The Last Movie Stars

Ethan Hawke's documentary series "The Last Movie Stars" looks and the lives and careers of Hollywood power couple Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman. 

Though he is without question a movie star, Ethan Hawke seems like a strange choice to make a documentary series about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward called “The Last Movie Stars.”

Hawke has his passion projects: directing a terrific movie about an obscure Texas singer-songwriter (“Blaze”); writing a novel (“A Bright Ray of Darkness”); or committing to act in an indie movie experiment for a full decade (“Boyhood”).

Within mainstream Hollywood, Hawke has done plenty of big studio movies. But he always seems to stand a little apart from it — he cheerfully admits he did Marvel’s “Moon Knight” for the money, and his thoughts on the tension between blockbusters and art films have gone viral over and over again.

Perhaps that insider-outsider perspective does make him the right person to create “The Last Movie Stars,” which dropped all six episodes last week on HBO Max.

It’s not a glossy, Turner Classic Movies-style retrospective of the lives and careers of Newman and Woodward, who were married for 50 years and made 16 films together. Instead it’s chatty and informal, cutting between classic film clips and voiceover interview reenactments. 

Then we see Hawke effusing with the stars who voiced those reenactments, including George Clooney, Laura Linney and Sam Rockwell. Honestly, what it reminded me most of all was a longform podcast, where the host’s interjections and musings become a part of the story’s narrative flow.

Hawke approaches the material in “The Last Movie Stars” as a fan but not a fanboy. While he raves about Newman’s performances in “Cool Hand Luke” or “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” he’s honest about the man’s private flaws.

“The Last Movie Stars” also does a wonderful job reminding viewers what a phenomenal actress Woodward was, before the Oscar winner essentially retired from acting at her peak to take care of the couple’s children.

“The Last Movie Stars” is very much a pandemic project, with voiceovers and interviews recorded over Zoom. As a friend noted, we’re all pretty sick of seeing faces on Zoom in 2022, and this does somehow date the series. Although when Hawke struggles to find a spot in his house to get decent wi-fi while conducting a moving interview with Newman’s daughter from his first marriage, I could relate.

The genesis of the project is that Newman himself commissioned a massive biography project with scores of interviews, then changed his mind and burned the audiotapes. But the transcripts remained, and those become the spine of “The Last Movie Stars.”

Most of the voices are recognizable. Clooney doesn’t sound like anything but Clooney as he speaks Newman’s words. Steve Zahn affects a soft drawl while voicing Woodward’s high school sweetheart, and Brooks Ashmanskas does a pitch-perfect Gore Vidal.

Editor Barry Poltermann, a Wisconsin native, does a masterful job blending these different narrative threads, and the high-water marks for me are when different elements rhyme. Often, the emotion we see on the faces of Newman or Woodward in a film clip seems to evoke something we’re hearing in an audio interview at the same time.

With an unexpected indie rock soundtrack by Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen, “The Last Movie Stars” is an idiosyncratic project, and perhaps less than definitive. But Hawke’s willingness to be personal without pulling focus away from its subjects is what makes it so interesting.

Also on streaming: Neil Patrick Harris returns to series television in “Uncoupling,” which premieres its eight-episode season Friday on Netflix. Harris plays a successful New York real estate agent whose life is turned upside down when his longtime partner abruptly dumps him, forcing him to navigate single life again.

I don’t know if I’m the target audience, but as a fan of the “Paper Girls” comic book series I’m very excited to see the series adaptation coming Friday to Amazon Prime. The series follows four tween girls in 1988 Oregon who get involved in a time-travel adventure, including meeting older versions of themselves.

 

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