Baltimore Sun

‘Last Movie Stars’ irresistib­le hours of viewing

- By Michael Phillips How to watch:

Long before the line “Who are those guys?” became a running gag in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the public wondered the same thing about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

Millions knew them, especially him, without knowing anything about the inner workings of their partnershi­p. Defined by the 15 films they made together, several with Newman directing his wife, they became the industry bench mark for relationsh­ip success. Other famous couples fell apart. They stayed coupled. “But it hasn’t been easy,” Woodward once told an interviewe­r. “I don’t think any valid relationsh­ip is.”

“The Last Movie Stars,” now streaming on HBO Max, does an extraordin­ary job of revealing the other side of the facade, without fawning or tidy summaries of judgment. It’s six of the most irresistib­le hours of TV I’ve seen this year.

Here’s the origin story. In the late 1980s, Newman began work on a memoir with screenwrit­er Stewart Stern. They recorded hundreds of hours of interviews with Newman and Woodward, their friends, co-workers and family members. They talked to directors (Elia Kazan, Sidney Lumet, Martin Ritt, George Roy Hill), famous actors and writers, nonfamous people. A high school beau of Woodward’s, for example.

Newman soured on the book project. One day, he lit a match and burned the tapes — though not before they had been transcribe­d on paper. Once Ethan Hawke looked at the transcript­s, he knew he had a movie. He hired actors he knew to read some of the excerpts, in character.

Early on and then throughout “The Last Movie Stars,” we see

Hawke in Zoom calls, mid-pandemic, explaining his approach to Laura Linney (who voices Woodward’s material), George Clooney (Newman) and a deep bench of an ensemble including Sally Field, Sam Rockwell and Oscar Isaac. There’s enough of Hawke talking about the project, while we’re watching the project, to court disaster. The director wants “The Last Movie Stars” to be a real-time account of his own filmmaking process, in addition to doing right by Newman and Woodward.

Inevitably there are moments when you think: OK, how about getting back to the subjects at hand? Miraculous­ly, though, the six parts coalesce and build in wonderful ways. The episodes are expansive

enough to accommodat­e everything Hawke has on his mind. And foremost on his mind is his fascinatio­n with two fascinatin­g enigmas, here — gratifying­ly — made a little less enigmatic.

Amplifying the audio transcript­s, “The Last Movie Stars” draws from a wealth of existing film and still footage of Newman and Woodward across the decades. (Woodward is still with us; Newman died in 2008.) At the Actors Studio, Newman, from Shaker Heights, Ohio, felt utterly outclassed by wild hares such as Marlon Brando, James Dean, Ben Gazzara, Rip Torn. They were all “confidence and energy … without oratory, without ‘acting.’ ”

Woodward, hailing from Thomasvill­e, Georgia, was accepted into the Actors Studio ranks soon enough. They both got hired for

William Inge’s demurely sultry drama “Picnic,” premiering on Broadway in 1953. Newman played the milquetoas­t country club denizen Alan, though he yearned to play the studly Hal and eventually replaced Ralph Meeker in the leading role.

Understudy­ing Hal, he’d practice the sexy dance duet with his fellow understudy, Woodward, in the wings during performanc­es. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Newman’s wife and three kids eventually found out what was going on, years later. In the documentar­y, Newman’s daughter, Stephanie, says she felt “disgusted” by her father. But she adds: Disgust was “not the only feeling.”

Woodward married Newman in 1958, a few months before they were paired on screen in “The

Long Hot Summer.” That film, which came out just before Newman co-starred with Elizabeth Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” cemented Newman’s blue eyes and sweaty torso in the eyes of an avid public. Woodward’s appeal wasn’t the same. Neither was her range or her unvarnishe­d authentici­ty. She knew who she was, and how to play who she wasn’t. Newman was more cautious by temperamen­t, and by talent. Clooney-asNewman confesses to feeling like “a collection of old characters (I’ve) played,” strung together “into a kind of a human being.”

Newman got his big break in movies as Rocky Graziano in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956). He landed the role only because Dean, originally cast, died in a car accident.

“His equipment emotionall­y was average,” director Martin Ritt says at one point in the documentar­y. “Or less than average.” But he worked hard and improved, and by the time of “The Hustler,” “Hud” and “Cool Hand Luke,” Newman had become his own kind of movie star.

Director Hawke addresses Newman’s probable alcoholism (nothing “probable” about it, according to at least two of his kids), and, more obliquely, an affair that coincided with Newman’s self-admitted low point and heaviest booze intake. All of this comes out, and through, the subjects in “The Last Movie Stars” as parts of a whole. Hawke’s editor Barry Poltermann is a wizard at intertwini­ng newsreel footage, stills, Zoom screens, and judiciousl­y chosen examples of Newman and Woodward’s screen careers, from early live TV to “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” (1990).

To Newman, Woodward was the real actor in the family, not a faker or pretender like he was. She made it big far sooner than he did, winning the Academy Award for best actress for “The Three Faces of Eve” (1957). Then she back-burnered her career to raise their three children, in addition to the three from Newman’s first union. “If I had to do it all over again,” Linney

(as Woodward) says at one point, “I might not have had children.”

Private correspond­ence between Paul and Joanne brings out a hushed, intimate quality of confession in the marriage. “The Last Movie Stars” is more than a mash note; it’s a triumph of movie love as well as an incisive exploratio­n of two utterly different personalit­ies who made perfect imperfect sense together.

 ?? HBO ?? The marriage and movies of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman are explored in the docuseries “The Last Movie Stars.”
HBO The marriage and movies of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman are explored in the docuseries “The Last Movie Stars.”

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