tv review

Only a Star Could Make The Last Movie Stars

Photo: HBO

The sweatiest, most homework-y moment of any documentary project is the hard work of setting the stakes, that necessary introduction that tends to rely on sweeping generalizations about time and human nature. A six-part series on the lives of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, directed by and prominently featuring Ethan Hawke, could’ve instantly slipped into plaintive nostalgia for a bygone era or underexamined hero worship for the towering legacies of two icons. The title alone, The Last Movie Stars, feels a bit like a joke when articulated by a man with a lengthy “awards” section on his own Wikipedia page. But the docuseries, which premiered in full on HBO Max on July 21, runs on Hawke’s intense curiosity and enthusiasm for his subjects. He showcases Newman and Woodward’s work with a consistent, careful, critical assessment, and the result is personal and loving, especially in the many sequences that dwell on the darker, less flattering qualities of its two subjects.

The foundational material for The Last Movie Stars comes from a massive collection of interviews Newman helped collect as part of a potential memoir project. Although he eventually destroyed the tapes, one of his children gave Hawke the boxes and boxes of transcribed interviews with over a hundred of Newman and Woodward’s friends, family, and collaborators. Hawke makes two choices about those transcripts that shape what eventually becomes The Last Movie Stars: He asks other celebrities to narrate them, and he includes his conversations about the project in the series itself.

The combination of those choices is astonishingly canny. In long stretches, the series has all the satisfying, weighty gravitas of a Ken Burns documentary. George Clooney provides the voice for Paul Newman; Laura Linney reads for Joanne Woodward. There is a reason Burns’s signature device — an actor reading well-chosen material over a sequence of still photographs — is so often imitated: There’s an arresting sense of seeing someone from the inside and outside all at once. The interviews also include Zoe Kazan as Newman’s first wife, Jackie McDonald; Josh Hamilton as George Roy Hill; Bobby Cannavale as Elia Kazan; director Tom McCarthy as Sidney Lumet; and Brooks Ashmanskas as a gloriously plummy Gore Vidal. They give The Last Movie Stars a gentle, old-fashioned quality, both gossipy and gracious.

By including himself and his conversations with colleagues, Hawke gets to hop over all that slow, obligatory table-setting in the first eight minutes. He tells Clooney and Linney roughly how the project will work, neatly doubling as an explanation to the audience; he tells actor Billy Crudup about the discovery of the interview transcripts, and Crudup and Hawke mirror each other’s shocked delight, forestalling any need to explain why the series feels worthwhile. Hawke does not deny that Newman and Woodward are giants of American film history, but The Last Movie Stars is not solely powered by their legacies. “We’re having fun revisiting the generation before us,” Hawke says. As a documentary framing, it is simple and it is potent.

The Last Movie Stars spends most of its time on Newman and Woodward, presenting and unpacking their lives from a dozen different angles. There are biographical portions told through the transcripts and conversations with their children and grandchildren. There are extended considerations of several of their films, their iconographies, and their career trajectories. Their biographies are almost always presented as part of a larger critical argument about the “real” Newman and Woodward, and that argument feeds back into other revelations about their lives. It’s not just that Woodward was lauded as the more successful actor before Newman’s career took off, for instance; it’s that Woodward’s instinctive, naturalistic performances triggered specific areas of anxiety for Newman, which then fed into his own dissociative awareness of wearing emotion externally rather than producing it from within. That feeling of being second-rate fueled Newman’s ambition, tangled with the way he worshiped Woodward, and fed into his alcoholism and later obsession with racing cars. Then there’s Woodward, whose career was on a moonshot trajectory until she took a backseat to Newman following the birth of her children. Among other things, she says that while she loves her children dearly, she might not have chosen motherhood if she could do it all over again. Taken from a distance, the close readings of their lives bleed into each other in ways that feel inevitable but are actually the result of Hawke’s careful, fluid analysis.

The Last Movie Stars is romantic about the power of acting, respectful and almost rhapsodic about the work and appeal of transformative performances. But more than that, it is awed by the challenge and romanticism of Woodward and Newman’s long marriage — the way that, as Hawke’s daughter Maya describes it at one point in the series, the relationship itself can become a third person, entirely separate from either individual. But there is little empty hero creation in The Last Movie Stars; it is just as interested in considering the hagiography around Woodward and Newman as it is in celebrating their lives. At several points, Hawke refers to the project as “a film,” and it’s unclear whether he originally intended it as a feature-length project or the term is a quirk of how he speaks. Regardless, The Last Movie Stars benefits from the series-length treatment. It’s an indulgent project, but it’s thoughtful enough about episodic shape to justify the run time. By the end, it cannot help but trend toward a touch of mysticism, and yet it’s hard to begrudge Hawke’s bald fondness.

The most compelling achievement of The Last Movie Stars, though, is its ability to incorporate Hawke and his collection of contemporary Hollywood figures in a way that shifts and deepens the project without ever distracting from its central subjects. The bulk of the series is a striking, thoughtful exploration of two people from a previous generation in Hollywood. But quietly, in its negative spaces, it is a series about contemporary stardom, what it means to be an actor, and the nature of Hawke’s curiosity and critical eye. If one pitfall of the prestige historical docuseries is its similarity to homework, the other is the appearance of a false objectivity, like a god from on high staring down on the course of human events. There’s none of that here. It’s charming to be led into these stories by an engaged tour guide, but every tour gets better when you start to get a hint — just a little — of the guide’s sense of self. “What are you learning about yourself, making this?” Zoe Kazan asks Hawke late in the series. He doesn’t respond, and any answer would make that moment too centered on him. The series itself is his best response.

Only a Star Could Make The Last Movie Stars