"Linklater says, 'Titles come early or not at all,'" Ethan Hawke quotes the filmmaker and his frequent collaborator, Richard Linklater. The Last Movie Stars, Hawke's six-part docuseries about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward (streaming on HBO Max on July 21), takes its name from a quote by writer Gore Vidal.
The Last Movie Stars aims to tell the story of the iconic Hollywood couple in their own words. Newman and Woodward's daughter approached Hawke to direct the project and provided him with transcripts from a long-abandoned project of her father: Newman commissioned the screenwriter Stewart Stern to conduct extensive interviews with himself and Woodward, as well as those close to them, for a planned memoir. And then, Newman changed his mind, taking the tapes to a dumpster and setting them on fire — but the transcripts survived.
"When I first got the transcripts, the first ones I read was Gore Vidal's," Hawke says. "He said this thing — 'People would come to see them as the last movie stars' — and my first thought was, God, I so disagree. Because I thought, they weren't movie stars, they were actors! But then, I realized they're the last people where being an actor was what it took to be a movie star. I remember I underlined it in the transcript, the last movie stars, question mark. And it just stuck."
The Last Movie Stars is as much about Newman and Woodward's love story as it is about their legacy, looking back on the decades-long partnership that saw them star in 16 films together. In their illustrious careers, the couple won his and hers Oscars, among 14 collective nominations. (Newman is one of only a few actors to earn Oscar nominations in five different decades.) Woodward won the Oscar for Best Actress in 1958 for The Three Faces of Eve; Newman won Best Actor for 1986's The Color of Money.
"There was a respect for acting in the '50s, and they were born out of that respect for acting. It wasn't a culture of celebrity in the same way, because celebrity as we know it now didn't exist then," Hawke says. "In a certain way, every generation is the first of something and the last of something else. We're all the last of our kind and the first of another."
To bring the transcripts to life, Hawke enlisted George Clooney to read as Newman and Laura Linney to read as Woodward, along with Sally Field, Oscar Isaac, Vincent D'Onofrio, Sam Rockwell, Zoe Kazan and more.
In conversation with A.frame, the actor and filmmaker — himself a four-time Oscar nominee (twice for acting and twice for writing) — discusses how he assembled his actor friends to lend their voices to the Hollywood luminaries, and how Newman and Woodward's legacy has personally resonated with him.
A.frame: Do you remember the first Paul Newman movie you saw — or maybe the first Joanne Woodward movie you saw — and what that experience was?
Hawke: I remember they were having a revival of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I was probably about nine, it was playing in the movie theater and my father took me, and I lost all interest in everything else. I remember afterwards, for some reason — I'd done something good, cleaned my room or something — my dad was going to get me this toy Superman I wanted. Like, a little action figure. And, after it was over, I didn't want that anymore. I got Lone Ranger and Bad Bart and I dressed them up like Butch and Sundance. I was permanently altered.
Having seen Butch Cassidy so young and then seeing Cool Hand Luke and that being so influential for you, were there ways in which Paul Newman directly influenced your own approach to acting? Or that you looked to him to imitate?
Well, yes. I'm trying to explain how. He has an uncanny ability to be present in front of the camera. I love watching him. If you watch The Hustler and The Color of Money back-to-back, you watch an actor grow and change. I think Paul really related to Eddie Felson. He was a little bit of a hustler. Even when you think about Newman's Own, he's like Tom Sawyer getting other people to paint his fence, you know what I mean? He broke the code about how to give away money and help other people. I think The Hustler is the first film where he came into his own as an actor. He figured out how to use his good looks and his intelligence and his humanity and channel it into a character, and his ability to be both insanely vulnerable, insecure, and confident in the same moment. That's what makes him vibrate as a performer so remarkably.
Then when you see the older Paul, it's like you're watching the mask break. It's like he cracks the mask of his face and this light comes out. He's really living in front of the lens in a way that is very difficult to do. I admire that he wanted to revisit Eddie Felson [and make a movie] about learning how to get back in the game, how not to let success or bitterness erode your love. I put this in the documentary, but the thing that I love about Paul is he wasn't Brando. The story of [Marlon] Brando and Newman is the story of "The Turtle and the Hare," which is that one person leapt out of the gate and blew everybody away, but kind of fell asleep by a tree. He got bored with his own talent. And Paul just worked, and worked, and worked, and worked. And, when you get to the end of his life, in Nobody's Fool, you're seeing somebody who really continued to grow. You're seeing somebody in their '70s doing among their finest work. Most of his peers — James Dean, Monty Clift, Steve McQueen — they didn't get to arrive there.
You were asked to do this by Paul and Joanne's daughter, who gave you her blessing and these transcripts. But knowing Paul had literally set them on fire at one point, was there any hesitation or discussion about unearthing them now?
Well, when I first heard that, my first thought was, "Oh, there must be something awful here." My first thought went to something dark. I realized slowly that it actually came from a place of real wisdom, of losing interest in the celebration of the individual. He really saw himself as a small player in a community of people, and lost interest in celebrating himself at that point. At the same time, he burned his tuxedo in the driveway and sent out form letters — anytime he was invited to some public event, they got a form letter that he would donate to anything they wanted. But he wasn't wasting any more time getting dressed up and hobnobbing. So, I started seeing it as a place of wisdom, and that I hoped that he would appreciate us collecting them, and editing them, and making sense out of it all.
Did you always imagine you would have an on-camera presence in the documentary? Or did that come about because of the circumstances under which you were making it?
You know, I asked my wife to produce this with me and she said, 'Yes, as long as you're not in it.' [Laughs] And I really had no intention! When I first had the idea of asking these actors to read the parts, I was recording the Zoom interviews to record their voice and to direct them, but I started realizing that our conversations were really interesting. In the same way that you can't tell Paul and Joanne's story without telling the story of their time, and the people, and the politics of that time, I thought that it might be a much more valuable documentary if it's not me looking back, but it's us looking back — a generation looking back at the generation before us. You know, a lot of audiences don't know who George Roy Hill is. They don't know who Gore Vidal is. Some young people don't know who Tennessee Williams is. So, I started putting the Zoom calls in just as placeholders of how to get that piece of information [in the film] until I figured out what I was going to do. Then my wife was watching these cuts, and she said, 'You should use this.' I was like, 'Really?' So, I started playing with it.
"The only thing I ever hate as an actor is being directed too much. Like, get out of my space, let me do my thing."
I imagine directing over Zoom comes with its share of challenges. How did you make directing remotely work for you? And what was it like directing someone like George Clooney as Paul? Or Laura Linney as Joanne?
One of the great things about the people I reached out to — George, Billy Crudup, Sam Rockwell, Zoe Kazan — is they don't need direction. The only thing I ever hate as an actor is being directed too much. Like, get out of my space, let me do my thing. So, the actor in me just gave them complete room to do what they wanted. You know, everybody did this for love. Nobody got paid anything, so I wanted them to have a good experience and get out of it what they wanted. It was pretty easy, actually.
The most difficult aspect of this was the scope of it. The thing that makes Paul and Joanne so remarkable and worth talking about is the totality of their lives. It's not like there's this one moment where they changed the world. It's the slow accumulation of living a meaningful, substantive life. What was hard was trying to tell the whole story — and that broke my brain. There's so many rabbit holes you could go down. I mean, what Paul accomplished in philanthropy deserves its own documentary. Their love story deserves its own documentary. Their achievement in acting deserves its own documentary. His race car driving deserves its own documentary! You could use her as a great example of how hard it is to go through this profession from the female vantage point, the way that it was completely a male-dominated culture and trying to survive in it was brutal. There's such a big story there to tell.
Was there something that you learned or discovered from your time spent living in Paul and Joanne's world that you will take forward with you into your own career?
Sustaining your passion means sustaining your curiosity. One of the things that is really difficult about success is it often kind of places people in formaldehyde. You don't exactly know why what you did worked; so, you're scared to change — because it might not work anymore. But, of course, if you don't change, it won't work either. The thing that I was most inspired by is their ability to keep putting one foot in front of the other. You know, success is a trap, failure sucks, raising children is difficult. You fail often. But how to keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep working, that's what I found most meaningful. That I'll take with me.
Considering Clea Newman asked you to do make this, what was her and her family's reaction to seeing The Last Movie Stars?
It's very difficult for family members to let go. They don't see their family from a bird's eye point of view; they see it from the inside. I don't think it could ever be good enough for them, because I can't put the real people right in front of you in your living room, and that's what they want. I think mostly they're happy. They felt their parents had achieved something really monumental and that the tide was kind of forgetting about Paul and Joanne. Young people now just think of him as the guy from spaghetti sauce. They don't understand how that Newman's Own came to be, and what Paul and Joanne represented in the world when that first appeared. So, I think they're happy to see that dialogue, but I don't know what they really think. They're very nice to me, but I'm sure they see things I don't see. They'll say, 'It was so moving when you used that interview from my birthday!' I'm like, 'What? When was that?!' I'm like, I was not aware that interview was taken on Joanne's way to her daughter's birthday party, but her daughters remembers that dress, and she remembers that hairdo. They're seeing things that I don't see.