The Last Movie Stars follows the personal lives, careers, and romance of, as the title plainly asserts, “the last movie stars”—that is, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. But what does that phrase mean? Not even Ethan Hawke, the Academy Award-nominated actor who directed the new series, is quite sure. His doc, though, gets a bit closer to an answer.
Hawke approaches his six-part HBO Max docuseries with a fan’s enthusiasm, as if he’s dragging you by the hand into a movie theater while screaming, “You’ve never seen Hud?! You’ve gotta watch Hud!” A friendly, energetic guide through the work of two artists he feels intensely close to, Hawke interjects, theorizes, and celebrates the work of Woodward and Newman as if it were his own story. That relationship between artist and appreciator is the connective tissue of The Last Movie Stars, a project with a profound gratitude for its subjects.
Hawke wants to pull their legacy into the 21st century by not only connecting it to himself but also the generations that came before and after the couple. Using a trove of oral-history transcripts between Newman and his friend, Rachel, Rachel screenwriter Stewart Stern, Hawke invites his very famous friends to read for the very famous pair, with Laura Linney and George Clooney standing in for Woodward and Newman. But while the series boasts big names, the conversations in it aren’t so glamorous. Hawke smartly ditches the glossy, documentary-style talking-head interviews for quarantine-friendly Zoom chats that feel intimate and conversational, like a long talk with a good friend that ends with you wanting—nay, needing—to see The Three Faces Of Eve.
The A.V. Club had a Zoom conversation of our own with Hawke, where we chatted about stardom, Newman, Woodward, and why there are no more movie stars.
The A.V. Club: I’ve got to tell you, I’m getting a little deja vu seeing you here on a Zoom screen. I really connected and, obviously, related to the Zoom talks in the film. The aesthetic gave it a real intimate atmosphere. Was that always part of the plan?
Ethan Hawke: No, not at all. You know, I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do or how I was going to tackle this. And I had this idea of getting my friends and other actors to reenact these transcripts. And as I was talking to everybody, I found so many of the things that they said so interesting. There was something that felt a little revelatory about intercutting these old Hollywood glamorous movies with this verité weirdness of right now that you really felt one generation looking at another. It felt right to me. And I just started playing with it. At first, I started using Zoom calls simply as placeholders until I found something better. But then I started enjoying them.
AVC: It felt like I was involved in a conversation, like you were pulling these people and the audience along on your journey. What was it like pushing yourself into that kind of narrative?
EH: Well, I remember when I was younger and I used to read Rolling Stone profiles by, like, Cameron Crowe or Hunter Thompson. It was always clear that it was their point of view. They weren’t telling you the truth. They would insert themselves in the narrative just enough to make it almost feel more honest because there isn’t one truth. There’s the author’s point of view about said truth, right? And it’s a hook! It’s an old-fashioned device. It’s like, “What’s the hook? Why should we care?” I started feeling like maybe a character in this movie was the director hunting for what is revelatory about these people. Why should anyone watch this right now? What matters about this? And so, as I would make discoveries, I was inviting the audience to be a part of that rather than dictating, “This is what’s important.”
AVC: This is your second documentary and your second one about an artist’s legacy, the first being 2014's Seymour: An Introduction, about pianist Seymour Bernstein. Why do you feel uniquely suited to tackle that topic?
EH: It’s the only thing I know anything about. The really challenging thing about directing is if you don’t have passion for the subject matter, it’s really easy to lose your fire. For the oxygen to go out of the room. You have to care a lot about it.
My life has been dedicated to the arts, so I find this conversation really interesting. And I find that inside of exploring the arts, you inadvertently explore lots of other issues. You can’t tell Paul and Joanne’s story without telling the story of America in the last 50 years: the way art is reflecting what’s happening in society, the way that the culture impacted them as artists, and the way film is changing. The conversation starts about art, but then it evolves into parenthood, romance, politics. All of it affects the individual. And so as you get deeper and deeper into the individual’s art, you’re seeing a broader landscape of it. I mean, the short answer is, I guess it’s the only thing I feel qualified to talk about.
AVC: You open Seymour: An Introduction with a question: Why do artists do what they do? How close are you to answering that question for yourself?
EH: I think one lifetime’s not enough to answer that question. The question itself is in a way more interesting than the answer. It’s a lot of different answers. Seymour carved a path for himself that is wildly inspiring in a very different way than Paul Newman did. All of us have our own unique hurdles. In exploring them deeply, we can all relate to them. They’re not the same as ours, but we relate to the humanness of it.
It’s funny, but when I think about when I was younger, I loved Bob Fosse, and if you look at all his films, they’re all about the arts. Cabaret. Lenny. Star 80. All That Jazz. You know, they’re all about artists. And I relate to that because he’s a dancer, and he could make a really great movie if he made it about what he knew a lot about. And I have a hunch that I might be surprised if I ever direct a movie that’s not about the arts. Like, I wonder if I ever will. I don’t know that I’d give myself permission to.
AVC: Paul and Joanne put their personal lives into very collaborative work. We hear a lot about the auteur theory and who is the artist of these things. In many ways, these actors were, choosing projects and pulling from their own lives and beliefs. How possible is it that actors can still make the kind of decisions they were making?
EH: It’s extremely possible. There is no artistic form that I know of that’s more collaborative than filmmaking. The wrong costume design can ruin a film. Bad cinematography can ruin a film. A bad performance, bad writing. If you put the camera in the wrong place, you screw the whole scene. For anything to go well, it requires so much to go right from so many different people. But the actor’s job has a continuity to it, which is: If it’s not personal to me, if I can’t make it personal for me, if I don’t know why I’m on set on this day asking you to watch this; I don’t know that you should watch it. If each artist in their different job puts that kind of thought into it, it’ll probably work out.
I’m always a little allergic when directors call it my film or my actors. You take someone wildly heralded as an auteur, Tarantino or something. Yeah, he’s a genius. I love his movies, but Sam Jackson is a giant part of what makes Pulp Fiction work as are all the actors in it. And so, yeah, it’s a Tarantino film, but it also has all these other artists working, too, simultaneously. That’s what elevates it. [Richard] Linklater said to me before I directed my first movie, “You know you’re winning if other people call it ‘their film.’” It should feel like our film because our collective imagination is way much more powerful than the individuals.
AVC: The phrase the last movie star kind of gets batted around a lot. What does that phrase mean to you?
EH: Well, in the context of this movie, I’m taking it from a Gore Vidal quote, which is about [how Newman and Woodward are] the last generation that was raised and brought up in this profession the same way the original movie stars were. Clark Gable, you know, Katharine Hepburn. They came of age at a time when there were famous acting teachers: Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, Sandy Meisner. There was a culture of respect for acting, where acting was an art form. And it’s turned into a kind of cult of personality.
I always really admired Lupita Nyong’o. She’s one of the first people to win an Oscar to thank their acting teacher. It’s like people don’t want to admit they work at this craft.
I don’t even know if I buy it. I like that Gore Vidal said it. I find it an intriguing title. Are they? Because in a lot of ways, when I first heard him say that, I was like, I don’t think that’s true. They were so much more actors than movie stars. But I think what he meant is that that was the last time that actors had to earn that position.
AVC: Yeah, we as Americans really don’t like giving up that idea of movie stardom. It’s a really important, iconic thing in American culture.
EH: Yeah, it is. I’ve heard other people say this, and I think it’s true. I think part of why British actors have an easier time beating that cult of celebrity is because they have the royalty they have. You know, we don’t.
AVC: There’s always someone bigger than you.
EH: There’s always the queen. You’re just an actor, you know?