Ethan Hawke is a terrific actor, but The Last Movie Stars also shows that he’s a great director as well. He manages to assemble an impressive docuseries that is also a Zoom drama while telling the story of one of the biggest acting couples in cinema history. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward had an impressive history, both on and off screen, full of twists and turns that I wasn’t aware of prior to this docuseries.
The concept of The Last Movie Stars that Ethan Hawke puts together is brilliant. Hawke was approached by Newman’s children about an abandoned memoir that Newman was working on with screenwriter Stewart Stern. Countless people in Newman and Woodwards lives were interviewed, but the tapes were destroyed; luckily, Stern had transcribed the recordings. Hawke still utilizes footage from Newman and Woodward’s films, interviews, and lives together, but what he does to tell the story is what makes this docuseries unique.
During the early days of COVID, Hawke decides to bring his famous friends into the picture to help tell this story. He recruits people like Oscar Isaac, Sam Rockwell, Billy Crudup, Sally Field, Zoe Kazan, Karen Allen, Steve Zahn, and more perform as the figures throughout the life of Newman and Woodward. The actors who take on these figures are credited as “The Players” at the end of each episode, adding to the play element of the docuseries Hawke is striving for. While the internet connections aren’t always great, the concept makes it work in the long run.
The Last Movie Stars is also a celebration of Newman and Woodward’s contributions to film. People like Vincent D’Onofrio and Martin Scorsese discuss the impact this power couple had on film history through highlights of their performances. At the end of each episode, there’s a bonus reel of the films featured in each episode with their titles and release years. Hawke is clearly a film history lover and it shows in how he assembled this series.
I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t seen most of Paul Newman’s work, but he has so many classic films that I have to start watching after seeing clips of his performances; I’ve only seen a few of his later films, like Road to Perdition and Cars, where he voiced Doc Hudson (which was inspired by his real life love of racing). Newman was a movie star, so it made sense to get one of today’s stars to narrate as him: George Clooney.
Joanne Woodward was arguably one of the greatest actresses of her time, especially after seeing clips of her performances. Naturally, someone like Laura Linney (who is incredibly underrated) was a perfect fit to narrate as Woodward. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with Woodward’s work as well, even less so than Newman’s. I plan to fix that as soon as I can by watching more of her films, especially ones where she co starred with Newman.
Overall, I think Ethan Hawke put together a fascinating docuseries; he worked how he could during COVID and still put together an impressive cast through the power of Zoom! If you aren’t familiar with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, you will have a greater appreciation for the two of them. They weren’t perfect people, but they delivered some of the most memorable film performances of all time. I would encourage everyone who watches this series to seek those films out; I’m sure that’s what Hawke wants to happen from this docuseries and I intend to honor that.