Sunday, September 25

‘The Last Movie Stars’: a love letter to the actors

Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman

documentary series

Ethan Hawke passionately directs this fantastic documentary miniseries about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward

Andrea Moran

In 1998, Paul Newman set dozens of tapes on fire. With them all the interviews that the writer Stewart Stern had done to publish his memoirs were burned. By then, Stern had already spoken with his daughters, family, friends, colleagues and, of course, with his wife, actress Joanne Woodward. But the project was interrupted by the actor’s boredom (“I’m tired of talking about the character of Paul Newman”) and that day, at that bonfire, the voices disappeared but not the transcripts, which have now been recovered by Ethan Hawke in the documentary series ‘The Last Movie Stars’.

Its six episodes, not yet available in Spain, are a deep tribute to Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, two great stars who, in addition to being an artistic partner, were a married couple envied for their longevity and with ups and downs marked by his alcoholism and their egos. art of both. They got married in 1958 and it was death that separated them when the actor died of cancer in 2008. In those 50 years they grew as human beings and also as artists. They were two orphans, as it is said in the documentary, who saved each other.

His insecurities, marked by the fame of Marlon Brandon and the disappearance of James Dean, define his first approach to the world of cinema. As for her, his career was disrupted by motherhood, when he had to slow down filming. “If I had to do it over again, maybe I wouldn’t have kids,” she says in one of her interviews. “Actors are not good parents.” They worked together in 16 films and in many television programs. Oscars, Emmys, BAFTAs, Golden Globes, statuettes from the Cannes Festival and a long etcetera accumulated on the shelves of his house.

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Bake the content, play with the shape

The awards appear in ‘The Last Movie Stars,’ but Hawke is less interested in the glamor and much more interested in the doubts and obstacles that Newman and Woodward faced when getting in front of the camera. There is talk of the Actors Studio and the interpretive method, as well as why acting can be understood as jazz, “half technique, half soul”. Partly for this reason we are not facing a classic documentary and neither is its form. We could define it as a third of file, a third of theater and a third of Zoom. His point of view is unusual, perhaps because there really is one and it is not pulled from an omniscient narrator who remembers the life of another.

Ethan Hawke appears on the screen from minute one and speaks openly about when he received what could be considered a commission and how that foreign proposal was penetrating him. He doesn’t stop at the mere ‘I’, his gaze widens and he ends up outlining “a review of the generation before ours”. Behind that plural, “our generation”, is the Hollywood of today.

When embarking on this project, the protagonist of ‘Before dawn’, which these days has been shooting with Pedro Almodóvar in Almería, had to solve two big problems. The first: how to revive the words that the fire had taken when, in addition, many of its protagonists have already died? The second obstacle affected logistics, and that is that the series was recorded in the middle of the confinement and that implied a lot of hydroalcoholic gel and distance.

To read the words, really interpret them, Hawke cast tones, timbres. George Clooney, in his gallant condition, gives voice to Paul Newman and Laura Linney to Woodward. Around them, some luxury supporting actors who play friends of the time or who intervene as themselves (Martin Scorsese, Sally Field or Richard Linklater). They all appear in that window that is the computer desktop, from their study, their room or the sofa.

A scene from the series in which there are several conversations through Zoom

This domestic setting, with clothes and looks to walk around the house, adds closeness to the series and at the same time emphasizes the stellar aura of the pair of actors. Mortals now live like this, half pixelated, while we see Newman and Woodward pristine in their films with a Hollywood aesthetic. The contrast works and little by little echoes begin to emerge between life and work. When the voices of the interviews join clips from films like ‘The Long Hot Summer, ‘One Day I’ll Be Back’ or ‘Rachel, Rachel’, it is as if Newman and Woodward were speaking to us through fiction, through the stories that have counted on the screen.

Precisely thanks to this montage, one of the great questions posed by the documentary appears: how much of an actor is there in each of its characters? “I am the collection of the men I played,” Newman replies from the past. ‘The Last Movie Stars’ -and this is a personal victory for Hawke-, ends up being a collective and passionate reflection on the artistic drive and the complexities involved in the act of loving. It is surprising that a docuseries with so many voices and faces in between achieves such an introspective effect.

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