The Last Movie Stars sees Ethan Hawke study the lives and times of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward with care and precision.
Ethan Hawke’s The Last Movie Stars, a six-part miniseries now available on HBO Max, beams with admiration. In it, Hawke—a massive film lover and student of Hollywood history—looks at the relationship between Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward: its ebbs, its flows, and its impact on the current state of stardom. He uses it as a lens into his own career, into the careers of his fellow actors, and into the ways we remember A-list stars.
Framed as a biographical telling of Newman and Woodward’s story, The Last Movie Stars is built on interview tapes and archival footage from the last fifty years. Hawke recruits his friends and peers to play the parts: George Clooney as Newman, Laura Linney as Woodward, Zoe Kazan as Newman’s first wife Jackie McDonald, and so on. Hawke talks to other actors and directors about the couple and the most unseen of their movies. He chats with Martin Scorsese, Sam Rockwell, Sally Field, and other Oscar winners about the legacy of two people who achieved not just fame, but superstardom. Together, Hawke and his compatriots are staging a love story.
Hawke’s curiosity about Newman and Woodward’s lives is on full tilt, displayed in every choice. He explores Newman’s alcohol usage and the idea of infidelity. Most of the first two episodes focus on the making of the duo. He looks at how Woodward began with more prestige and power, only to fall beside Newman as time passed. The Last Movie Stars‘ structure rarely changes from episode to episode, slowly moving its way through Newman and Woodward’s lives, methodically exploring every aspect of them. It’s almost procedural, but this barely takes away from the inherent drama in Newman and Woodward’s marriage.
The voice acting is strong throughout The Last Movie Stars. We don’t hear Newman’s voice often, but a megastar like George Clooney can likely relate to his thoughts. It becomes impossible to not think about how the voice cast might be examining their own lives in the course of the project, Hawke most of all.
The Last Movie Stars is more than a deep dive. It is a complete examination of Woodward and Newman’s careers, running through the filmographies of two of film’s biggest stars and one of the most famous Hollywood marriages of the last 75 years. If you’re a film lover, it’s enthralling, even set up as a portrait of people we think we already knew. Hawke has no issue spending 15 minutes on films that few have seen, and he explores nearly every film that Newman and Woodward made together or apart. My own watchlist grew ten movies longer halfway through the series.
Hawke also speaks with Newman’s children with both McDonald and Woodward, adding another level of credibility to The Last Movie Stars. Despite his willingness to show the difficult moments and characteristics of their marriage, Hawke wants this to be a story filled with affection, care, an enduring sense of romance, and the sheer sexiness of their relationship. The result, for viewers, is a sense of understanding, an odd kinship with a couple who lived lives of fame and fortune.
And The Last Movie Stars seems to be made for those that have an inkling about this story. Hawke aims to speak directly to an audience that is familiar with him, with his star-studded voice cast, and with the movies shown throughout each episode. It might not do much for those who don’t know Woodward or Newman, but for those who do, the series proves itself a love letter, a human look at two people Hawke can’t help but praise.
Though the series’ length stretches Hawke’s craft thin in places, its focus on the changes in Newman and Woodward’s relationship over the decades keeps it compelling. Their lives, their work, their marriage, it’s fascinating—and Hawke presents it with care and love.
The Last Movie Stars is available on HBO Max.