LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
Actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward had one of the most legendary partnerships in Hollywood. They were married over 50 years and made 16 films together. Now they are the subject of a compelling new docuseries directed by Ethan Hawke.
AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
It's called "The Last Movie Stars," and it's a tale of Hollywood and of love but also of how heroes are made and sometimes robbed of their complexities. I'm Aisha Harris.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about "The Last Movie Stars" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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HOLMES: It is just me and Aisha today. So the origin of "The Last Movie Stars" is that Paul Newman at some point commissioned a massive set of interviews with a ton of people, everybody from Elia Kazan to Gore Vidal to his first wife, from whom he'd had a painful divorce, in preparation for a memoir he wanted to write. But at some point, he burned the tapes. His children, however, discovered that while the tapes were gone, there were transcripts that survived. And they reached out to Ethan Hawke about directing a documentary building on them. In order to make them suitable for a film, the transcripts needed actual voices, so Hawke brought in a lot of actors that he knows to essentially play the people in the interviews, to read their words.
So George Clooney and Laura Linney read the words of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Zoe Kazan is Newman's first wife Jackie and so forth. Mark Ruffalo is in it, Sam Rockwell, Karen Allen, Oscar Isaac, all kinds of people. And then he also just does a lot of Zoom interviews with people like Sally Field and Martin Scorsese. And they also show a ton of clips from a ton of different movies, sometimes just to illustrate a point that's being made about acting, sometimes to sort of align with something that's being said about their personal lives. The docuseries is streaming now on HBO Max.
Aisha, you are a more adept Hollywood historian than I am, and I'm curious about how this particular Hollywood history struck you.
HARRIS: Well, one of the things that I always hope for going into watching any documentary is, regardless of how well I think I know the subject or how well I do know the subject, in reality, I want to come away from it feeling as though I've learned something new. And, boy, did I learn a lot new here because I realized, despite the fact that I loved Paul Newman when I was growing up and he was one of the first celebrities that I ever, like, cried over when he died, I realized I didn't actually know that much about his personal life outside of the sort of glowing Hollywood, Vanity...
HARRIS: ...Fair profile or whatever.
HOLMES: Royalty, blah, blah.
HARRIS: Yeah, yeah - and his storied, famed relationship with Joanne Woodward, who I knew a little bit less about. And I'm sure we'll get into that because that is a big, big part of their relationship and their dynamic is the fact that of the two of them, the one who is probably more well-known today by younger generations is Paul Newman. I didn't realize that he was a, quote-unquote, "functioning alcoholic," as some of his kids referred to him...
HARRIS: ...As, and how that sort of played into his later career roles in movies like "The Verdict" and "Absence Of Malice." And I really thought that this was such an interesting way to do a documentary. And I always love a documentary that doesn't feel typical. It's not just talking heads. I mean, there are a lot of talking heads here. But for one thing, this was filmed during the pandemic - seems like the early stage of the pandemic. So Ethan Hawke is conducting all of these interviews via Zoom. And so you see him, and then you see him talking to Zoe Kazan or Oscar Isaac. And what I like about it is the way he kind of strings together the narration. The narration is often him just, like, explaining to the people he's interviewing, this is what we're going to talk about. Or he'll...
HARRIS: ...Be like, oh, so you know this is the part where Joanne Woodward's career begins to have this, like, "Star Is Born" reverse...
HARRIS: ...Effect, where...
HOLMES: ...They diverge at a certain point.
HARRIS: Exactly. Like, she was the big star. She had won the Oscar and - early in their relationship. And then all of a sudden, his star ascends and - when she has the kids and decides to stay home more. I mean, I had seen Joanne Woodward in "Three Faces Of Eve" and many of the movies they - the early movies they did together, like, "Paris Blues," which is one of my favorite Newman movies, and "Long, Hot Summer." But I hadn't really seen much outside of that for Joanne Woodward. And so it made me absolutely want to go back and watch movies like "Rachel, Rachel" and "Winning" and see - like, just understand and more greatly appreciate her artistry because it's very clear that she's sort of the unsung performer and artist here. And I just thought it was really fascinating to watch. And over the course of six episodes, at first I thought, oh, man, really? This is going to be - it's going to be this long?
HOLMES: That's what I thought, too.
HARRIS: And then I think it does a really good job of making the case for why it needed to be this way, and...
HARRIS: ...The arguments that Ethan Hawke is trying to wrestle with as, himself, a performer and also, you know, a filmmaker.
HOLMES: Yeah. I agree with you completely. I agree with everything you just said. And I think there are two or, arguably, three kind of stories here, one of which is the story of kind of being a film star in the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, and what Hollywood was like and what stardom was built on. You know, they both were part of The Actors Studio. He, in particular, felt about his own acting - there's a lot of discussion of the fact that he and also other people didn't necessarily immediately conclude he was a brilliant actor.
HOLMES: So that Hollywood story is one story. There's also this story about their personal life and how complex it was, you know, because he was married when they met. He was already married to this woman, Jackie, who - I think it's so helpful to have her reflections and their kids' reflections in this documentary so that you understand that although this became a love story that a lot of people admired, it started with great pain for other people.
HOLMES: I also love the fact that this documentary is so open about how carnal and sex-driven the early part of this relationship was.
HARRIS: Yeah (laughter).
HOLMES: And, like, who can blame either one of them, honestly?
HOLMES: But, like, you get the sense that these people were so sexually charged not just in the beginning but, like, throughout their lives. It really respects the role that that plays in the bond that they have. And that's not that common, I think, in stories about people that are admiring of their relationships. So that's another thing. And then sort of the third story is this group of, like, Ethan Hawke and his contemporaries - right? - 'cause a lot of these are people where - if you Google, like, Ethan Hawke and X with a lot of these actors who are in this, you immediately hit these, like - you know, here's them in the '90s with their arms around each other at some premiere. A lot of these are people he's known for a long time. Many of them are, like, 50-ish. They're in that, like, midlife point. And you see them kind of thinking through how to feel about the people that they admire most. I think you have this whole generation of actors who are trying to figure out how to have heroes and also kind of understand that they were not gods and that they were regular people who made lots of mistakes and sometimes hurt others. There's a lot in here about Newman not having ever been a particularly perfect parent, particularly when he first had kids. And I found all three of those elements really compelling and really interesting.
HARRIS: One of the parts that really stuck out to me was they, of course, mention that quote, which I think has followed their relationship more than any other.
HARRIS: And I'm paraphrasing here, but he basically says, like - he's asked in an interview about how he's been able to sustain such a long and happy marriage. And he's like, well, why would I go out for a burger when I have steak at home? Or - it's steak and burger. Those are the two things. And she is the steak (laughter). And there's a moment where she addresses that. You hear this in voiceover. And I actually want to play that clip because I think it really shows to me, like, how warped and how terrible that quote is. And it took me a long time to get to that point to realize how terrible that quote is. Here it is.
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LAURA LINNEY: (As Joanne Woodward) I mean, what a chauvinist statement. I am not a piece of meat, for God's sake. I - oh.
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LINNEY: (As Joanne Woodward) I mean, every time that quote pops up, I want to kill.
HARRIS: And it really has been that quote that has just stood the test of time and kind of stood in as the representation of their marriage. But I think that that's one of the absolute strengths of this documentary - is that to be able to see just how human they were and to be able to see how - you know, to your earlier point about the other aspect of it and how Paul Newman, in many ways, felt very inadequate about his own acting and was sort of seen as the beefcake and seen as the very hot guy who didn't quite have the same talent, there's a great moment where Gore Vidal is talking about how, like, James Dean - when James Dean died, that basically opened the lane for Paul Newman because Paul Newman had been up for roles that James Dean ultimately got.
I love seeing just the way this really deals with this idea that, even though Paul Newman came out of the method and the idea that the method is supposed to be - amongst actors, it's one of the most natural, real aspects of filmmaking and film art and film acting and theater acting. Paul Newman was very much open about the artifice of it all, at least the artifice of it all for him, and how he had to work at it and how it didn't come easy to him and how he hated watching his earlier performances because he could see the machinery working in his brain.
HOLMES: Yeah. And I think there's also, like - it's sort of the same thing you're talking about. I think he is refreshingly straightforward about the fact that being conventionally attractive in the way that Hollywood was most fond of at the time was a gigantic career advantage. There's a moment where he talks about, like, I never wanted to be somebody about whom they could say, his entire career ended because his eyes turned brown.
HOLMES: One of the themes of his kind of approach to his own life is this idea that he talked all the time about how lucky he was. It's one thing to see, like, an incredibly successful, well-off actor who was, like, racing cars and stuff to be like, oh, yes, I'm very lucky. But then you get the chapter in which his sense that he's been incredibly lucky leads to this period of his life in which his priority was philanthropy in a lot of ways. It leads directly to not just Newman's Own, which, you know, obviously, you can still buy. I have literally Newman's Own salsa in my fridge right now.
HARRIS: I've got the salad dressing in my fridge (laughter).
HOLMES: It's good.
HOLMES: It's good stuff.
HARRIS: It is.
HOLMES: You can - so Newman's Own but also the Hole In The Wall Gang Camp, which is for kids who are ill. And that is the kind of thing I think Ethan Hawke and some of his friends are grappling with, which is, if I'm really lucky, what does that mean?
HOLMES: Like, where do I go with that? Like, where do I take that? And I'm so glad you talked about the business about James Dean and the acting stuff 'cause I really also valued just the look at how people do different projects at different times for different reasons. There's a lot of stuff in there about how he wasn't crazy about doing "The Towering Inferno," but he did it. There's also a discussion of a role that she thought would be great for her because it would be fun for her...
HOLMES: ...That he originally was like, we're not doing that. That's terrible. And she was like, you're not going to do this one thing for me that I really want to do.
HOLMES: And he was like, nope, you're right.
HOLMES: We'll do it. And it was like, people do roles at different times, like I said, for different reasons. And I think talking through what their career choices were is so interesting right up until, you know, I think the era of so-called prestige TV. Everybody talks about how television has been an outlet for actresses who are no longer in their 20s. But it was for her, too. Television was for her, too. She made a ton of TV movies and was nominated for a bunch of Emmys and won some Emmys and had this really interesting career in these, like, maybe not as highly regarded as some of the stuff that he was doing.
HOLMES: But she had this, like, rich career where she mentored all these young actors. That's one of the ways she knew Laura Linney. And I also found that fascinating.
HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, I'm curious what you think, Linda, about how the film balances their stories because, you know, of course, part of the narrative is that she has not gotten her proper due. And we do get a lot of her, and we get a lot of her perspective that I think most of us did not know before. But I do feel like it still leans pretty heavily on Newman in some episodes especially, and so much of this is coming from his own memoirs. And so I think that kind of tips the scales in some ways. But do you feel as though - by the end of it, did it feel like it was sort of repeating what history has done for her? Or do you feel as though it actually sort of opened it up and was more balanced than it has been in the past?
HOLMES: Ultimately, I thought it was far more balanced than I think the treatment they would have gotten in most conventional documentaries. I think there's obviously a very intentional effort to give her her due. With that said, do I think it tips toward him? I do. But I also think there are pretty substantial sections that are about the work she did with young actors, you know, the fact that she made a movie about Alzheimer's before she was ultimately diagnosed with Alzheimer's, which is why, despite the fact that she's still alive, she's not a participant in this project. But I think there's an effort, but it's one of those things where you can't trust your own perception - right? - because it's one of those things where people say, you know, if you have 25% women, think - people think it's half women. So the fact that I sit here and say...
HOLMES: ...Like, I think it's relatively balanced, I wouldn't be surprised at all if you went back and it was, like, 66% him.
HARRIS: I agree with you, Linda. I think that it does the best that it can in making it as balanced as possible. And I think especially in the first couple of episodes, it really hones in on how Joanne Woodward has often been considered the better actor of the two of them. And I think that it sucks that she didn't quite get her due at the time. And to hear her...
HARRIS: ...Talk about what it felt like and to hear her talk about sort of some of the resentment that she felt, that still didn't manage to - like, it didn't overtake their marriage. But it was definitely there, I think.
HARRIS: It's just so important to have and to understand how a marriage like that can work even...
HARRIS: ...Though it didn't always work.
HOLMES: Yeah. And I enjoyed seeing Hawke, you know, talking to his wife, talking to his daughter. You know, they have a couple of really interesting conversations. I enjoyed seeing him, like, you know, catching up with old pals and talking to Martin Scorsese.
HOLMES: And I think there's a lot to recommend this. And I really, really enjoyed it. And I'm not necessarily an old Hollywood person in the same way that I know you are, and I still was, like, very into this. And we talked, too, about the fact that Ethan Hawke is that rare person who can be, like, I want to talk about art, man, and craft. And, like, it doesn't strike me as insufferable.
HOLMES: He has that rare thing where, like, he's so earnest about it...
HOLMES: ...That he can get away with it in a way that a lot of people can't, to me.
HOLMES: Man, like, the art. Can you, like, imagine the art of - like, they saw Marlon Brando yell Stella for the first - like...
HOLMES: He's so excited about all this stuff. Do you know what I mean?
HARRIS: Yeah. He's got this very, like, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee fervor about him when he's talking about that thing that he's passionate about, which is art and which is film.
HOLMES: Yeah, yeah.
HARRIS: He lights up.
HOLMES: Absolutely. So I really enjoyed this. I think Aisha really enjoyed it. Again, you can find it on HBO Max. It's called "The Last Movie Stars." We want to know what you think about "The Last Movie Stars." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Oh, thanks so much for this wonderful conversation, my friend.
HARRIS: Oh, right back at you, Linda.
HOLMES: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Taylor Washington and edited by Jessica Reedy. And Hello Come In provides our theme music. I'm Linda Holmes, and we'll see you all tomorrow.
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