“The Last Movie Stars” Is a Festive Canonization of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward

“The Last Movie Stars” reveals the transformation of the movie industry and the way that Newman and Woodward negotiated the changing terms surrounding the careers of actors. Photograph courtesy Warner Brothers 
Here is a brief excerpt of  review of Ethan Hawke’s biofilm. It appeared in The New Yorker. To read the complete review, check out other resources, and obtain information about special subscription rates, please click here.

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Ethan Hawke’s documentary is hagiographic, but it’s also canny, inventive, and revelatory.

The documentary comprises three main elements: clips from the actors’ films, other archival footage (including the family’s own), and Zoom appearances by Hawke and his actor friends, which figure far more in the movie’s soundtrack than in its onscreen images. Newman had planned to write a memoir, and commissioned a friend to record interviews with his friends, colleagues, and family members; later, Newman had second thoughts and destroyed (literally burned) the audio recordings. But his family had thousands of pages of interview transcripts, which they turned over to Hawke. (A book based on these transcripts, “Paul Newman: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man,” will be published in October, realizing something of the autobiography that Newman had planned.) With the transcripts in hand, Hawke recruits his own friends to “make these audios come alive,” and describes the resulting film as “a play with voices.” The other actors are introduced on lo-fi, Zoom-like screens, and the encounters are conspicuously social and warmhearted; the actors are casually dressed in domestic settings, and some are joined by pets. George Clooney plays Newman, and Laura Linney plays Woodward.

Beyond Newman and Woodward’s artistry, Hawke says, he admired them as people; even as a teen-ager, he considered them “ethical citizens,” appreciated their political commitments (Newman’s activities were especially conspicuous), their philanthropy, and what he took their family life to be, and he “wondered what was it like to be them.” Newman was born in 1925 in Shaker Heights, Ohio; Woodward, in 1930, in Thomasville, Georgia. After military service in the Second World War, college, and an unhappy stint in the family’s sporting-goods business, Newman went to New York to act. Woodward, who made becoming a movie star her life’s goal, reached the city at around the same time; the two met as understudies on a 1953 stage production of William Inge’s “Picnic,” and they nearly immediately sparked a romance backstage. Newman was already married to Jackie Witte (voiced by Zoe Kazan); they divorced in 1957, and Woodward and Newman wed the following year.

Both Newman and Woodward were very active on live TV dramas of the fifties. Both went under contract to movie studios, and Woodward made the first big splash: for “The Three Faces of Eve,” from 1957, she won an Oscar for Best Actress. Newman was popular and acclaimed, too, in the late nineteen-fifties and sixties, appearing in such films as “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “The Hustler” and reaching an apogee of stardom in such films as “Hud,” “Cool Hand Luke,” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” The couple had three children (the first of them, Nell, born in 1959), and Woodward cut back on work: she took on the main responsibility of raising their kids and also sought to integrate Newman’s three children from his first marriage into the family. Newman became a director, in order to make films that offered Woodward strong roles; he pursued his political activism in Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 Presidential campaign; he became a race-car driver; he formed an independent production company with Sidney Poitier and Barbra Streisand to make films more freely than the studios allowed, on a lower budget.

Newman was also an alcoholic whose behavior strained their marriage. He was a loving but distant father, and his relationship with his son, Scott, born in 1950, was particularly strained. Scott abused drugs and alcohol and died of an overdose in 1978, a loss from which Newman suffered grievously but, as his friends tell it, nearly inexpressibly. His career continued with such acclaimed films as “Absence of Malice” and “The Verdict”; after eight Best Actor nominations, he finally won that Oscar, for reprising his role from “The Hustler” in Martin Scorsese’s “The Color of Money.” In the nineteen-seventies, Woodward felt, as an actress in her forties, that her movie career was dwindling, and she did more television movies, with great success. (She won three Emmys from nine nominations.) In later years, the couple was devoted to theatre (Woodward was the artistic director of the Westport Playhouse) and philanthropy (Newman established a series of summer camps for terminally ill children and co-founded a line of packaged foods with which to fund charitable ventures). In 2007, Woodward was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease; Newman died, of cancer, in 2008.

That, essentially, is the story that Hawke develops in detail in the course of six hours. The vivid personalities who populate the story, including Gore Vidal (Brooks Ashmanskas), Woodward’s aunt Maude Brink (LaTanya R. Jackson), and Martin Ritt (Jonathan Marc Sherman), bring out piquant details; Newman’s daughters speak with great love for their parents (and his two daughters from his first marriage express love and admiration for Woodward) but don’t stint on the pain of family life. Paul Schrader (who directed Hawke in “First Reformed”) makes a fascinating observation regarding Newman’s performance in “Hud”: he deems it of immense historical significance, as the forebear of all subsequent Hollywood antiheroes. Hawke manages to keep the informational proceedings lively, and, even while using clips from Newman’s and Woodward’s films as visual backdrops to biographical discussions, he displays a discerning eye for moments that spotlight the actors’ artistry and personae.

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Here is a direct link to the complete review.


Richard Brody began writing for The New Yorker in 1999 and has contributed articles about the directors François TruffautJean-Luc Godard, and Wes Anderson. Since 2005, he has been the movie-listings editor at the magazine; he writes film reviews and a blog about movies. He is the author of the book “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard” and is at work on a book about the lasting influence of the French New Wave.


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