The Last Movie Stars is a 6 part documentary series directed by Ethan Hawke for the streaming service HBO Max. The series looks at the lengthy, seemingly happy marriage of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. However, there are some differences between this and the standard documentary.
As the trailer for The Last Movie Stars reveals, Hawke had a unique angle on the material. He was contacted by Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman’s children to produce a documentary on their parents. They revealed to Hawke that Newman had been working on a memoir that was never published. Paul interviewed many high-profile friends and peers. Newman himself was painstakingly interviewed by a screenwriter friend. The candid interviews were recorded, but the tapes were destroyed once the project was abandoned.
However, transcripts of the interviews still remained and were given to Ethan Hawke. Hawke was shocked at how detailed and personal the interviews were. It was clear that Paul Newman managed to get his friends to let their guards down. It was decided that the interviews would be the skeleton the docuseries would hang on.
The docuseries use Paul Newman’s interviews in an unorthodox way
Since the recording no longer existed, Hawke cooked up a plan. He would enlist high-profile actors to read the various subjects of the interviews. Think a glitzier version of a Ken Burns documentary series. George Clooney reads for Paul Newman, while Laura Linney plays Woodward. Brooks Ashmanskas reads the part of their friend Gore Vidal. Frequent Ethan Hawke collaborator Vincent D’Onofrio plays Karl Malden. Zoe Kazan reads Jackie McDonald. Many other actors make appearances throughout the series, including Hawke’s daughter Maya.
The first episode centers on how the two of them came to know one other in 1953 when they were both performing in a Broadway play entitled Picnic. Woodward’s movie career exploded in the ’50s, with her earning an Oscar for The Three Faces Of Eve in 1958. She was certainly seen as the bigger star of the two. Meanwhile, Paul Newman struggled with getting leading roles that were substantial. However, his professional life was also flourishing by the time they married in 1958.
The format of the docuseries is rough at times but still rewarding
However, the first episode seems to be as much about the iconic couple as it is Ethan Hawke putting the series together. Surely this drops away as Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward become more of the focus.
There do seem to be a few setbacks to Hawke’s creative decisions. Perhaps due to COVID-19 or simple logistics, all of the actors record their parts via Zoom. It’s terrific to have actors like Clooney and Linney read for Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Still, it appears that it may be a bit distracting to have them appear in small boxes.
Regardless, Hawke seems to have done an impressive job with a mountain of new material. Fans of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward will likely learn new things about the classic Hollywood couple. All six episodes of The Last Movie Stars are now streaming on HBO Max.