Ja Last Movie Stars, a new documentary series about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward released on HBO Max last weekend, sometimes helps focus on a third topic. Ethan Hawke presides as director and producer on all six episodes, and he makes no effort to downplay his own presence under the guise of on-the-fly objectivity. As much as his vast research project exists to chronicle the life and works of a Hollywood power couple in a league of their own, he digests the narrative by examining his own relationship with it.
With a cavalcade of celebrity pals Zooming in during the scruffy-haired early days of quarantine, a row of murderous actors who are also recording voice-over readings of archival material, Hawke pontificates on how a generation of serious comedians got is modeled and their careers after Newman and Woodward. For a background artist seeking to cultivate an inner life rich in varied hobbies and intellectual pursuits to go along with A-list icon status, there is no clearer example than Newman. , whose ice-blue eyes hid the soul of a student and racing driver from Lee Strasberg. .
Taken as a whole, this homage to the pair of 2000s tabloids reportedly dubbed Jaul (Poanne?) doubles as a case study in fandom done right. The profile of the typical fan has been significantly distorted over the past decade as the internet obsessed, now more closely associated with fanatics of pop music or superhero movies, hordes prone to cyber-swarming of anyone who challenges their absolute allegiance. Hawke trades this unconditional loyalty for an appreciation with a more critical bent, ready to recognize Newman’s considerable flaws alongside his virtues. For all his open admiration, Hawke constructs a balanced assessment of an essential artist and a troubled man. In doing so, he shows how to account for the problematic aspects of a personal favourite, a challenge for all of us that grows more pressing with each scandal.
While he carved out a public image of an alt-heartthrob farther removed from the mainstream of movie stars than Newman, Hawke has always followed the path of the elder actor: basic theater training, acting roles. ever-expanding screen under a host of esteemed authors, parallel endeavors too dedicated to be considered dabbling. As the episodes touch on every canon Newman performance, Hawke shares a breathless beat of awe with anyone he has in line. “Denzel in Malcolm X. De Niro, Raging Bull. Paul Newman, Cool Hand Luke! Hawke pours out, offering some variations on this for Hud, The Sting, The Color of Money and the rest. But it’s a deliberate admiration, its compliments always expressed in a thoughtful analysis of the characters Newman played and how they fit the story of his life.
Although Hawke doesn’t talk about his identification with Newman, he devotes just as much time and attention to Woodward and the shifting dynamic between the longtime spouses. It’s here that Hawke’s circumspect view of a larger-than-life legend really comes into play, as first-hand sources establish that she’s a nobly suffering support beam for a husband on the verge of collapse. . The series doesn’t gloss over Newman’s functional alcoholism, showing us home movies in which he walks casually around his living room holding a bottle. Even more disturbing is a clip in which we see one of his children make a convincing dad impression under the influence, a sign of neglectful parenting for which he would feel immense guilt for later in life. (The overdose death of his son, young stuntman Scott, is Newman’s background.) George Clooney reads like Newman throughout the series and injects genuine anger in a rant that sees him defend his choices as a father saying that at least he did not beat his children.
But life is long and Newman’s thread continues. The final episodes chart his redemption as he cuts down on his drinking – “just beer,” he may be joking – and succeeds through charity and raising awareness for those struggling with addiction. . Hawke takes this without judgment, as he does the rest of Newman’s convoluted journey. “The people I admire the most are the ones who overcome their demons and work with them, and that’s what I get out of it,” Hawke told Business Insider last week. “If you have no shadow, you have no light.” It wisely avoids outright hero worship for Newman’s greatness or dismissal for his darkness, adopting instead a nuanced view that captures all the fragility of human nature. Anyone involved in the arts must constantly confront this contradiction, that those responsible for work that we find beautiful or moving can nevertheless behave in ugly or cruel ways behind closed doors. The adult mind can hold two opposing thoughts at once, and in Hawke’s case, even merge them into a larger understanding of how a genius’ demons can inform and even motivate their finest hours. There is no point in condemnation or exoneration here, a verdict one way or the other being an unnecessary obstacle to understanding. Newman passed away, his legacy cemented. He just is, and Hawke accepts him on these obvious terms.