Ethan Hawke resisted making his HBO Max Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward documentary. Until he couldn’t
When actor-director Ethan Hawke was offered the chance to direct a documentary about married movie stars Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, he knew it was a huge opportunity.
But he didn’t say yes, at least not at first.
“My first reaction was, ‘Absolutely not,’” Hawke says on a recent video call. “I just knew it would hijack my brain. And I worried a lot.”
Hawke, 51, knew a fair bit about Newman, who died at 83 in 2008, and Woodward, 92, who retired from public life after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease some years ago.
He knew they’d attended the same acting classes as Marlon Brando, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. They’d made scores of movies together, often acting together as they had in the 1990 masterpiece “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge,” a film for which Hawke had auditioned. Their Newman’s Own food line had raised millions for philanthropic causes.
But outside of the biggest films made by Newman and Woodward, there was a whole lot to know.
“The 40 years that happened in between, the 50 years, is a lot,” Hawke says. “Like, how the hell was anybody to make sense out of that? How do you create a narrative?”
Still, as “The Last Movie Stars,” the six-part docuseries that arrived on HBO Max Thursday, makes clear, they were special.
Not that it was originally going to be that big of a project, Hawke says.
“If they had said to me, ‘Do you want to direct a six-part docuseries?’ I would have said no, definitely,” he says. “They said, ‘You know, we’ll just make a little two-hour documentary and we have some material for you.’ And they sent me some home movies that were really charming.
“It felt like somebody daring you: ‘I dare you to make a documentary about it,’” Hawke says. “I was like, all right, I’ll jump off the high dive. I’ll take the dare.”
Finding the story
There was good news and bad news regarding the materials that Hawke was provided by the Newman-Woodward family.
The good news: At some point in the ’80s, Newman recorded hours of interviews for a memoir, which included the couple but also family and friends such as writer Gore Vidal, directors and frequent collaborators George Roy Hill and Martin Ritt, Woodward’s stepmother, and Newman’s first wife.
The bad: When Newman decided to ditch the memoir a few years later, he burned all the tapes, though the conversations still existed in hundreds of pages of transcripts made by Newman’s collaborator on the project, his friend, the screenwriter Stewart Stern.
Hawke took the transcripts and reached out to his many actor friends to breathe life back into the stories the transcripts told. George Clooney plays Newman, Laura Linney took Woodward, and others including Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn, Zoe Kazan, and Josh Newman handled different real-life characters in the transcripts.
That same improvisatory spirit produced another unusual but effective technique in the documentary. As Hawke talked to his voice cast and others, including the Newman children and executive producer Martin Scorsese on Zoom, he recorded the video calls, never thinking he might use pieces of them in the documentary, he says.
“I didn’t want to insert myself at all. And yet there was something, as I would Zoom with my friends, and ask them to read these parts, that was bigger than us happening that I liked,” Hawke says.
“For example, just a little moment where you can tell Sam Rockwell’s remembering a tiny moment in ‘The Sting’ so vividly,” he says. “It’s probably been 25 years since he saw that movie or thought about it, but he remembers the cardplaying scene, and what a great scene it is.
“You realize in the spontaneity of that moment, the impact the previous generation has had on this one, and how interconnected we all are.”
The Zoom interludes end up drawing viewers into the conversations Hawke and his collaborators are having about Newman and Woodward, almost making them part of Hawke’s quest to understand what made the couple so special.
“My editor was like, ‘This might be an interesting way to make sure the audience is with us all the time,’” Hawke says. “I just embraced the moment and made it part of the documentary.”
A vulnerable star
In the opening minutes of the series, Hawke tells a story about driving to church with his dad on a Sunday morning, only for his father to suggest they skip out and catch an early screening of Newman and Robert Redford in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
“I was hypnotized by him right away,” he says. “I mean, he manifested so many of the positive attributes of being male, right? No pun intended, he was just so butch, so cool, and so sensitive at the same time. And seemed kind.
“It cut a path of what a positive masculinity could be.”
The 1982 film “The Verdict” arrived at the time Hawke says he was falling in love with acting and seeing it when he was a 12-year-old boy left a deep impression.
“It’s so rare somebody who’s like a card-carrying movie star makes themselves vulnerable the way he was in that movie,” Hawke says.
A few years later, the 1986 film “The Color Of Money,” earned Newman his only acting Oscar and sent Hawke back to 1961’s “The Hustler,” the movie to which the later film was a sequel.
“To watch the breadth of his career as a young actor was really powerful,” he says. “Because it makes you believe that good acting isn’t a fad, that it’s something that can be worked on, and provide you with a meaningful, substantive life.”
The actor’s actor
Where Newman was a very good actor and a genuine movie star, Woodward’s reputation was the reverse, an actor’s actor – more talented than her husband, according to many in the documentary – who missed the huge commercial success of Newman.
“I knew her name and I guess she was famous, but I didn’t really become aware of her until I was around 20 and “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” came out,” Hawke says. “It’s a breathtaking performance. I remember sitting there going, ‘Wow, this woman can act.’
“You have no idea what she’s gonna say next or do next,” he says. “She can be both funny and strong and small and big at the same time.”
As an acting student in New York, he sometimes saw Newman and Woodward out and about, including one night when Woodward happened to be in the audience for a production of Kenneth Lonergan’s play “The Waverly Gallery” that Hawke and his friend the director Richard Linklater went to see.
“My friend Josh Hamilton was in the play and the lead actress didn’t show up for this performance, so they were going to cancel,” Hawke says. “And Josh had kind of known Joanne Woodward, I don’t know, from class or something, and he just said, ‘Well, before everybody goes, would you read the part?’
“Joanne Woodward walked on stage with a book in her hand,” he says. “She would be guided around the stage. And at the end of the night, the roof came off the building.
“She was at a place where the acting was so effortless. I mean, she gave a performance on a cold read with a live audience. I’d never seen anything like it.
“So that woman was just a hero to me.”
Legacy of love
The length of “The Last Movie Stars” gave Hawke plenty of space to go deep into the lives of Newman and Woodward. There’s a bounty of glorious clips from films good – Woodward’s Oscar-winning role in “The Three Faces of Eve” – to those less so: “The Towering Inferno,” anyone?
There’s also space to explore the harder chapters in a marriage that lasted 50 years – Newman’s drinking, Woodward’s disappointment in setting aside her career to care for her children, the loss of their son Scott to drugs.
It’s clear, though, by the end of the series that their love for each other was always strong enough to weather the rough times, Hawke says.
“It was wonderful to discover how passionate they were for each other,” Hawke says of the unexpected pathways his research led the story. “I mean, these people were lovers. You think of husbands and wives often, and it’s just like, ‘Oh, they’re married.’
“But these people were loved for a long time, and that was kind of delightful,” he says. “Reading his transcripts, they loved to be with each other and kiss each other and touch each other, and they longed for each other when they were apart.
“There’s a great old interview that didn’t make the final cut where he’s with Larry King, and Paul’s old,” Hawke says. “He’s old, and Larry King says, ‘Well, it’s nice to hear that a sexual relationship can sustain.’ And Paul goes, ‘Let’s hope!’
“That part was charming,” Hawke says, laughing.
Near the end of the film, Hawke visited the couple’s longtime Connecticut home and filmed inside the renovated barn where Newman and Woodward screened movies, hosted parties, and displayed all the many awards they’d received in their careers.
“I left there profoundly depressed because all these things that I’d coveted or thought would give life meaning are just sitting there collecting dust,” he says. “But then I had this realization that those awards weren’t for us, or they weren’t for now. They were for them in that moment, for them and them only.
“And then I had this realization that the biggest legacy they have is the way they lived their life, and the impact that can have on all of us,” Hawke says. “I was kind of like, That’s what the movie should feel like when it’s over.”
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