Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, 50 years of love and artistic commitment

A new documentary series called ‘The Last Movie Stars,’ which was presented by Ethan Hawkes at Cannes, explores the lives of the Hollywood stars, their passion for acting and off-screen disputes

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward with the Oscars for their performances in ‘The Three Faces of Eve.’
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward with the Oscars for their performances in ‘The Three Faces of Eve.’getty

There was a time when there were no bigger movie stars than Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Even now, decades later, these Hollywood icons have not been forgotten. Indeed, a new documentary series called The Last Movie Stars is taking a closer look at the famous couple.

The third and fourth episodes of the six-part portrait – which is directed by Ethan Hawke – premiered on Saturday at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. From these episodes, it’s seen that while Newman and Woodward’s relationship had its share of challenges – Newman’s alcoholism and infidelities nearly broke up the marriage – the couple always remained professional on set. When asked about his extra-marital cheating, Newman responded: “Why go out for hamburgers when I have steak at home?” It became a famous catchphrase, but one Woodward hated.

At the Cannes premiere, Hawke said the 50-year romance of Newman and Woodward was also a “reflection on half a century of great cinema,” and praised their long career and legacy. The couple met while taking classes at the Actor’s Studio, where they studied alongside acting greats such as Marlon Brando, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. They remained together until Newman’s death from lung cancer in 2016.

At the screening, Hawke recalled a statement by film director Elia Kazan, who said that if Brando was the greatest actor, then Newman was the hardest working. Hawke also shared he was first introduced to Newman’s work when he was just 10 years old. “I used to have to go to church every Sunday,” he told the audience on Saturday. “I really hated church, but my parents made me go.” But one Sunday, his stepmother was sick and he and his father decided to skip the service. He explained: “On the way there, my father turned to me and said, ‘There’s a matinee of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid playing. Would you rather do that?’” Hawke said yes.

Ethan Hawke, on the red carpet in Cannes, on Saturday afternoon.
Ethan Hawke, on the red carpet in Cannes, on Saturday afternoon.Daniel Cole (AP)

The docu-series is based on remarkable material. At the end of his life, Newman decided to write a memoir and interviewed dozens of colleagues and friends. During this process of collecting material, he got cold feet and burned the recordings. However, the transcripts survived and remained in the family’s possession. Newman’s youngest daughter, Clea, contacted Hawke and gave him full access to the archives.

In The Last Movie Stars, these texts are read by actors such as George Clooney (voicing Newman), Laura Linney (Woodward), Zoe Kazan (Jackie Witte, Newman’s first wife) and Sam Rockwell (Stuart Rosenberg, director of Cool Hand Luke and WUSA) – a decision that has been questioned by some critics. Also, the series was edited during the coronavirus pandemic, meaning some of the interviews had to be done over Zoom, and these are less visually compelling than the other material.

The Last Movie Stars looks at how both Newman and Woodward tried to push themselves to their artistic limits. It also examines Woodward’s efforts to create a loving home for Newman’s children from his first marriage (Scott, his eldest and only son, died from a drug overdose in 1978 at the age of 28) and for their three daughters. In the series, Newman is heard saying that his gravestone will be engraved with: “Here lies a father who should have spent more time with his kids.” The episodes also look at Newman’s toxic relationship with his mother, Theresa Gart, an abusive woman who didn’t understand why her youngest son didn’t take over the sporting goods store after her husband died and turned instead to a profession that she described as “pornography.”

One Christmas in New York, Gart told Newman that Woodward disliked her because she knew that the actress had slept with Gore Vidal. Newman opened his car door, and told her to get out, they stopped speaking to each other for 15 years. According to director Stuart Rosenberg, Newman channeled these feelings in a scene in Cool Hand Luke, where his character, Lucas, finds out about the death of his mother and sings Plastic Jesus on the banjo.

Woodward and Newman in 1959, after they had been married for a year.
Woodward and Newman in 1959, after they had been married for a year.

The Last Movie Stars also discusses the film industry. Woodward was the first actress to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, although for years her career was overshadowed by her husband’s. In the episodes screened at Cannes, it’s also seen how important it was for Newman, who is half Jewish, to be cast in Exodus. Director Martin Ritt describes him as a very demanding actor, especially with scripts. Ritt knew what he was talking about – he had worked with Newman and Woodward in The Long, Hot Summer, and directed Newman in Hud and WUSA. The documentary also highlights Newman’s close relationship with Robert Redford. In an old interview, the actor is heard saying that it was Woodward who thought of Redford for the co-lead of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The Last Movie Stars also examines Newman as a director, at least in his first three films: Rachel, Rachel (1968), Sometimes a Great Notion (1970) and The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-on-the-Moon Marigolds (1971), which saw Woodward take home the award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. In 2013, the film festival used a photo of the actors kissing in A New Kind of Love (1963) to promote the festival.

The 2013 Cannes film festival poster.
The 2013 Cannes film festival poster.

But The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-on-the-Moon Marigolds also led to tension in the actors’ marriage: Woodward hated the character she played and hated even more Newman’s decision to cast their daughter Nell as her onscreen daughter. These were also the years of Newman’s alcoholism, a period the couple’s daughters talk about openly in the episode called Paying the Price. At the screening, Hawke said that he wanted to shine a light on Woodward, who was often overshadowed by her husband. The actress, however, does not appear in the series as she now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

Over the years, Newman, a Democrat, became more politically involved (his daughters define him as a liberal, in as much as he’s personally conservative but to left on social issues) to the point where then-US president Richard Nixon allegedly ranked the actor 19th on his list of 20 “enemies” – something Newman took pride in. The actor and Woodward also protested against the Vietnam War.

Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman in an image from the documentary 'The Last Movie Stars.'
Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman in an image from the documentary 'The Last Movie Stars.'

At Saturday’s screening, Hawke ended the presentation with this statement: “Exploring Woodward and Newman through their 50-year love affair has proven more rewarding than I could have imagined. Their work, philanthropy, and lives serve as a kind of North Star, illuminating what a substantive, meaningful life can look like.”

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