‘The Last Movie Stars’: Candid series explores the lives of married virtuosos Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward

Ethan Hawke, director of the HBO documentary, ingeniously enlists wonderful actors to voice the couple and their famed associates.

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Paul Newman dines with his wife, Joanne Woodward, the day after she won an Academy Award for her performance in “The Three Faces of Eve” in 1958.

DAVE CICERO/INTERNATIONAL NEWS PHOTOS/AFP via Getty Images

The first flickering images we see in the enthralling six-part HBO Max documentary series “The Last Movie Stars” are of Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy and Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid, riding across the lonely plains. We then hear the voice of actor Ethan Hawke, who directed this passion project, reminiscing about his youth:

“Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, Sundays meant church. … One hot [day], my stepmother didn’t feel well, and she said she was going to stay home. We’re driving down the highway and my father says, ‘You know, there’s a cowboy picture playing at 11:15, we could go see that instead. My father took me to see ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ and from that day forward, the movies have been my church of choice.”

You get an almost visceral appreciation for Hawke’s unbridled and infectious love of movies and his undying passion for chronicling the life and times of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, the subjects of this brilliantly conceived, masterfully executed, admirably honest and consistently revealing series. When we see Hawke on camera, he’s like a kid on Christmas morning as he gushes about this particular performance or that particular movie.

‘The Last Movie Stars’

Untitled

A six-part documentary series available Thursday on HBO Max.

“The Last Movie Stars” is filled with great old TV interviews and clips from Newman’s and Woodward’s most memorable performances (and it’s so great that Hawke allows certain scenes to play out and BREATHE, instead of delivering too-short morsels), and we glean some great insights from Hawke’s interviews with Paul’s daughters — but the real treasure, the real find, is the discovery of boxes of transcripts from Newman’s unpublished autobiography, with Hawke finding the perfect way to bring those interviews and conversations to life.

Turns out Newman was working on a book with the screenwriter Stewart Stern (“Rebel Without a Cause”), who had conducted extensive interviews with Newman, Woodward, Newman’s first wife Jackie and a number of industry heavyweights who had worked with Newman. For reasons unknown, Newman decided against the book and burned all the audio tapes — but only recently was it discovered that Stern had transcribed the interviews.

Paul and Joanne’s youngest daughter, Clea Newman, contacted Hawke about using these transcripts as the foundation of the documentary. Via video chat, Hawke enlisted the help of George Clooney to read Newman’s “part,” Laura Linney to voice Woodward’s interviews, Zoe Kazan as Newman’s first wife, Jackie, and the likes of Billy Crudup, Sam Rockwell, Karen Allen, Josh Hamilton, Steve Zahn and Vincent D’Onofrio voicing various directors and other associates who played key parts in Newman’s career. (Hawke wisely keeps the actors off-camera, so we can focus on the words and not the performances — and these ARE performances, with Clooney perfectly underplaying Newman so that we forget that’s George Clooney and feel like we’re just listening to Paul Newman. Linney and the rest of the company are equally wonderful.)

Hawke tells the remarkable tale of Newman and Woodward’s personal and professional union in straightforward, chronological fashion, beginning with their first meeting, as understudies in 1953. They would go on to make 16 movies, three Broadway productions and a number of TV shows together, and they were married for a half-century — but it wasn’t all fairy tales and glossy magazine covers. Newman was married to Jackie Witte and they had three young children when he began seeing Woodward — a romance that went on for years before Newman finally divorced Jackie and eventually married Joanne. Newman had a total of six children and, in his own words, was often an absentee father who drank a lot.

The series also reminds us that for a time, Woodward was at least a big a star as Newman, winning the Academy Award for best actress of 1957 for “The Three Faces of Eve.” She was the more talented “Method” actor of the two, while Newman found himself getting cast for his looks and considered to be second fiddle to the likes of James Dean and Marlon Brando in terms of pure, smoldering talent. Woodward’s career ebbed and flowed as she devoted much of her time to raising her three children and stepchildren, while Newman became the biggest movie star in the world, with a series of great performances in films such as “The Hustler,” “Hud,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting.”

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Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman attend a film opening in 2004, four years before Newman’s death.

Peter Kramer/Getty Images

Still, even after Newman was an established icon, there was a feeling he sometimes held back on the big screen. He was nominated for best actor for “Absence of Malice” in 1981, but when the director Sidney Lumet cast Newman in “The Verdict,” he told Newman he thought his “Malice” performance was phoned-in, and he challenged Newman to dig deep and reveal himself in the part of the alcoholic attorney Frank Galvin in “The Verdict.” The result was arguably the finest and most compelling performance of Paul Newman’s career.

“The Last Movie Stars” is brimming with these types of fascinating glimpses throughout. It’s a great documentary series about two great stars.

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