How Joanne Woodward turned Paul Newman into a global sex symbol

Through dozens of testimonies, the documentary ‘The Last Movie Stars’ recounts how the actress helped her husband rise to fame

Woodward and Newman at a dinner in New York in 1970.
Woodward and Newman at a dinner in New York in 1970.

It’s well-known that when Paul Newman met Joanne Woodward, the woman who would remain at his side until his death, he was married with three children. In the documentary series The Last Movie Stars, available to stream on HBO Max, the actor gives a series of intimate testimonies about their meeting. Woodward made him feel desired for the first time. The couple’s sexual appetite immediately brought them together: “My meeting with Joanne gave birth to a sexual creature.”

Newman attributes his wife of 50 years with his status as a sex symbol. As the saying goes, behind every great man is a woman, and Joanne was behind this new status of Newman: “I am simply a creature of her invention,” the actor said.

Joanne, who at the time of their meeting was ahead in her acting career – in 1957 she won the Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve –, taught her to trust his body and desires. “All my desperate fantasies and years of being turned down disappeared with Joanne,” said the actor, before confessing: “We left a trail of lust all over the place. Hotels and motels and public parks and bathrooms and swimming pools and ocean beaches and rumble seats and Hertz rental cars.”

Portrait of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Portrait of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Bettmann (Bettmann Archive)

Years later, in another confession, Newman says that it was Joanne who discovered the script for the western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and gave him the idea of acting alongside Robert Redford. That simple detail – the presence of another sex symbol on the screen – freed him from the constraints of being a beauty icon. Newman could be himself. He came to envy the eccentric and bohemian character of his Actors Studio colleagues – Marlon Brando, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Deep down, he felt more comfortable playing a buffoon than a leading man. His deep wounds, the anti-Semitic childhood bullying, the trauma of his broken first family and the addictions of his only son, Scott, had turned Newman into a functional alcoholic trapped in an escapist spiral.

The documentary, directed by actor Ethan Hawke, meticulously and intelligently vindicates Woodward’s career, as well as her essential role in the couple’s family life. From very early on, the actress – who took care of the children from Paul’s previous marriage and of her own, a total of six – complained in public about the burden of motherhood for her career. In the film, she even confesses that if she were born again, she would think twice about having children. Woodward’s career was cut short when she was at the top, and she picked it up again once her partner had gone from actor to star. Woodward contributed to that leap with the same dedication that she put into balancing her own career and family life, always accompanied by her needles and her ball of wool.

The Last Movie Stars is nourished by the extensive interviews that the writer, Newman’s friend Stewart Stern, gathered to write the actor’s autobiography, a set of testimonies that after a long and somewhat confusing family adventure have just been published in the United States under the title Paul Newman: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man. The series is based on the same material. In a curious narrative exercise in times of pandemic and Zoom, Hawke brought together George Clooney, Sam Rockwell and Laura Linney, among others. They lend their voices to a film that includes testimonies from Gore Vidal, a close friend of the couple throughout their lives, and filmmakers such as Elia Kazan, Martin Ritt and George Roy Hill. From their respective homes, the chorus of voices and pixelated images dissect the actor’s career, ego and relationship.

Hawke sometimes speaks from the kitchen and sometimes from the living room, directing the conversation, sometimes with an excess of hyperbolic and giddy gestures. His daughters with Uma Thurman also participate in the series, which takes on an aspect of family therapy. “When it seemed that the marriage would not last another day,” Woodward says, “We had to be aware that there were three things at work: my ego, his ego, and our ego. For the relationship to survive, we had to pause mine and his and bet on ours.”

American actor, businessman, and philanthropist Paul Newman with his wife, American film and stage actress Joanne Woodward in London in 1969.
American actor, businessman, and philanthropist Paul Newman with his wife, American film and stage actress Joanne Woodward in London in 1969. K. Britten (Getty Images)

One of the actress’s stepdaughters tattooed her stepmother’s name on her arm, so she would “never forget” what the woman did for them and for her father. Woodward’s deep wisdom resonates in the maxims she utters: “Acting is like sex, you should just do it and not talk about it.” “You can’t be an actor without accepting that you are willing to make a fool of yourself and fail.” She once hung a poster in her house that said: “Luck is an art.”

Via Zoom, Martin Scorsese, producer of the series, goes so far as to say that it was Woodward who led the most exciting turns in Newman’s career. These intimacies come to light due to the decision of some daughters who want to reveal the truth behind their parents’ romantic image.

Today, Joanne Woodward is 92 years old. Her Alzheimer’s has caused her to lose the memories that the rest of us are now discovering. Woodward evades almost all labels. Her openness and emotional intelligence places her far above her time, enhancing the aura of admiration that has always surrounded her. Gore Vidal summed it up like this: she always had more talent, and he knew it.


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