Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward had that rare thing: a happy and lasting Hollywood marriage. But things are rarely as simple as they seem, of course. Not any one person and not any relationship. Fame may add a layer of glamour to the tale of these two gorgeous people who found love with each other, but the new HBO Max series The Last Movie Stars reminds us that they were still human beings.
Just people. People whose hopes and fears and mistakes factor into their lives in interesting ways. You know, REAL people. The Last Movie Stars Chapter 1: “Cosmic Orphans” brilliantly starts the viewer on a journey that celebrates a remarkable partnership.
In the 1980s, Newman began working with his friend and screenwriter Stewart Stern to write his memoirs, and they interviewed dozens and dozens of people in Paul’s life. For unknown reasons, Newman burned the tapes of these interviews, but the transcriptions still survive. They are the basis for this series. Actor Ethan Hawke turns director here and recruits a large array of his acting colleagues to give Newman and Woodward’s story a voice.
And what a story it is.
The two actors met at an agent’s office and then got to know each other as understudies in the legendary play Picnic in 1953. The physical attraction was immediate, though Newman was already married at the time. (Yeah, cringe.)
Five years passed before Newman would divorce his first wife and marry Woodward. During that time, their careers steadily advanced. After many live television dramas and stage work for both of them, films came calling. Woodward broke through to higher critical acclaim with The Three Faces of Eve. Newman dealt with knowing his breakthrough role in Somebody Up There Likes Me was intended for James Dean. That is, until Dean died in a car accident.
Both Newman and Woodward achieved fame after they were already a couple. So, you could say they entered the public consciousness as a unit. The words Newman left behind about Woodward for his memoir are the most memorable here for me. They are revealing, too:
“My meeting with Joanne gave birth to a sexual being…I am simply a creature of her invention.”
Imagine someone saying that about you…just wow.
It remains to be seen whether Newman’s famous quote about not cheating on Woodward because he already had steak at home makes it into this series. (And if you think that sounds a bit hypocritical, well, yeah it is. Again, cringe.) And these interviews were recorded after they’d already been married for almost 30 years.
Their long careers were just beginning and still had many milestones to come when they married in January 1958. The first of their 16 films together hadn’t been released yet. Their immense talent was something they had in common, and they were able to share it with the world, together and separately. And they still had plenty to accomplish in other areas of life as well. Such as kids, businesses, and philanthropic work. The Last Movie Stars Chapter 1 stokes the audience’s anticipation for all that with interesting details and a format that feels fresh.
The Last Movie Stars is now streaming on HBO Max.