Stars In Orbit: Ethan Hawke on the Epic Love between Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward

Hollywood legends: Paul Newman with his “Noscar” and Joanne Woodward with her Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve (1957). — Photographer… Sid Avery
Hollywood legends: Paul Newman with his “Noscar” and Joanne Woodward with her Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve (1957). Photographer… Sid Avery

Ethan Hawke on directing The Last Movie Stars in lockdown, the silver screen marriage that survived the Hollywood studio system and traversing a half-century of filmmaking. 

Ethan Hawke didn’t want to say yes to The Last Movie Stars but, try as he might, he couldn’t get the word “no” out of his mouth.

Early in the pandemic, the four-time Oscar acting and writing nominee was locked down at home, speaking by phone with a daughter of Hollywood screen legends Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. The couple’s youngest, Clea Newman, had called to ask whether Hawke thought people would be interested in a documentary about her parents.

“Absolutely,” Hawke remembers saying. But when she pitched him on overseeing such a project, he froze up. “Initially, it felt really overwhelming,” admits the actor. “It felt like the universe just dropped this huge responsibility in my lap.”

Woodward and Newman: the epitome of Hollywood cool, in Louisana for the filming of The Drowning Pool (1975).
Woodward and Newman: the epitome of Hollywood cool, in Louisana for the filming of The Drowning Pool (1975).

Along with the rest of his generation, Hawke had grown up idolizing Newman and Woodward. In The Last Movie Stars’ opening voice-over, he vividly recalls skipping church with his father to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Newman and Robert Redford. When he was mounting his first plays in ’90s New York, a generous donation from the couple’s theatre company kept the lights on. Thirty years later, now a veteran of stage and screen, Hawke has come to appreciate more than most the magnitude of their achievements, both as actors and individuals, which was exactly why their daughter thought he was the right choice to direct.

What convinced Hawke to take on the project (which he refers to as a 380-minute movie but arrives on HBO Max as a six-part series) was a trove of interviews, commissioned by Newman in the late 1980s when he was flirting with the idea of writing a memoir. Newman’s close friend, screenwriter Stewart Stern, conducted interviews with important people in the legend’s life: actors, directors, friends, even his ex-wife. Newman later abandoned the memoir and had the interview tapes burned—but not before they’d been transcribed.

How rare is it to watch two people really make each other better throughout their life?

—⁠Ethan Hawke

Hundreds of hours of conversations in hand, Hawke had a flash of inspiration. Why couldn’t his famous friends, stuck at home along with the rest of the world, read the transcripts aloud, bringing this past generation to life in their own words? Hawke made some calls and cast his players: George Clooney as Newman, Laura Linney as Woodward, with Zoe Kazan, Sam Rockwell, Josh Hamilton, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Steve Zahn, Karen Allen, Billy Crudup, and Vincent D’Onofrio as other stars in a vast constellation of individuals and associates who featured into Newman and Woodward’s story.

Balancing these recitations with archival footage, film clips, and Zoom interviews that examine the duo from the perspectives of friends, family, peers, and disciples, The Last Movie Stars goes deeper than your standard actor doc, while also being a stellar model of Covid-era filmmaking. Presenting scenes from a marriage that spanned 50 years and survived the death of the studio system—hence the title, drawn from an observation by close friend of the couple, writer Gore Vidal—the series overflows with insights and is, predictably, an anecdotal goldmine (Sam Rockwell taking a beer from Newman is a tiny highlight).

Newman and Woodward renew their wedding vows.
Newman and Woodward renew their wedding vows.

Of first meeting Newman in the offices of MCA agent Maynard Morris, Woodward recalls, “Out steps this band-box creature in this gorgeous arrow collar, and in a seersucker suit. He looked like he’d just been kept on ice, and I hated him.” Cast as understudies on Broadway’s first production of Picnic, they practiced dancing the tango behind the scenery, and sparks flew. “We left a trail of lust all over the place,” recalls Newman, in one of the series’ steamier moments. 

So began their romance, which carried on for six years until his divorce from Jackie Witte was finalized (Witte’s voice, and her daughter Stephanie, both appear in the series). Newman and Woodward married in 1958. From there, up until his 2008 death and her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, The Last Movie Stars chronicles their decades together: as actors, activists, philanthropists, parents, and a celebrity couple like no other. “You could make a doc about Paul, Joanne, Newman’s Own, or Butch and Sundance,” Hawke said. “What makes it meaningful, and worthy of in-depth exploration across a six-part series, is the love affair. This is an almost-impossible, iconic love story.”

The Last Movie Stars premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival, which is where I sat down with Hawke for a good chat about love, art and Linklater.

Newman directs Woodward in their collaborative project, Rachel, Rachel (1968).
Newman directs Woodward in their collaborative project, Rachel, Rachel (1968).

After you were approached by Clea Newman about tackling this project, when did you first become passionate about it? What did you realize early on that excited you?
Ethan Hawke: I’ve dedicated my life to studying acting and so, in a way, it really felt like I was the right person for the job. These are two actors. I wanted to take care of them and celebrate their unbelievable commitment to the arts, as well as what that could mean for young people right now to witness, to see what happened there. 

Simultaneously, the generation that grew up with and loved them wants the chance to celebrate and revisit them. When I was showing early cuts of this to my mother, she remembered when Rachel, Rachel came out. She remembers Cool Hand Luke, and she remembers the night she saw it. It had different meanings to her than it did to my 22-year-old daughter, Maya, who was like, “Huh, what’s Hud? I’ve never heard of Hud. I didn’t know that was a landmark movie. Why is it a landmark movie?”

Those conversations were interesting, and the more I learned about Paul and Joanne, the more I felt that it’s necessary to have positive role models in your brain. People can have a happy marriage. That is possible. You can dedicate your life to craft and be glad you did. You can have a good time and be a responsible citizen. You can party, have fun, and help others. You can have a whole life. To me, they started to become this wonderful example of what a whole, comprehensive life could look like. We have so many disappointing role models. It’s nice to take a minute, study people, and realize, “Wow. You can do this right.”

Nell, the eldest child of Woodward and Newman, on location with her parents during filming of Paris Blues (1961).
Nell, the eldest child of Woodward and Newman, on location with her parents during filming of Paris Blues (1961).

Their romance stands out; these two became icons together and were both committed to craft in a way that feels so rare and historic. You feel the heat of their passion, too, with Newman stating, “I am simply a creature of her invention”. Tell me about framing this as a great Hollywood love story.
Whenever we were editing this and touched the love story, we realized why we were making it. It just becomes so much more interesting when you see his career through her eyes, her career through his eyes, and what they accomplished together that they couldn’t have done alone. Also, how rare is it to watch two people really make each other better throughout their life? You can see ways in which he was a good feminist by championing her; you can see ways in which her life was brutalized by the way the film community worked back then and still functions.

Exploring their reality, the hardships that came with all that, you realize they had plenty of permission to fail. There are a lot of reasons why that marriage couldn’t work, wouldn’t work, shouldn’t work—and they just made it work. She has this line that’s become the center of the documentary to me, that at one point she realized “there was his ego, and there was my ego, and then there was our ego,” this collective ego. If they put their energy into the “our,” good things happened. If they put their energy into themselves or worked overly on one person, the balance got all screwed up.

It’s the love story that makes it worth telling. That’s what’s so beautiful about it. There’s the myth of this fairytale romance, which is charming and nice, but real romance is so much harder. And it’s actually so much more interesting and inspiring. We all don’t live fairytale lives. We’re stuck in our real, everyday life. And then you realize that they were too… One of the things in chapter one that I love is discovering Paul Newman struggled with insecurity. You’re like, “No way.” But if you were in class with James Dean and Marlon Brando, you would be insecure, too.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see other people’s lives as easy or blessed. But when you get inside the minutiae of their life, they don’t know how it’s going to turn out.

—⁠Ethan Hawke

Newman was the tortoise to Brando’s hare, you say early. Brando took off with A Streetcar Named Desire, but he burned out, whereas Newman’s rise was slower but steady. After Dean’s death, Newman took over his part in Somebody Up There Likes Me, one of his first starring roles. Woodward found stardom early, winning an Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve two months after marrying Newman, but family life slowed her rise. Both experienced these massive ebbs and flows.
I don’t know who originally said it, but I know it from John Lennon: life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. In retrospect, it’s easy to see other people’s lives as easy or blessed. But when you get inside the minutiae of their life, they don’t know how it’s going to turn out. They don’t know that it’s going to be okay, that they’re going to survive, that they’re going to thrive.

Seeing all the challenges they faced, I wanted to know what it was like for her to fall in love with a man who had three kids; within four years, she became a stepmom to three kids and had three of her own. How was she supposed to navigate a career when, all of a sudden, she was saddled with caring for this family? The way the world worked, that fell squarely on her shoulders. Newman was able to go off and keep doing what he wanted to do, and she had to ask herself tough questions. If she didn’t take responsibility for the family, it was going to fall apart. He wasn’t going to do it. That was the culture she was born into. How did that impact her art, her acting? How did that impact his? It’s the minutiae and real life of it—that’s where the beautiful lessons live. It wasn’t easy.

“There was his ego, and there was my ego, and then there was our ego.” —Joanne Woodward.
“There was his ego, and there was my ego, and then there was our ego.” —Joanne Woodward.

Their art is explored at length, but we also see the big picture of their activism, their philanthropy, the way these two shaped each other as people. How did you approach bringing icons like these into focus as complete human beings?
I wanted to get them off the red carpet. I wanted to get into something real. It’s interesting now, because young people don’t even know the whole story. They know Paul Newman as “the guy from Newman’s Own,” but there’s something incredibly elegant and beautiful about the fact that he basically gave away his iconography. He donated himself. You see a picture of Marilyn Monroe or Marlon Brando on the side of a building now, and it’s just this glamorous ideal. He took that glamor and used it in service of others, which is just an unbelievable achievement.

When you talk about a life arc, it’s very rare to see that. Look at his peers: Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Brando, Monroe. Their stories all end so sadly. And there’s something incredibly depressing for young people to see that, as if those who burned bright had to burn out. Paul Newman doesn’t do that. His later work in The Verdict, The Color of Money, and Nobody’s Fool is some of the best work of his life. She’s running a theatre company at that point. She’s teaching acting. They’re producing Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, doing some of their best work together. And it’s not just “any old work”. It’s art. At the end of their life, they’re not still trying to make money and win awards. They’re trying to make meaningful, substantive art, the same way they were when they were kids. I find that continuity amazing, and I also find the way they changed amazing.

Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke in Richard Linklater’s decade-plus spanning intimate epic, Boyhood (2014).
Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke in Richard Linklater’s decade-plus spanning intimate epic, Boyhood (2014).

We could talk about Newman and Woodward all day. But to fit in one question about you... You’re first beloved as an actor, and your work with Richard Linklater is a big part of that, from the Before trilogy to Boyhood. Given the sprawl of The Last Movie Stars, I’m curious as to how you feel Linklater has influenced your approach to capturing time as a filmmaker.
I think part of why we’re friends is that we’ve both been obsessed with time since the day we were born. That’s where our brains link up. And, strangely, as I’ve been cutting this together, I’m like, “What is this movie like?” Every now and then, it occurs to me that it’s a lot like Boyhood. When you watch, I can intercut Paul and Joanne acting together in their twenties with them acting together in their seventies. Boyhood spanned twelve years, but I’ve got a 60-year arc I’m covering in this doc. The lead of the movie becomes time itself, which was true of Boyhood as well: how our culture and society impacts our “time”, you know? The time of our lives, our generation.

We have this feeling like we’re so individual, and we have this agency—and of course we do have some, but we’re also so connected to our era. Covid-19 was this giant reminder that we’re a part of history, and history can knock us to the left. We care about our careers. Mother Nature can just decide that it’s over if she wants. That’s humbling, and it’s something to keep in mind.

If you study Paul and Joanne, what you’re really doing is studying the last 50 years of filmmaking. I mean, I’ve got a shot in episode one of Paul in [The Helen Morgan Story,] a Michael Curtiz film. That’s old Hollywood. And at the end of this series, you’re going to hear him in [Cars,] a Pixar movie. This guy connects Curtiz, Robert Wise—all these throwbacks to old Hollywood—to the modern era. At the end of his life, he’s even doing Empire Falls, a limited series.

This is a documentary about work and about love; it has to be about both, all the time. I think their love affair was connected through their love of craft. That was their meeting place.

—⁠Ethan Hawke

I’ve been turning over your title, The Last Movie Stars, in my head. Gore Vidal said this—that they presided over the end of movies as the universal art form, rising as they did in the last years of the golden-age studio system.
The title is mysterious to me. I love what Gore Vidal said, and that’s where I took the title from. But I could also have called it The First Movie Stars, because they were also the first generation where celebrity became global, where television took off, where the iconography of movie stars was changing. The reason why the Beatles were such a big band is because they intersected, in music, with when popular culture was exploding.

First, last… Each generation is the last of something and the first of something else. Each one of us are both. The Last Movie Stars is a meditation on that. I searched hard for a title that would embody the love story, but I think that just has to speak for itself. The editor [Barry Poltermann] and I constantly reminded ourselves that this is a documentary about work and about love; it has to be about both, all the time. I think their love affair was connected through their love of craft. That was their meeting place.


All six episodes of ‘The Last Movie Stars’ are now streaming on HBO Max. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

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