Most people know Ethan Hawke from Dead Poets Society (1989), The Before Trilogy (1995-2013), Gattaca (1997), Daybreakers (2009), Sinister (2012), The Purge (2013), Boyhood (2014), Predestination (2014), First Reformed (2017), and the Good Lord Bird (2020). That’s probably why you are excited to see him in The Black Phone (2022) and Moon Knight (2022). But here is some information for the uninitiated. Hawke has helmed feature films and documentaries, namely Chelsea Walls (2001), The Hottest State (2006), Seymour: An Introduction (2014), and Blaze (2018). And those who are fans of his direction as well will likely be looking forward to the six-part documentary on the life of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward called The Last Movie Stars (2022).
Directed by Ethan Hawke and co-executive produced by Martin Scorsese, The Last Movie Stars is a resurrection of a long-abandoned project that Newman commissioned from a friend and screenwriter Stewart Stern. Basically, Newman requested Stern to interview Elia Kazan, Sidney Lumet, Karl Malden, Sidney Pollack, Gore Vidal, Jacqueline Witte, Joanne Woodward, Newman himself, and others for a planned memoir. But once that was done, the tapes were burnt. And what was left of those extensive conversations were transcripts. Hawke tracked it down and enlisted Brooks Ashmanskas, Karen Allen, Bobby Cannavale, George Clooney, Ben Dickey, Vincent D’Onofrio, Latanya R. Jackson, Zoe Kazan, Laura Linney, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Tom McCarthy, Alessandro Nivola, Mark Ruffalo, Maya Hawke, Oscar Isaac, Sam Rockwell, Billy Crudup, Steve Zahn, Ewan McGregor, Sally Field, Josh Hamilton, Stephanie Newman, and Scorcese to voice parts of the transcripts or discuss Newman and Woodward’s life in general.
Disclaimer: The Last Movie Stars is made of six chapters. This review is based on the first chapter titled Cosmic Orphans.
The driving reason behind The Last Movie Stars is surprisingly compelling. Initially (without even reading the synopsis), it seemed like the mini-series was just going to be a beat-by-beat rundown of Newman and Woodward’s long personal and professional history. And that would’ve been boring for everyone who knows everything or something about Newman and Woodward’s journey. But Hawke’s approach towards not only unearthing an essential part of North American entertainment history but also presenting it in this unique fashion is worthy of all the applause.
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In the episode, Hawke’s fascination with Newman and Woodward is apparent. Why wouldn’t it be? He grew up watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and sees Newman as one of his idols. However, Hawke manages to keep that on the side and lets Stern’s dissection of Newman and Woodward’s professional prowess and personal characteristics take center stage. The most stirring aspect of the first chapter (probably even more stirring than Newman cheating on Jackie Witte) is the insinuation that James Dean’s untimely death cleared the way for Newman to make his career. Now that’s a hell of a chip to have on one’s shoulder.
The decision to make this documentary by talking to some of the best contemporary actors and letting them narrate the transcriptions in the incomplete memoir works on two levels. The first one is gaining knowledge about Newman and Woodward. Like us, actors are fans first. And like every other fan, they also like to study their idols, learn more about them, and probably use that as inspiration to drive themselves. Given how these are newly unearthed memoirs, it’s evident that none of the aforementioned actors are privy to all the details they are getting to read. Hence their preconceived notions about Newman and Woodward are being challenged in real-time, which is then forcing them to rethink how they were using the stars’ personal and professional journeys as their North Star.
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The second is the evolution of the entertainment industry. Newman, Woodward, Gore Vidal, Elia Kazan, Sidney Lumet, and more were integral to the shaping of Hollywood as we know it. With the advent of streaming, everything from production to acting has changed. The narrators have changed with it. So, to receive a history lesson through the eyes of people from a bygone era is, for the lack of a better word, educational. Maybe slightly melancholic.
In conclusion, The Last Movie Stars is a fascinatingly epic exercise by Ethan Hawke that uses a digital tool born out of circumstance (i.e. Zoom) to examine a love story that was birthed in an analog world. Hawke upholds the transparency that Stern displayed while conducting the interviews and gives it a heartfelt, modern update. And the energy that everyone from Scorsese to Clooney, Kazan, and Linney exhibit, because they are that excited to be a part of this project, is truly infectious. Although it’s too early to judge the series because this is just one chapter out of six chapters, it’s safe to say that Hawke has introduced a new and engaging way of making a biopic. Also, here’s a fun fact: like Hawke, my introduction to Paul Newman was also via Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.