Luck Is An Art

I was excited when I heard that Ethan Hawke was doing a documentary about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Paul was always one of my favorite movie stars. In addition to being a great actress, I had a crush on Joanne dating from when a high school English teacher showed The Three Faces Of Eve to our class. Thanks, Mr. Titus.

My excitement grew when I learned that the film title came from a quote from The Master DBA Gore Vidal. I knew Gore and the Newmans were friends, but I didn’t know how close until Gore entered the memoir writing phase of his career. I was surprised that the master name dropper had rarely dropped such glamorous names. In fact, I learned how to name drop from Vidal.

The post title comes from Newman’s description of his own life and serves as the title of the final and most wistful episode of this wonderful 6-part docuseries.

Here’s the back story of how The Last Movie Stars came to be. Paul had a writer friend record interviews with his nearest and dearest for a possible memoir. He destroyed most of the tapes when he abandoned the project. Mercifully, Stewart Stern had the interviews transcribed and one of the Newman’s daughters gave Ethan Hawke custody of this treasure trove. Hawke opted to make himself and the process a part of his project. He succeeded brilliantly. It was what he did during the pandemic.

Since most of the tapes were gone, Hawke used the tried and tested Ken Burns technique of having actors read the parts. His casting choices were brilliant:

  • George Clooney as Paul Newman
  • Laura Linney as Joanne Woodward
  • Zoe Kazan as Paul’s first wife, Jackie McDonald
  • Brooks Ashmanskas as Gore Vidal

That only scratches the surface of the excellent casting,  but I have an itch to get to the meat of the movie.

Watching Hawke’s magisterial documentary, I realized how few details I knew of the lives of my favorite Hollywood couple. It’s a warts and all portrait of reel people who lived real and often difficult lives. I came away liking them even more than I did before seeing the film. Nobody was harder on Newman and Woodward than Paul and Joanne. It’s how good people react to the mistakes they’ve made in life.

Since I’ve already trotted out a bullet list, here’s a list of the top ten things I learned from The Last Movie Stars:

  1.  I did not know that Joanne’s mother was eerily like Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie.
  2.  I did not know that the Woodward-Newman affair lasted for 5 years. Paul was so determined not to hurt his first wife that he hurt her more by equivocating over breaking up.
  3.  I did not know that Newman read for the part of James Dean’s brother in East of Eden. Elia Kazan knew he was wrong for the part but promised Paul an audition.
  4.  I did not know that Newman had a severe falling out with his mother because she accused Joanne of having an affair with the famously gay Gore Vidal.
  5.  I did not know but wasn’t surprised that Joanne had regrets over putting her career on the back burner to raise her kids. She was the bigger star to begin with, after all.
  6.  I did not know but wasn’t surprised that Joanne was a great stepmother. Stephanie Newman has her stepmother’s name tattooed on her arm. Say no more
  7.  I did not know how serious Paul’s drinking problem was. He was thrown out of the house and only readmitted when he promised to give up hard liquor as long as he could still drink beer. Marriage is all about compromise.
  8.  I did not realize that Paul was making one of his worst movies, Quintet, when he learned his son Scott had died of an overdose. Imagine how hard it must have been to be Paul Newman’s son.
  9.  I did not know that Ethan’s buddy, the director Richard Linklater is obsessed with The Color of Money.
  10. I did not know but wasn’t surprised that Paul didn’t care about being overlooked by the Oscars until he wasn’t. He proved that by skipping the ceremony the year he won.

I’m sure there are more things I learned but that’s enough to whet your appetite to see this marvelous movie about the movies.

In addition to making himself a part of the documentary, Ethan Hawke selected film clips well and wisely; weaving them into the story. It was fascinating how Newman was able to integrate his own life story into an insignificant movie like Winning, which was about racing. It turns out that Newman’s troubled relationship with his son was replicated onscreen with Richard Thomas as the race car driver’s son.

Newman lapsed into depression and apathy about his work after Scott’s death. He did some forgettable films in the late Seventies but snapped out of this career slump with 1981’s Absence of Malice. He was walking through his part in the early days of filming until director Sidney Lumet read him the riot act. The slump was over.

Paul died in 2008. Joanne is still with us, but she’s disappeared into the fog of Alzheimer’s disease. I miss seeing her onscreen.

I could go on and on and on about the richness of this docuseries, but I won’t. I do, however, plan to watch it again sometime soon.

Here’s the trailer:

Grading Time: As our regular readers know, I’m a tough grader and rarely give anything top scores. In this case, I have no choice. I give The Last Movie Stars 4 stars and an Adrastos grade of A. Ethan Hawke spent his lockdown time wisely.

The last word goes to the penultimate needle drop in The Last Movie Stars:

4 thoughts on “Luck Is An Art

  1. I knew that but perhaps I have an aversion to extraneous letters. Thanks for pointing that out. Changed.

  2. There was a thread on another website about abortion in movies. I chimed in with Absence of Malice, which has an abortion as an important plot point. I got thinking about the movie this week, and I’m going to have to watch it again this weekend. There’s just too much good stuff in it.

    1. Saw that again on TCM recently. Good movie as well as being Newman’s return to form.

Comments are closed.