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The Last Movie Stars Series-Premiere Recap: They Meet, They Marry, They Make It

The Last Movie Star

Cosmic Orphans/A Star Is Born
Season 1 Episodes 1 and 2
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

The Last Movie Star

Cosmic Orphans/A Star Is Born
Season 1 Episodes 1 and 2
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Courtesy of HBO

When I told my wife there was a new documentary about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, she, born in the ’90s, jokingly said, “Newman like the salad dressing?” And I had to say yes, that is the same person.

She is potentially a poor barometer of Woodward and Newman knowledge, but my guess is that many millennials, outside of the men who kept a Hustler poster on their fresh-out-of-college apartment walls, and most of Gen Z do not have a good idea of who these people are. Ethan Hawke’s six-part documentary examines Woodward and Newman’s marriage, careers, feelings about each other’s success, and the Hollywood era in which they reigned. Hawke, who talks to his star cast via Zoom, relating details of his subjects’ lives to them, seems determined to bring Woodward and Newman back into the cultural narrative — something that feels eminently possible within a six-hour docuseries.

While I grew up staying awake until 1 a.m. to watch a Rosalind Russell film that I hadn’t seen yet on TCM, I was too conservatively Christian to enjoy classic films past the 1950s. Even the 1950s were a stretch. They started talking about sex then; can you imagine? Let’s take a few steps back there, Doris Day. Joanne Woodward won her Oscar in 1957 for The Three Faces of Eve, and Paul Newman’s breakthrough role was in 1956’s Somebody Up There Likes Me, with his star in the definite ascendant in the early ’60s.

Their marriage lasted 50 years, something impressive in any sense but considered a miracle for Hollywood actors. Before that, they had an affair for more than five years, weathered Paul’s divorce from his first wife, and eventually had three children together. This was done while battling the serious obstacle of dueling egos and jealousies over celebrity and star power. They attended the 1963 March on Washington, worked for liberal causes — and Paul would wind up on Nixon’s enemies list. “But what of the salad dressing?” you ask. Paul and his friend started it, and all profits are donated to support children and their families, particularly those dealing with food insecurity.

This all seems very rosy, but the first two episodes of the docuseries strike an impressive balance of admiration for their subjects and clear-sightedness regarding their difficulties and flaws. Hawke’s entire conceit for the documentary came about because Paul and a friend recorded interviews with more than 100 people in Paul’s life. Then Paul burned the tapes. Of course he did. Look. I understand the right to privacy, etc. But sometimes, as humans, we want to be nosy and know what you said. I support a time lock that means no one can read/hear it for a century because then you also give people something to look forward to.

Fortunately, while the tapes were burned (the first two episodes do not mention why, but perhaps we discover this later?), Paul’s friend had transcripts made. Hawke’s workaround is to get celebrities of the 20th and 21st centuries to narrate. Laura Linney and George Clooney take Woodward and Newman; Zoe Kazan is Newman’s first wife, Jackie; and an amazing Brooks Ashmanskas is Gore Vidal. Vidal gives us the title of the documentary, saying that our protagonists “presided over the end of the movies as the universal art form … I think people will think of them as the last movie stars. They’re the last people who were treated at the beginning of their careers the way Gary Cooper, Katharine Hepburn were treated, and they survived.”

When I say Brooks Ashmanskas nails the Gore Vidal voice, I mean it is basically my favorite part of this whole series. Vidal comes into it because he was good friends with Paul and Joanne and also because he was a Cultural Commentator of the Age.

In the first two episodes, we focus on their early careers and breakout roles. Paul and Joanne first met at her agent’s office and then were both understudies in the hit play Picnic (the movie version of which starred Rosalind Russell — a callback!). Paul had to do a dance laden with sexual tension for one scene, only he was less than confident in his dance abilities, so Joanne taught him how to dance backstage. That they fell in love this way is shocking to no one. I’d honestly be surprised if anyone was able to survive that kind of situation unscathed.

They soon got involved, despite Paul being married. He says they recognized each other as orphans, saying, “We just banged it out together as orphans and left a trail of lust all over the place.” Morally suspect! And yet a good quote.

Both Paul and Joanne joined the Actors Studio, a membership organization that taught Method acting. Yes, that thing Daniel Day-Lewis does. At the time, everyone was nuts about Marlon Brando, and Paul mentions that the first film that made an impression on him was 1954’s On the Waterfront, of “I could’ve been a contender” fame. Brando and James Dean were the Big Names in 1950s cinema. Or at least the names getting the roles that Paul Newman wanted.

Vidal mentions that every part Paul got was a lesser part that someone better had passed on until, Vidal says in his characteristically callous but charming way, James Dean died as a result of crashing into “Mr. Turnupseed.” I definitely thought this was Vidal’s cruel nickname for a turnip farmer until I looked it up (he was a college student named Donald Turnupseed). So Paul got the starring role in Somebody Up There Likes Me, and then he got Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and then he got The HustlerHud, and so on. Paul referred to this as “Newman’s luck.”

Before Newman’s luck truly kicked in, though, Joanne was getting all the acclaim. She starred in The Three Faces of Eve, a movie about a woman with dissociative identity disorder (known at the time as multiple personality disorder), and won an Oscar for it. She was intense about her acting as a craft and did things like talk to Martha Graham about how to represent the different aspects of Eve. Graham’s solution was to pick the way each of them moves, which is a great idea, but when you think about it, it’s kind of like, Yeah, I’d already decided that; that’s why I came to you, Martha Graham, reshaper of American dance.

Hawke interviews Paul and Jackie’s daughter Stephanie about her parents’ divorce, which she says destroyed her mother, who had three children under the age of five: “My mom was divorced, and then Joanne got her Oscar.” Paul and Joanne’s longtime affair during his marriage (and, seemingly, during the time he fathered multiple children with his wife) is definitely something that causes discomfort. But, as the series points out, the only people who truly know a marriage are the people in it. In an interview with Jackie, she is asked if she was happy, and she first replies, “I probably felt that I ought to be.” When pressed, she says no. But at the time, one didn’t consider divorce a real option.

Throughout all this is talk of Paul’s insecurity and the fact he wasn’t a “soulful” actor. Those interviewed seem to think he was a good enough actor but couldn’t make it into the upper echelons. This feels right. I didn’t buy a DVD of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof because I love watching people shout Tennessee Williams monologues at each other; I bought it because 1958 Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman are some of the most attractive people ever been put on God’s green earth.

Episode two focuses on Joanne as a mother and their relationship as Paul started getting bigger and bigger roles while she stayed home with the children. Their daughter Nell clearly tries to be understanding as she says, “I don’t think she was a natural mom,” which is borne out later as Joanne says that if she had to do it all over again, she might not have children: “Actors don’t make good parents.”

Joanne’s regret is not surprising, and it does make you wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t been essentially forced to choose between taking care of their children and her career. She’s acknowledged as the better actor, but even Zoe Kazan admits she doesn’t think she has seen a Joanne Woodward movie. They’ve mostly fallen to the wayside, and you’re much less likely to catch No Down Payment playing on TV than something like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Paul and Joanne would, however, go on to star in 16 movies together, navigating a 50-year-long marriage along the way, which is for the next episodes.

The Last Movie Stars Series-Premiere Recap