Film & TV

TV Docuseries Review: ‘The Last Movie Stars’: Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward Get the Deserved Royal Treatment

BY Michael Clark TIMEJuly 18, 2022 PRINT

TV-14 | 5h 58min | Documentary, Biography, Film History | 21 July 2022 (USA)

In the mid-1980s, Paul Newman recorded over 100 interviews with his friends, family, film industry associates, and even his ex-wife Jackie Witte, for the purpose of preparing a memoir to be co-penned by Stewart Stern (the screenwriter of “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Rachel, Rachel” among others). For reasons known only to him, Newman abandoned the project and burned the recordings.

It’s never made clear if Stern had transcribed the tapes before Newman destroyed them, but the voluminous pages ultimately landed in the hands of Newman’s daughter Clea, a friend of Ethan Hawke.

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Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward on the red carpet at the 41st Academy Awards, April 14, 1969. (Graphic House/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

A devotee of Newman’s since seeing him in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” as a child, Hawke enthusiastically accepted Clea’s request to make better use of the transcripts. And the end result is the HBO Max docuseries “The Last Movie Stars.”

Not All Unicorns and Rainbows

Newman and Joanne Woodward, his second wife of over 50 years, were the rarest of Hollywood couples. While there are dozens of other celebrities who were or have been married longer, none of these pairings include two acting legends. Like practically every other married couple in history, the Newmans had their ebbs and flows. At one point she threatened to divorce him over his ever-increasing alcohol intake, and his smart-aleck retort was that he’d give up hard liquor and drink only beer and wine. She agreed to the terms and they moved on.

This wasn’t the first or last bump in their long journey. In a 1968 interview with “Playboy,” when asked about the temptation of straying, Newman replied: “There’s no reason to roam. I have steak at home. Why should I go out for hamburger?”

For many, this would be received as a compliment and an unwavering declaration of love and commitment, yet Woodward took umbrage at being compared to a piece of meat.

Most Newman-Woodward fans weren’t aware of her displeasure over this and the “drinking ultimatum” incident. The fact that Hawke includes them here is testament to his desire to avoid sycophantic fawning or cranking out biased, pure rose-colored-glasses fan service.

Something that the established Newman-Woodward base is keenly aware of (but perhaps not casual viewers) is the misconception that his career always overshadowed and eclipsed hers. From the time they’d met in the 1953 stage play “Picnic” to beyond her Oscar win for the 1957 film “The Three Faces of Eve,” Newman and practically everyone else in the know considered Woodward to be a far more talented thespian.

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Joanne Woodward on March 27, 1958, with her husband, Paul Newman, after winning the Academy Award for Best Actress. (Dave Cicero/International News/AFP via Getty Images)

She was a follower of “the method” and he over-thought his craft. Newman was regarded by his peers and the studios as a second-rate version of James Dean or Marlon Brando.

The Pendulum Swings

Although he’d previously received Oscar nominations for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958) and “The Hustler” (1961), it was with the titular role in “Hud” in 1963 that Newman’s career hit full stride. At the same time, Woodward chose to put her career on the back burner and devoted the bulk of her efforts to child rearing (the three she had with Newman and three he’d fathered with Witte).

The couple’s career pendulum had swung fully and permanently in Newman’s direction. He became and remained the top male box office draw for slightly beyond the next decade.

Had the series been solely about the two leads’ courtship, marriage, and parallel careers, Hawke could’ve covered it all and done so thoroughly in three or so hours. Yet, while these subplots have threads running for the entire length of the production, the final two installments put the focus on what transpired after the death of their son Scott.

Appearing in but not alongside his father in “The Towering Inferno,” Scott inherited Newman’s gene for alcohol overuse (and on top of that, substance abuse), but nary an iota of his acting talent. He wasn’t the first child to try and emulate a famous parent and he won’t be the last, and it eventually got the best of him. Scott died of a drug and alcohol overdose in 1978.

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Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman pose on August 23, 1989, in Paris. The Newman couple were in Paris for the shooting of James Ivory’s film “Mr. and Mrs. Bridges.” (Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP via Getty Images)

A man who stated that his only parental achievement was in teaching his children how to drive, Newman was shaken to the core over his son’s death, which he took to his grave. In 1980, he founded a drug treatment center in Scott’s name and, later, the “Hole in the Wall Gang” camp serving child cancer patients and their families.

Arguably, Newman’s greatest late-in-life achievement was the 1982 creation of the “Newman’s Own” brand of retail food products, which to date has donated in excess of $550 million after-tax and post-production cost profits to assorted charities.

Lose the Zoom

While Hawke and editor Barry Poltermann masterfully assembled the nuts and bolts of the production (the interview re-creations, still photos, news reels, film and TV excerpts), they also made the iffy decision to include what, in any other instance, would be considered to be B-roll or home video bonus content.

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Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman attend a reception for a special screening of “The Woodsman” in New York City on Jan. 10, 2004. (Peter Kramer/Getty Images)

The opening title sequence in the series features Hawke and the voice actors (via Zoom calls) “geeking out” over Newman and Woodward, who are first seen in the “bank vault” scene from “Mr. & Mrs. Bridge” (their last of 16 movies together). This, in itself, isn’t a bad thing as all are fans of the Golden Age of Hollywood they’re about to celebrate, but the continuity of the series as a whole suffers because of it. It doesn’t help matters that the visual quality of the Zoom footage ranges from mediocre to downright awful.

In total, these informative but distracting back-and-forths (peppered throughout the entire production) take up roughly 20 percent of the almost six-hour running time. Had these passages been excised and put together as a stand-alone “making of” featurette, the overall quality of the docuseries would easily go from a soft four to a solid five stars.

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Ethan Hawke in Pasadena, Calif., in 2020. (Cara Robbins/Contour by Getty Images)

Last Power Couple

Were Newman and Woodward “The Last Movie Stars”? Some would say Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and George Clooney (who voices Newman here) are indeed “movie stars,” but they are all solo acts.

Julia Roberts, Jessica Lang, and Cate Blanchett may not be single, but their partners do not share the same limelight. As for married acting teams, none have before or since ever achieved the same legacy and staying power on and off the screen more than Newman and Woodward.

‘The Last Movie Stars’
Director: Ethan Hawke
Docuseries
Voice actors: George Clooney, Laura Linney, Sam Rockwell, Zoe Kazan, Vincent D’Onofrio
Running Time: 5 hours, 58 minutes
TV Rating: TV-14
Release Date: July 21, 2022
Rating: 4 out of 5

Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on FloridaManRadio.com. Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.
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