paul had changed his mind and destroyed the tapes.
Fortunately, a stack of transcripts survived, including candid insights from so many of the key players in the couple’s life, from former roommate Gore Vidal and director Elia Kazan (who auditioned Newman for James Dean’s role in “East of Eden” and favored him over Marlon Brando for “On the Waterfront”) to Newman’s first wife, Jacqueline Witte.
“I knew enough to know what a huge undertaking it would be. And I desperately wanted to say no, because I understood that if I said yes, it would hijack a couple years of my life,” Hawke says. What he couldn’t know, however, was that a different, totally unforeseen force would hijack everybody’s lives, making the project an ideal distraction from the pandemic.
In any case, the more Hawke thought about it, the more impressed and intrigued he was with the couple, who met each other early in their career and left an incredible legacy as activists, parents and first-class movie stars — two of the last surviving members of the Lee Strasberg-trained generation that propelled acting into the modern era.
“We’re talking about two white people in America who were born with a lot and did a hell of a lot with it. They gave back, making meaningful substantive art for 50 years; they gave hundreds of millions of dollars away. They gave away a hell of a lot more money than they had,” Hawke says. “I was curious how to sustain that level of excellence for 50 years. Like, how does a person do that?”
Because Hawke had been approached by the couple’s children, he had their support to examine all aspects of their parents’ story, including the damage caused by the divorce and the impacts of Newman’s alcoholism. “They understand journalistic integrity, and they understand art, in that you have to have a point of view. Anytime somebody does something nonfiction, it’s not the truth; it’s the truth with a point of view,” Hawke says.
“They spent their life listening to people hyperbolize their father, and felt that the world diminished the most amazing person in their life, their mother. And if it were entirely up to them, they would have this whole thing be about their mom, but you can’t tell Joanne’s story and not include Paul. Their lives were inextricably entwined together.”
To bring the transcripts to life, Hawke had the idea of enlisting fellow actors to perform the interviews and other archival segments in character: George Clooney agreed to play Paul, Laura Linney (who’d acted opposite Woodward early in her career) read Joanne’s words, with more than a dozen others playing close friends and collaborators. He did the sessions on Zoom, never intending to include that footage in the film.
“We started using them only as placeholders,” he said. “I hate Zoom. If I never see Zoom again as long as I live, it’s too much. But then I started realizing there’s a vérité quality to Zoom that’s very dynamic when juxtaposed with these Technicolor Hollywood movies. It’s almost like we were pulling back the curtain and seeing behind stage.”
Plus, it brought another key dimension to the film: one in which actors could share their insights into the couple’s craft. In an early Zoom clip, Vincent D’Onofrio demonstrates Method acting. Several episodes later, Sally Field recalls how Woodward was instrumental in her being cast in the career-making miniseries “Sybil.”
In the end, “it did hijack my brain, and there were many times when I thought I was in way over my head,” Hawke admits. But the six-part format allowed him to go deep on various aspects of their career that he found important — like how Woodward was the bigger, more respected star when they married (landing mammoth roles in films such as “The Three Faces of Eve” and “The Fugitive Kind”), and how Newman’s success eclipsed hers.
Among Woodward’s greatest regrets was an adaptation of William Inge’s play “A Loss of Roses” that the studio reportedly overhauled and renamed “The Stripper.”
“She says Darryl Zanuck ruined it. Did he? Was it really so much better? I don’t know. The cut doesn’t exist, so we can’t know,” Hawke says. “We know that the play is a lot better, and I can tell by watching it scene by scene, that Joanne is amazing in the movie. Warren Beatty played the part originally on Broadway. If they got him, it might have been more looked after. But for our movie, it sure became the perfect metaphor.”
“The Last Movie Stars” positions the project as one that might have been her “On the Waterfront.” It could’ve made her a contender — even more than she already was. Instead, Hawke explains, “You see Joanne being strong-armed into a lane as soon as she has children.” At the end of the second episode, he quotes Woodward as saying, “If I had to do it all over again, I might not have had children. Actors don’t make good parents.”
They’re startling words, but not so much a disavowal of her life choices as a candid acknowledgement that Woodward didn’t understand what she was going to be asked to give up, Hawke explains. “We don’t like hearing it, but that’s one of the hard things that the female experience provides, which is they’re not allowed to have nuanced feelings about parenting,” he says. “Paul didn’t have to give up his career when he became a dad.”
Which is part of the reason Newman became a director, “The Last Movie Stars” explains: He decided to direct “Rachel, Rachel” so Woodward could play the lead role, knowing the project would showcase her incredible range. They made 15 films together in all.
“You know, something I wasn’t able to include that I found really interesting is that, although she said that [about being a parent], at the end of their life, he really regretted missing the time with the kids, and she didn’t regret anything.”