The journey that led Ethan Hawke to make a six-part documentary about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward started about 40 years ago, when a 10-year-old Hawke was on his way to Sunday church with his father.
“I used to have to go to church every Sunday,” Hawke told the audience on Saturday at the Cannes Film Festival, where two parts of his CNN/HBO Max series “The Last Movie Stars” premiered. “I really hated church, but my parents made me go.”
One particular Sunday, he said, his stepmother was sick and decided to skip the service. So Hawke and his father got dressed up in their suits and ties and headed for church. “On the way there, my father turned to me and said, ‘There’s a matinee of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” playing. Would you rather do that?’”
He laughed. “Yes, I would rather do that!”
At that point, Cannes General Delegate Thierry Fremaux, on hand to introduce the screening at Cannes’ freshly renamed Agnes Varda theater, pointed out that for him, movie theaters are like churches.
“This is the church of my choice, right here,” Hawke agreed, turning to the audience. “And you are my congregation!”
The six-part “Last Movie Stars,” which Hawke worked on during much of the pandemic, begins with Newman and Woodward first working together and attending the Actors Studio alongside the likes of Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe. For the Cannes premiere, Hawke summarized the first two episodes, which went up to their 1950s and ’60s successes with “The Hustler” and “Hud” (him) and “The Three Faces of Eve” (her). Then he showed the third and fourth episodes, which he called “the juicy part, the middle period.”
Part 2 included some of Newman’s most indelible films, including “Cool Hand Luke” and “Butch Cassidy,” while Part 3 includes two dramas in which Newman directed Woodward, “Rachel Rachel” and “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” (she loved the former, hated the latter). It also gets into their increasing political activism, the smash hit “The Sting” and the complete disaster that was “WUSA,” a 1970 satire about the rise of conservative talk radio.
“The Last Movie Stars” was made with the cooperation of the Newman family, and with on-camera interviews by four of the couple’s daughters. But one of the interesting wrinkles, Hawke said, is that when Newman was contemplating writing a memoir, he had hundreds of friends and colleagues interviewed – and when he decided not to go ahead with that book, he burned the tapes – after they had been transcribed.
The family gave those transcripts to Hawke – who called the gift “an unbelievable blessing” – and Hawke had actor friends read the lines: Sam Rockwell as “Cool Hand Luke” director Stuart Rosenberg, Zoe Kazan as Newman’s first wife Jackie Witte, Laura Linney as Woodward and George Clooney as Newman.
The Clooney choice is probably the oddest part of the episodes; Clooney has the right movie-star gravitas for Newman, but he’s also very recognizable as Clooney, which feels off.
Still, the screened episodes were both loving and clear-eyed, celebrating the couple’s remarkable work while also devoting plenty of time to Newman’s alcoholism and the strains on their marriage. But there’s no doubt this is a portrait from a devotee who sees the couple’s 50-year marriage and blend of art and activism as a model with little equal in Hollywood.
“It’s very difficult for me to not get misty-eyed being here today and thinking about what this (festival) means to the history of cinema,” Hawke said as he introduced the episodes. “This festival was a huge part of their artistic lives, and to be a part of that … means so much.”
Newman, in fact, won the best actor award at Cannes in 1958 for “The Long Hot Summer”; Woodward won the best-actress prize in 1973 for “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” which Newman directed. The two were also featured on the official poster in 2013.