Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The Last Movie Stars, on HBO Max

Even at the height of voyeuristic reality TV, nobody thought to make a Bobby & Whitney-style show about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Everyone considered them Hollywood’s classiest power couple, so they assumed they must be boring. However, their relationship had plenty of behind-the-scenes drama. Ethan Hawke never shies away from any of it during his six-part documentary profile of Woodward and Newman, The Last Movie Stars, which premieres tomorrow on HBO Max.

They first worked together on the Broadway production of
Picnic and soon became an item. There was a slight complication though, given the fact Newman was already married—to somebody else. That obviously planted the seed for certain tensions, as the Newman’s daughters (from both marriages) eventually address.

Despite their mutual fame and frequent collaborations, the two were on different career trajectories, which contributed to the other major theme of Hawke’s docu-series. At first, Woodward was the bigger star, thanks to her Oscar for
The Three Faces of Eve. Of course, Newman soon eclipsed her with Somebody Up There Likes Me and he only grew in popularity through his Tennessee Williams films.

To tell their story, Hawke had a wealth of primary sources to draw from. Newman had commissioned his screenwriter friend Stewart Stern to conduct interviews with all the major people in his life (including his first wife), when he had a notion of writing an autobiography (that Knopf bought at auction for good money). When Newman changed his mind, he burned the tapes, but the transcripts survived. Making a virtue of necessity, Hawke recruited many of his colleagues for dramatic readings of the transcribed interviews. Mostly, it works quite well. George Clooney and Laura Linney are excellent vocal sound-alikes for the star couple. Brooks Ashmanskas also sounds so perfectly insufferable as their pal Gore Vidal, it is almost spooky.

Hawke (who previously helmed the refined doc,
Seymour: An Introduction) has a keen eye for selecting clips from the couple’s filmography that marry up well with the themes and events under discussion. Many of the scenes should prompt viewers to revisit the given films. All the really big one, like The Hustler and even Paris Blues (which both have classic jazz soundtracks) get their full just due. Yet, it is a bit frustrating we only see scenes of Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain and Altman’s Quintet to illustrate Newman’s periods of personal confusion and unrewarding professional choices.

Still, it is a little weird to hear
Absence of Malice so casually dismissed. If anything, this should be the Sydney Pollack film’s moment, since we’re now in an era of fake news and journalistic scandals, like the Taylor Lorenz doxing incident. Newman himself dismisses The Towering Inferno as mere commercial fare, but from the perspective of 2022, it looks like a pretty hard-hitting expose of shoddy construction techniques.

Regardless, Hawke’s most conspicuous oversight is the complete absence of Newman’s notorious (from his point-of-view) televised nuclear freeze debate with Charlton Heston. By all accounts, Heston handed Newman his head and reportedly the liberal star never spoke to his conservative former friend afterward. Frankly, it was a major event in Newman’s life that would nicely fit with analysis of his box office bomb,
WUSA (which everyone concedes was a failure). Indeed, Stuart Rosenberg’s yarn demonizing a right-wing radio station arguably reflects a lack of understanding of differing viewpoints that contributed to Newman’s humbling in the Heston debate.

Still, Hawke devotes about as much time to Newman’s car-racing as he does to their liberal politics, which is probably about the right balance. The one thing that will bother most viewers is his constant use of Zoom-screen footage. Hawke deliberately embraced the film’s status as a product of the Covid era, but that leaves all his seams showing. It would be a more pleasant viewing experience if most of that talk simply accompanied more archival photos and vintage film clips. Granted, the audience might want to see Newman’s daughters, but we all know what Martin Scorsese looks like
 (and we don’t need to see his den).

Regardless, Newman and Woodward can easily carry six full episodes of biography and cultural analysis. Of course, it has the benefit of great films to spur our nostalgia, such as
The Sting, Slapshot, Cool Hand Luke, and Hud. Recommended as a largely evenhanded survey of two great showbusiness careers, The Last Movie Stars starts streaming tomorrow (7/21) on HBO Max.