The documentary “The Last Movie Stars” at SXSW from CNN Films and HBO Max is helmed by Ethan Hawke. He was approached to take an in-depth look at the life and careers of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Joe Rudge gets credit for the music. The filmed interviews with various luminaries are explained by Director Ethan Hawke as having been done when Newman was still alive. For reasons that are not explained, the tapes were destroyed, but someone with a great deal of foresight had commissioned a transcript of the remarks of those who were close to Paul and Joanne.
So, we have interviews that were actually done with people like Gore Vidal—an important individual in their lives— and some remarks from Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, themselves. Ethan Hawke approached an All-Star cast and asked them to read the parts of these famous interview subjects as though portraying the famous voices of yesteryear .
Therefore, we hear George Clooney’s voice giving us Paul Newman’s remarks, etc. Other All-Star cast members in the project included Mark Ruffalo, Karen Allen, Steve Zahn, Maya Hawke, Billy Crudup, Alessandro Nivola, Sam Rockwell, Zoe Krazitz, Oscar Isaac, Ewan McGregor, Bobby Canavale, Josh Hamilton, Laura Linney, Vincent D’Onofrio, Brooks Ashmanskas (as Gore Vidal) and others. Mario Andretti co-produced and Martin Scorsese executive produced.
Sanford Meisner, Joanne’s New York City acting teacher, said of Joanne Woodward (now 92 years old and suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease) that the reason she went into acting was “it was the only thing she knew how to do.” Joanne’s mother was an avid movie buff and one funny story has a 9-year-old Joanne jumping into Laurence Olivier’s lap inside his limo as he arrived for the premiere of “Gone With the Wind” accompanying his then wife Vivian Leigh, (as Joanne’s mother had bought the pair tickets to the World Premiere.)
Joanne and Paul made 16 films together, and Paul directed Joanne in her Oscar nominated role in 1968’s “Rachel, Rachel.” Although Paul had directed the film, he was snubbed in the category of Best Director of 1969, which, Joanne admitted, bothered her.
The remark is made that “They presided over the end of the theater and the advent of television” during their lengthy careers. They did 100 TV shows in 2 years.
Newman is the only American actor to have been nominated for Best Actor over a 5-decade period. The couple’s last film together, 50 years after their first, was “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.”
They met when both were understudies for “Picnic” on Broadway in 1953, although there might have been an earlier meeting at their mutual agent’s office that did not go particularly well. “Picnic” won the Pulitzer Prize for William Inge’s first play. Paul said, of meeting Joanne, “We recognized in each other a couple of orphans and orphans have a healthy appetite for everything.” Years later, he would say, of their enduring marriage, “I think the glue that held me and Joanne together was the thought that anything was possible. The promise of everything was there from the very beginning.”
It is only fair and accurate to mention that Paul was already married to his first wife and had three children with her when he and Joanne met in 1953. He wanted to marry Woodward, but his first wife would not give him a divorce, so the affair went on for five years before the first Mrs. Paul Newman relented. Paul and Joanne subsequently had three daughters of their own. Once, when questioned about Paul Newman’s appeal as a sex symbol on a talk show appearance, Joanne said, “I don’t get it. He’s over 40, has six kids and snores.” She also said, in 1987, of acting, in general: “Acting is like sex. You should do it, not talk about it.”
One interesting fact was the close friendship with novelist and well-known radical/homosexual Gore Vidal, to whom Joanne was once engaged. Even after she broke it off with Vidal to marry Paul, the Newmans briefly lived at Vidal’s home.
Paul’s desire to be taken seriously as an actor was mentioned. He admired Brando’s appearance in “On the Waterfront,” which, he said, was the first film that made an impression on him. He wanted acceptance from such luminaries as Ben Gazzara, Elia Kazan, Tennessee Williams, Eli Wallach and James Dean. In fact, both Paul and Joanne auditioned for parts in “East of Eden.”
When James Dean died in a car crash (September 30, 1955, at the age of 24), Paul Newman’s star rose. Newman always said, of his early outsider status, “I’m not a true eccentric. I’ve got both feet firmly planted in Shaker Heights, Ohio. There are people that didn’t consider me an actor.”
Paul’s film debut was in 1954’s “The Silver Chalice.” He considered it embarrassingly bad, although it had a star-studded cast. The 1954 film had Oscar winner Jack Palance and the female lead was Virginia Mayo. Others in the cast included a very young Natalie Wood (age 16; Newman was 30 and it was their only film together), Lorne Greene as the narrator in his debut screen role, E.G. Marshall and Pier Angeli. Newman had auditioned for James Dean’s role in “East of Eden” (1955) and so, when the two were working on neighboring lots, Dean went over to visit Newman on the set of “The Silver Chalice” and met Pier Angeli, where he met the love of his short life.
When “The Silver Chalice” ran on television in 1966, Paul Newman took out ads in the Hollywood trade papers, calling it “the worst motion picture produced during the 1950s,” apologizing for his performance, and asking people not to watch the film. His action had the opposite effect.
That had the opposite effect. Many people tuned in to watch it on television. Newman once screened the movie for friends at his house, giving them whistles, pots, and wooden spoons, and encouraging them to make noisy critiques of the film.
My list of the Top 20 Paul Newman Films:
1) “Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid” (1969) – Is there anyone who was alive and going to the movies in the year 1969 when George Roy Hill directed Newman and Robert Redford in the William Goldman written script that doesn’t think of Newman as “Butch?” Think of the scene where Newman is urging Redford to jump from a high cliff, to avoid those pursuing them so relentlessly that they end up in Bolivia. Redford admits, reluctantly, that he can’t swim. Newman laughs and says, “The fall alone’ll kill ya’!” And they jump.
2) “Cool Hand Luke” – (1967) – “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Fifty hard-boiled eggs. Strother Martin’s green teeth. Luke as a symbol of man’s indomitable spirit. A classic. Newman was nominated for the Oscar, but did not win.
3) “The Hustler” – (1961) As “Fast Eddie” Felsen, he took on Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) in the pool game of the century. Newman was nominated for the 1962 Oscar, but did not win.
4) “The Color of Money” – (1986) – Reteamed as “Fast Eddie” with Tom Cruise, Newman took home the Oscar for his role in this film. It might not have been as good as some others on this list, but this one won him the gold statuette. He is the only American actor to be nominated for Oscars over 5 decades.
5) “Hud” – (1963) – The scene with Patricia Neal in the kitchen oozes sexuality. Another movie for which he was Oscar-nominated in 1964, but did not win.
6) “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” – 1958 – As Brick Pollitt opposite Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie the Cat, the pair personified hot, steamy sex. He even looked good on crutches.
7) “Sweet Bird of Youth” – (1962) Chance Wayne (Newman’s character) was as hot as Brick. Geraldine Page was the beneficiary in this Tennessee Williams play made into a movie.
8) “The Long, Hot Summer” – (1958) – As Ben Quick, Newman provided the steam in this movie based on a William Faulkner novel “The Hamlet.” The cast he worked with included Joanne Woodward, Anthony Franciosa, Orson Welles, Lee Remick and Angela Lansbury.
9) “The Verdict” – (1982) . As Frank Galvin, an attorney with a drinking problem, Newman gave an Oscar-worthy performance and was, in fact, nominated for a 1983 Oscaar, another one he didn’t win. The movie received 5 nominations. Lindsay Crouse as Nurse Kaitlin Costello was great.
10) “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Newman came storming back in the role of John Rooney, co-starring with Tom Hanks in the film based on the Max Allan Collins graphic novel, which was based on an actual gangster named John Looney who terrorized the streets of Rock Island. The gangster’s name was changed from Looney to Rooney and Jude Law was added as a villainous photographer. Daniel Craig has a role. This Sam Mendes-directed film was to be Newman’s last “great” role, and also the last time that legendary cinematographer Conrad L Hall would do the lighting, which is superb. [Hall was reputed to be the best in the business and the last man working who could call for the right camera lighting without a light meter.]
The second ten are included to show the breadth of this fine actor’s career, but the “Must See(s)” are above.
11) “Absence of Malice” (1981) – Playing Michael Colin Gallagher with Sidney Pollack directing, the film garnered 3 Oscar nominations and co-starred Sally Field, Bob Balaban and Melinda Dillon.
12) “The Sting” – 1973 – Reteaming Newman (as Harry Gondorff) and Robert Redford as con men. Arguably, belongs in the Top Ten. A great Scott Joplin song or two didn’t hurt.
13) “The Drowning Pool” – (1975) – Lew Harper (from 1966) comes back to the scene as a gumshoe detective. Co-starring Joanne Woodward and Anthony Franciosa. The film gave ingénue Melanie Griffith, daughter of Tippi Hedren, her first big part.
14) “Harper” – (1966)- Lew Harper’s first appearance on the scene as detective extraordinaire.
15) “Somebody Up There Likes Me” – (1956) – The life story of Rocky Graziano, Newman rebounded from “The Silver Chalice,” which he considered so bad that he bought up all the prints and publicly apologized.
16) “Slap Shot” – (1977) – Reggie “Reg” Dunlop – Hockey. George Roy Hill directed. Some familiar co-stars resurface, including Strother Martin (from “Cool Hand Luke”), Lindsay Crouse (from “The Verdict”) and Michael Ontkean.
17) “Sometimes A Great Notion” – (1971) – Logging story. Nominated for 2 Oscars. Based on the Ken Kesey novel. Co-starred Henry Fonda, Lee Remick and Richard Jaeckel, whose scene when he is trapped under a log and will soon drown if the log cannot be removed is worth the rental.
18) “Exodus” – (1960) – Ari Ben Canaan. A movie about the formation of Israel based on the Leon Uris best-selling novel.
19) “From the Terrace” – (1960). Newman played David Alfred Eaton. “An ambitious young lawyer chooses a loveless marriage and an unfulfilling life, in exchange for a successful Wall Street career,” says the International Movie Data Base.
20) “Towering Inferno” – (1974) – Newman played Doug Roberts and there was talk of strife between Newman and Steve McQueen, who played the fire chief assigned to rescue the hapless individuals trapped in a high-rise building. It had a great cast: Newman, McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner and…..wait for it….O.J. Simpson. (Yes, that O.J. Simpson.)
I was teaching junior high school students at the time, and we took busloads of students, who had been participating in some after-school “craft activity” classes, to see a double bill of “Towering Inferno” and “Earthquake.” Wags dubbed it “the Shake-and-Bake special.” My friend, Nelson Peterson, the history teacher, put a sign on MY bus that said, “HOOKERS: this bus” because the students in my group had been taking part in an after-school class on rug-hooking. I’m still smiling.
I truly enjoyed “The Last Great Movie Stars” at SXSW 2022 and, if I slighted Joanne Woodward’s career, let’s not forget that Paul is gone (at age 83, from cancer, in 2008), while Joanne is still with us. For those of you who only know Paul Newman from his spaghetti sauce and salad dressings, try to see all of the above films. We’ll work on Joanne’s “Best” list if and when she rejoins the love of her life, Paul Newman. In the meantime, if you see this film screening on television, you can recapture bits of their career through film and interviews.
(*NOTE: This is the first chapter of a 6-chapter documentary series.)