Ethan Hawke has already had a busy year, with roles in the Marvel/Disney+ series “Moon Knight” plus the movies “The Northman” and “The Black Phone.” Later this year he will be in the anticipated “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” and has multiple other projects on the way.
Amidst all that he also made “The Last Movie Stars,” a six-part documentary on the lives and careers of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward now streaming on HBO Max. The two were award-winning actors on stage and screen, with successes both on their own and together, and were married for 50 years. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2007, Woodward has retreated from public life. Newman died from cancer in 2008.
Late in his life, Newman embarked on something of a personal oral history project for a planned memoir, as screenwriter Stuart Stern interviewed friends and collaborators. Newman eventually turned on the idea and burned the tapes. Hawke, who was brought onto the project by Newman and Woodward’s family, was given transcripts of those lost conversations.
Reading from those transcripts is a long list of Hawkes’ own friends and contemporaries, with George Clooney as Newman and Laura Linney as Woodward. Zoe Kazan gives particularly stirring readings as Newman’s first wife, Jackie Witte; in addition, Sam Rockwell reads Stuart Rosenberg, Josh Hamilton reads George Roy Hill, Alessandro Nivola reads Robert Redford, Rose Byrne reads Estelle Parsons and Oscar Isaac reads Sidney Pollack.
Hawke includes his own conversations over Zoom with those collaborators, affectionately sharing their ideas about Newman and Woodward. There are also discussions with Martin Scorsese, Sally Field and Hawke’s daughter, Maya Hawke, and wife Ryan Hawke, also a producer on the project.
Hawke spoke with The Times about his distinctive approach to the documentary, Newman and Woodward’s love affair and more.
The project begins, essentially, as a biography of their relationship, but then it becomes this meditation on acting, on fame, on sustaining a career and a life. How quickly did all that other stuff enter the project?
Ethan Hawke: Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast. When I sped this story up, it became like an “Entertainment Tonight” special that I saw in 1986. When I slowed it down, it became something revelatory to me. The spine of the movie is their love affair. They were flat-out lovers. But what makes their story worth talking about is the breadth and scope of it, the fact that through their work, you see the ‘50s, the ‘60s, the ‘70s, the ‘80s, the ‘90s, and the fact that they had this level of sustained excellence for so long. Certain people have these high-water marks of artistic achievement where they achieved some brilliant grace note. And that’s where it’s obvious you center a documentary around. For them, the most obvious artistic achievement is the scope of it, this giant spider web they left behind.
The project came to you through the family. Yet at times it’s a remarkably unvarnished portrait of both of them. Did you ever fight an urge to pull back at all, especially regarding something like Paul’s drinking?
I said to the kids that without shadow, there’s no light — that if we don’t actually create this portrait, we’re not gonna see how beautiful they are. I find their love affair more magnificent because of its problems. This idea that Aphrodite dropped rainbows and unicorns all over their life and they just had this party all the time, it’s just not accurate. And it gives us all permission that we don’t have to work for love and for family and for art and for community, like they worked for this stuff. It was important to them and they failed a lot and that didn’t stop them. And I find that truth way more inspiring than “Ben and Susie were born perfect.”
The way that you put yourself and other contemporary actors into the movie via your Zoom calls — were you worried at all about getting in the way of Paul and Joanne and their story?
My wife is my producing partner and I said to her, “Look, this is gonna be a lot of work. Do you wanna do this?” And she was like, “I’ll do it as long as you’re not in it.” She’s like, “We’re gonna do this in service of these two people. I don’t want it to turn into like some self-expression.” And it was, “Absolutely, absolutely.” And then I started working on it and about a year or so went by, and I was really struggling with a point of view. Any nonfiction material, the truth is too big; a good biography needs a point of view. And I was like, “Why should the audience care about these people in 2022?”
And I started experimenting with using the Zoom calls. It mostly came out of a necessity that when I showed early cuts to people, a lot of young people didn’t know who Elia Kazan was. They didn’t know that “Cool Hand Luke” was a big, important movie. They didn’t know who Gore Vidal or Tennessee Williams were, they don’t know these names the way that they’re foundational to me. And as opposed to like clicking a Wikipedia page or showing an interview, I started realizing, well, maybe I should show Sam Rockwell and I talking about “Cool Hand Luke.” And that would be a more interesting way for an audience to experience why the movie might be relevant. … I did a short little cut to show my wife, and I was like, “Listen, you’re not gonna like this. If you don’t like it, I’m not doing it.” And she watched it and she said, “Keep going, it’s working.” And so she was really my ego police about when the point of view is helpful versus when it was distracting.
Was it a challenge to keep the balance between the two of them? Much as in their own lives, where it seems Paul and his fame and career often dominated, was it hard to not lose sight of where Joanne was throughout the movie?
It’s hard because of my own bias. You start to realize as a filmmaker — I love cowboy movies. I love racing cars. I like motorcycles too. So my wife would watch it and go, “I don’t care, no more cowboy movies.” And I’m like, “What am I supposed to do? Cut to Joanne knitting?” And she’s like, “Yes.”
And why not? It certainly as interesting as car racing. It’s their interests that reveal them and their relationship to each other. So it was difficult in a couple ways. When you talk to the family, it is very clear that to the outside world, Paul was the sun and Joanne was the moon. But to people in the inner circle, Joanne was the sun and Paul was the moon. And so I started thinking about it like that, that they were both in a kind of rotation. And you look at their lives, he says this remarkable thing, like “Paul Newman the sex symbol wouldn’t have happened without Joanne. It was her confidence in me, her belief in me, as a sexual being, as a person. My development as an artist was through her.” And simultaneously after she’d become a mother of six kids and totally lost her career, they took their own money and he directed her in “Rachel, Rachel,” and, she’s winning awards again and doing some of the best work of her life.
So they were kind of constantly shape-shifting from who’s the rose and who’s the gardener. They’d each take turns playing that position to the end of his life. She’s the one who got him back on Broadway, producing “Our Town.” He directed her in “The Glass Menagerie” and “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.” They were constantly doing that dance.
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I have to say, knitting on a talk show is a baller move.
I love it that we found clips of her doing it from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s. It doesn’t matter where she is. She could be on the biggest talk show in the world and she’s just knitting.
The moments in the movie where you are talking to your daughter, Maya, the two of you have such a sweet dynamic. It’s great to see you asking her for advice.
Hawke: Well, she’s really smart. She’s been through a lot in her life. And as the Newman-Woodward kids will tell you, it’s not easy growing up with parents with paparazzi following them around. It’s not exactly the ride that some people might think it is.
I had this theory that if I could make this movie interesting to my mother and interesting to my daughter and interesting to myself, that I could do something special. My mom will burst into tears the second “Rachel, Rachel” comes on TV, because she remembers the date she went on to see it and how much she loved that movie. And that’s why she loves Paul Newman — that he would’ve directed a movie about a woman’s internal struggle. And that’s where he separated himself from the average bear. But my daughter just hasn’t heard of “Cool Hand Luke.” So how can I let her know why the movie’s interesting, why it could be important to her? So if I could do both, scratch both itches, then maybe we would get close to something that would be worth watching.
It’s exciting to see Maya respond to her success in “Stranger Things” by doing something like her recent music video that stirred up a little bit of trouble.
I think that falls directly in the line of good trouble. You don’t want to spend your whole life staying out of trouble. Like Paul says, “If you’re not pissing somebody off, you probably don’t have any character.”
How did you come to deal with Joanne’s Alzheimer’s and the fact that, as one of their grandchildren says, she left us a long time ago even though she hasn’t left us yet.
Simply put, all of our stories end the same, with sickness and death. I mean, that’s the human story. And I realized that I really didn’t want the movie to be about that. I wanted the movie to be about life and living it. And the start of the movie is essentially when they met backstage as understudies. Once we set up the rules of the movie, we find them meeting backstage as understudies at William Inge’s “Picnic.” And I basically end the movie with the last time they acted together, in “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.” And that to me seemed like the right frame of how to discuss their life.
When she was diagnosed, nine days later he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. And about 18 months later, he was dead. And the kids basically say he let go of the rope. He knew what was coming and that their time together was over and he didn’t want to live without her.
There’s a moment in the movie where Zoe Kazan says to you, “What are you learning about yourself by making this?” And in the moment, in the movie, you kind of dodge the question by cutting away. Is that a question you can answer now?
Well, what did I cut away to? That’s the point, I cut away to their grandkids. You could say dodge it, but what I tried to do is answer it more honestly. The question is a big one for me. I spent a couple years of my life doing this and what I said to Zoe and, and what I’ll say to you, was that spending all this time on Zoom through the pandemic, I’ve spent more time looking at myself than I have in any other time period of my life, and really noticing aging and how deeply uncomfortable it makes us. And then I started thinking about Paul and Joanne and how beautifully they aged as human beings. And when we make people feel badly about aging, we’re basically telling people that experience and wisdom, growth, maturity, grace — we’re saying all that matters is visual aesthetics.
I started realizing that this documentary was an example of, it’s not an accumulation of wealth or an accumulation of status. It’s not what you achieve, but how you do it. And I thought the grandkids were the perfect thing to cut to because it’s the real answer to the question. I talked to them about looking at their parents’ awards. Those awards are meaningless now. They weren’t meaningless to Paul and Joanne in the moment they were won, they were examples of excellence, of a high level of achievement. But the real legacy is the way they made other people feel, the way they made audiences feel, the way they made their children feel, the way they made their friends feel, the way they made their community feel.
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