The Last Movie Stars

I consider Paul Newman to be one of the best actors ever. Ethan Hawke produced this six-episode documentary about Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward during the pandemic. After watching it, I have mixed feelings about such a deep dive into the personal lives of this married couple. It definitely humanizes them. Perhaps too much? Perhaps we need some of our stars to be just icons?

The title comes from the fact that these two actors came up in the studio system and blossomed after it ended.

Of interest, Joanne Woodward was the bigger star initially. She won an Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve, an incredibly difficult role. Newman eventually eclipsed her primarily, quite frankly, because they existed in a time when a mother was supposed to be just that. Newman brought three children from his first marriage into his second with Woodward. Then they had their own children. Woodward spent probably what would have been her most productive years as an actress being a mother. And yes, she does talk about that—in terms of the voiceover with which much of this documentary is done where modern stars voice the people in the documentary. In this case, Laura Linney as Woodward. George Clooney voices Newman.

There’s a lot to unpack over the course of this well-done documentary. We learn that Newman and Woodward carried on an affair for five years while he was married; that their primary, initial attraction was sexual.

I always find it interesting to study other artists as our career paths have things in common. Most outsiders prefer to ignore all the years of struggle and focus on the time of success.

Newman certainly had his share of struggles. He refers to “Newman’s Luck” several times. The first is, as he says, upon reflection during the Civil Rights struggles where he was an activist: “Being born white in America in 1925; that’s the beginning of the luck”

The next is when his air crew during WWII didn’t deploy to the USS Bunker Hill because his pilot had an earache. The ship was subsequently savagely attacked by kamikazes and there is a good chance Newman would have died.

Then James Dean died. And Newman got his first breakout role which would have went to Dean.

Other tidbits? How Woodward hated the phrase too many people use when Newman was asked if he screwed around and say why go out for hamburger when you have steak at home? First, Woodward resented being called meat. Second, Newman did sample the burgers.

A hard aspect for me to watch was that which covered the suicide of his son Scott, as we have also suffered the loss of a child. It’s something you never recover from. To their great Woodward and Newman did channel their grief into incredibly successful and meaningful charities.

The part about HUD being an unredeemable character is intriguing because that kind of film and story is so hard to make. If redemption is the strongest story arc, what is a story that has no redemption? It’s a devastating film and I highly recommend it.

What surprised me was one of Newman’s grandsons saying he’d never seen one of my favorite movies—Nobody’s Fool. After all, Newman plays a grandfather trying to reconcile with his son and grandsons in it after abandoning them. It’s from a Richard Russo book: Nobody’s Fool. Both book and movie are superb.

We also learn about Newman’s alcoholism and how the character he plays in The Verdict doesn’t have to stretch far to tap into that aspect. Nevertheless, he should have won an Oscar for that role.

In summary: highly recommended, warts and all.