The sweatiest and most demanding part of any documentary project is the hard work of defining the stakes, that necessary introduction that tends to rely on sweeping generalizations about time and human nature. A six-part series about the lives of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, directed by and starring Ethan Hawke, could have instantly slipped into plaintive nostalgia for a bygone era or understated hero worship for the towering legacy of two icons. The title alone The latest movie stars, looks a bit like a joke when articulated by a man with a long “awards” section on his own Wikipedia page. But the docuseries, which premiered in full on HBO Max on July 21, relies on Hawke’s intense curiosity and enthusiasm for his subjects. He presents Newman and Woodward’s work with consistent, careful, and critical assessment, and the result is personal and loving, especially in the many sequences that dwell on the darker, less flattering qualities of his two subjects.
The basic material for The latest movie stars comes from a huge collection of interviews that Newman helped collect as part of a potential dissertation project. Although he ultimately destroyed the tapes, one of his children gave Hawke the boxes and boxes of transcribed interviews with dozens of Newman and Woodward’s friends, family, and associates. Hawke makes two choices regarding these transcriptions that shape what will eventually become The latest movie stars: He asks other celebrities to tell them, and he includes his conversations about the project in the series itself.
The combination of these choices is surprisingly clever. Over long stretches, the series has all the satisfying, weighty gravitas of a Ken Burns documentary. George Clooney voices Paul Newman; Laura Linney reads for Joanne Woodward. There’s a reason why Burns’ signature device – an actor reading well-chosen material over a sequence of still photographs – is so often imitated: there’s a thrilling feeling of seeing someone from inside and outside at the same time. Interviews also include Zoe Kazan as Newman’s first wife, Jackie McDonald; Josh Hamilton as George Roy Hill; Bobby Cannavale as Elia Kazan; director Tom McCarthy as Sidney Lumet; and Brooks Ashmanskas as a gloriously plump Gore Vidal. They give The latest movie stars a soft, old-fashioned quality that is both talkative and graceful.
By including himself and his conversations with his co-workers, Hawke manages to skip over all that slow, obligatory table setting in the first ten minutes. He explains to Clooney and Linney roughly how the project will work, serving perfectly as an explanation to the audience; he tells actor Billy Crudup about finding the interview transcripts, and Crudup and Hawke mirror each other’s shocked delight, precluding any need to explain why the show is worth it. Hawke does not deny that Newman and Woodward are giants in the history of American cinema, but The latest movie stars is not solely fueled by their heritage. “We have fun revisiting the generation that came before us,” says Hawke. As documentary framing, it’s simple and it’s powerful.
The latest movie stars spends most of its time on Newman and Woodward, presenting and unpacking their lives from a dozen different angles. There are biographical parts told through the transcripts and conversations with their children and grandchildren. There are extensive considerations on many of their films, iconographies, and career trajectories. Their biographies are almost always presented as part of a larger critical argument about the “real” Newmans and Woodwards, and this argument carries over to other revelations about their lives. It’s not just that Woodward was hailed as the most successful actor before Newman’s career took off, for example; it is that Woodward’s instinctive and naturalistic performances triggered specific areas of anxiety for Newman, which then fueled his own dissociative awareness of carrying emotion from without rather than producing it from within. This sense of being second-rate fueled Newman’s ambition, intermingled with how he adored Woodward, and fueled his alcoholism and later obsession with racing cars. Then there’s Woodward, whose career was on a lunar trajectory until it overtook Newman after the birth of his children. Among other things, she says that although she loves her children very much, she might not have chosen motherhood if she could start all over again. Taken from a distance, the close readings of their lives merge together in a way that seems inevitable, but is in fact the result of Hawke’s careful and fluid analysis.
The latest movie stars is romantic about the power of agency, respectful and almost rhapsodic about the work and the appeal of transformative performances. But more than that, he’s impressed with the challenge and romance of Woodward and Newman’s long marriage — the way, as Hawke’s daughter Maya describes it at one point in the series, the relationship itself can become one. third person, entirely separate from either individual. But there is little empty hero creation in The latest movie stars; he is just as interested in considering the hagiography around Woodward and Newman as in celebrating their lives. On several occasions, Hawke refers to the project as a “movie,” and it’s unclear if he originally intended it as a feature film project or if the term is an oddity the way he speaks. Regardless of, The latest movie stars benefits from serial processing. It’s a forgiving project, but it’s thoughtful enough about the episodic form to justify the running time. By the end, it can’t help but lean towards a touch of mysticism, and yet it’s hard to fault Hawke’s bald bent.
The most convincing achievement of The latest movie stars, however, is its ability to incorporate Hawke and his collection of contemporary Hollywood personalities in a way that shifts and deepens the project without ever distracting attention from its central subjects. Most of the series is a gripping and thoughtful exploration of two people from a previous generation in Hollywood. But quietly, in its negative spaces, it’s a series about contemporary stardom, what it means to be an actor, and the nature of Hawke’s curiosity and critical eye. If one of the pitfalls of prestige historical docuseries is their resemblance to homework, the other is the appearance of a false objectivity, like a god from above setting the course of human events. There is none of that here. It’s lovely to be drawn into these stories by a committed guide, but each tour improves when you begin to get a glimpse – just a little – of the guide’s sense of self. “What do you learn about yourself, doing this?” Zoe Kazan asks Hawke at the end of the series. He doesn’t answer, and any answer would make this moment too centered on him. The series itself is his best answer.