The Last Movie Stars Chapter 5 is the most introspective and moving piece of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s story thus far. Director Ethan Hawke seems to have an innate sense of how to convey necessary facts with the right touch — perhaps his own experience as an actor helped with that.
The pressures of fame were wearing on Newman and Woodward’s marriage in the 1970s. The Last Movie Stars‘ fifth episode examines this dark period with remarkable respect. Balancing acting careers that were so successful with personal responsibilities seems to be the skill that Woodward, in particular, was learning at this time.
The acting careers of Newman and Woodward were at an intriguing place in the late 1970s. Newman was working on less mainstream films, like The Drowning Pool, which were less critically successful overall than most of his previous movies. And this is despite the fact that he worked with director Robert Altman a couple of times during these years.
Woodward, meanwhile, was finding more television work, like the incredible Sybil. Though she didn’t leave films behind completely, earning another Oscar nomination in 1974 for Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams. It’s safe to say that both of these actors were now legends of their craft.
In the private background of all this, though, was Paul’s drinking.
Even though he completed his work professionally, Newman was an alcoholic, and by the late ’70s, those around him began to confront him. Director George Roy Hill, who Newman had worked with often and who was no stranger to alcohol himself, let Newman know that his drinking was noticeable.
Joanne was scared one night when Paul fell out of bed drunk and hit his head. She left with the kids and issued him an ultimatum. Paul agreed to cut out all hard liquor; and so, their marriage survived.
I think the way they worked through this challenge is emblematic of the Newman and Woodward love story. Hawke is clearly focused on their relationship, understanding its significance in their lives. And he never misses an opportunity to illustrate that with their own words.
Hawke’s decision to ask actors to perform the transcripts for a memoir Newman abandoned in the 1980s was really brilliant. In Chapter 5, the effect is so sweet and touching. When you hear George Clooney say as Paul, “I simply delight in her,” and then later also hear bits of their letters to each other, you have no doubt these two people were deeply in love.
And they would need that love because Paul’s alcoholism was not the worst thing they had to face together. Aside from rumors of infidelity by Paul (SIGH), a major tragedy would change their lives forever.
Paul’s son Scott had fallen into substance abuse for many years. In 1978, the call came that he had died from an overdose. Scott was born to Paul and his first wife, and he tried to follow in his dad’s footsteps a bit with acting and racing. But his addiction proved too strong. Joanne’s words about this sad time will truly make a mark on the viewer. And that’s what stands out about Chapter 5.
The Last Movie Stars Chapter 5 is the most emotional so far, on many levels.
The Last Movie Stars is streaming on HBO Max.