Ethan Hawke’s documentary series about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward called Latest Movie Starsis undoubtedly a project of the pandemic era. It’s full of video calls, with all their impulsiveness and informality, with director Hawke in various, sometimes neat, sometimes chaotic hairstyles (both on the face and on the head). We see Hawk talking to his daughter and wife, talking to Newman and Woodward’s kids, talking about what he learned from Vincent D’Onofrio, Laura Linney and Zoe Kazan. Most of what you’ll see on screen are those calls, plus Newman and Woodward’s (and sometimes other actors’) hours. And all this is felt in its isolated moment, because this is a project that is ideal for a time of hectic introspection of life in general, and therefore celebrities, marriage and art.
Newman laid the groundwork for a documentary
The birth of the series came, says Hawke, from a treasure trove of interview tapes with everyone from Newman’s first wife, Jackie Witte, to directors George Roy Hill and Sidney Lumet—recordings that Newman commissioned for a planned memoir and then, much later, burned to the ground. , which seems to have been something of an impulse. But Newman’s children (he had three with Witte and three with Woodward) later found out that transcripts of these recordings existed and asked Hawke if he would like to make a documentary on them.
Hawke’s solution to making transcripts something to watch rather than read is to get the actors to read them as if they were scripts, usually from all those clips of decades of movies and other footage. . So, for example, George Clooney reads Newman himself; Laura Linney read by Joanne Woodward; Vincent D’Onofrio reading John Huston; and Brooks Ashmanskas is having a great time wrapping his voice around the words of Gore Vidal (a close friend of the couple who named the series as such).
One movie, three stories
Latest Movie Stars tells three stories, in fact, they are all spectacular. First, there is the story of marriage: Newman and Woodward met as young actors; the beginning of a relationship that everyone seems to agree on was very carnal practically from the day they met and has remained that way forever; study at the Actor’s Studio; getting older and seeing their careers diverge when he became a mega superstar; to stay together despite a more thorny path than their legend left room for; find new paths in philanthropy and television at a later age. (Newman died in 2008; Woodward is still alive, but she has Alzheimer’s and was not directly involved, although she appears in archived TV interviews.)
The second is Hollywood history. Hawk explores how Woodward forged her path in an industry that didn’t appreciate her as much as her husband. We learn that today’s prestige television series is not the first such opportunity for actresses that Hollywood has neglected. We learn that Newman plunged into what some considered a period of stagnation during his time as an established movie star, and how he recovered from Verdict. There is even a passage where Vidal reflects darkly from beyond the grave on how the tragic death of James Dean paved the way for Newman’s success.
And third, how Hawke and his contemporaries, who voice the series and interact with him on Zoom, some of whom hug him in old photos from the 90s, look at these legends that inhabited a different Hollywood than the one they knew. Hawke, for example, in one of his conversations with his wife, gently leads him to reflect on his immense attachment to the Newman legend before he too harshly condemns how fame commodifies people. Honoring Newman for being from the Actors Studio rather than for having blue eyes doesn’t make Hawk any less eager to bond with someone he didn’t know, after all.
How to get heroes
In fact, this third story may be the least likely and most unusual. It is easy to see why the story of the marriage and career of Woodward and Newman is fascinating, and why it is satisfying to study it more closely; they really led an extraordinary life and left behind great art. The director and his friends engage in conversation and rumination with each other in video calls that may seem aimless or selfish. But here, it gives the series something fresh and timeless that goes beyond acting and this industry. On some level, it becomes a story about having heroes in the first place.
Hawk kicks off the series by telling these Zoom friends about how great Newman and Woodward were: the art they made, the kids, the charity—and he raced cars too. Several times you can see Hawk trying to figure out how to convey how massive they are looming in his mind (especially now that he has done all this research). Can you imaginehe keeps talking to people. Can you imagine being in the Actors Studio with James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando? Can you imagine?
How to handle imperfections
But it’s a complicated story. You can see Hawk arguing on camera with Stephanie Newman, one of Newman’s daughters with Jackie Witte, telling him about how harrowing the long romance and eventual marriage of her father and her storybook stepmother was for her mother, who , according to her, also wanted. to be an actress. “She was left with three children under the age of five,” Stephanie says. “I was a baby.”
Hawke is making a series about people whose careers he admires, written as a love letter to all that they were and did. But where does the pain they caused others live in this story? Where did Hawke, as an ardent admirer of Newman and a father himself, put the fact that Newman felt like an absent parent for too many years, and that this clearly hurt his children? What role does the exclusive privilege of being an absurdly handsome (in fact, even he admitted it to himself) white actor in the 20th century play in contextualizing what Newman was able to do? Not so much in his role in the documentary, but in the form of the curtsey itself?
It’s not as simple as “no one is perfect”; making a correction is easy. The thesis of the series on this, I think, is that you learn most from your characters, not excluding their shortcomings from your admiration for them, but accepting those shortcomings as part and parcel of who they were and allowing all that you admire to coexist with all that you are not. And, in this case, paying close attention to how, in particular, Newman behaved after he made some of these mistakes and what he did about feeling infinitely lucky is a topic that comes up again and again.
A word you often hear about famous couples like Newman and Woodward is royalty. “Hollywood Royals”. Latest Movie Stars suggests that perhaps royalty is both too much and too little of a label for those you admire. Too much, because it embellishes their flaws. Too little, because it robs them of the very things that you can most benefit from, which is a deep understanding of how they dealt with those times when they were vain or stubborn, not kind to each other, not kind to others. , are not simple. to love or not to love is easy.
It’s an amazing story; it’s a real video clip feast, full of things I didn’t know, full of things that a lot of people probably don’t know about. It is rich and thorough when it works as a biography. But there’s something especially sweet about those moments when he steps back and becomes a study of generations of artists and the legend itself, the legend as a thing so big that it can outshine the sun and hide the messy lessons of other people’s lives, which are, after all, the best reasons for their study.
All six episodes Latest Movie Stars broadcast on HBO MAX.
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