The Last Movie Stars: were Newman and Woodward the end of the line?

George Clooney and Laura Linney stand in for Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in Ethan Hawke's new docuseries on Binge.

Ever the cutting wordsmith, the late queer author and savage intellectual Gore Vidal had a quote for everything. Whether it was lacerating the ‘United States of Amnesia’ or taking a pot-shot at history as ‘nothing but gossip about the past, with the hope that it might be true,’ his withering wisdom is endlessly entertaining.

But for the longest time, several of his sweeping proclamations lay hidden in a dusty old box, presumed burned on a funeral pyre. You see, Oscar-winning actor Paul Newman engaged Rebel Without a Cause writer Stewart Stern to interview, at great length, himself, fellow Oscar-winner wife Joanne Woodward and many of their closest friends, including Vidal, with the intention of penning a memoir. But for reasons unknown, Newman abandoned the project and, in a dramatic turn worthy of Vidal’s OTT tendencies, burned the tapes.

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Many moons later, Ethan Hawke was made aware of the aborted project, and that transcripts of these mysteriously destroyed tapes survived. Intrigued, Vidal’s was the first interview he read. And in it, he proclaims of Newman and Woodward that: ‘People would come to see them as the last movie stars.’

Written in the stars

Hawke borrowed that phrase for the title of his exhaustive and interestingly structured six-episode love letter to the achievements of this Hollywood power couple. A warts and all account, The Last Movie Stars sees Hawke assemble a dream team of his actor buddies to play the parts of Newman, Woodward, Vidal as transcribed, with ol’ smoothie George Clooney as Newman to Laura Linney’s Joanne Woodward. Of course, it’s implied that he sees them as fitting inheritors of the title. But what does it mean, and are they?

While the line may be on the lighter end of Vidal’s provocations, it does pose an intriguing question. Has a titanic era of impossible glamour already passed? Has the proliferation of streaming services dulled the starlight forevermore? Vidal of course threw shade down the ages, negating the movie stardom of every actor who has amassed considerable fame and fortune since.

Woodward and Newman. Image: Binge.

Author, actor, writer and director Hawke is, of course, very famous. But fame does not necessarily equate to stardom. Having a massive fanbase could stray into tawdry territory that cheapens the title. And then there’s the other argument; that movie star status can be viewed as a cheap prize anyway. Great actors do not necessarily enjoy the same level of worship implied by the title, instead honing their craft more humbly. As Woodward says in the show, via Linney, ‘Acting is like sex. You should do it, not talk about it.’

There’s something about Hawke’s raffish charm and predominantly indie career that perhaps doesn’t fit the mould, whatever we take it to be. We certainly can’t rule out Linney and Clooney on the once received knowledge that television was a step down, or a trap that could never be escaped. If Vidal held to that faded snobbery, it would also rule out Newman and Woodward. Their many TV credits include co-starring in Australian director Fred Schepisi’s New England-set miniseries Empire Falls as late as 2005.

There is the idea that they are a different breed, playing out their halcyon days in a la la land far, far away from our everyday drudgery. And so the sheer accessibility of film stars these days could be argued to have taken the sheen off even the biggest players. When you can see them in their trackie dacks at home on Instagram, or chat with them directly on Twitter, applying the term begins to feel like a bit of a stretch.

Has the Olympus of impossible Hollywood glamour fallen, then? The more active stars on social media do feel decidedly mortal.

But even in the golden age, you could flick through movie magazines and find megastars working hard to give off an air of approachability that might hobble this understanding of them too. I say might, because a notable difference in those days was that the studios’ stronghold over stars’ carefully stage-managed presentations to the public was even more pronounced then than it is now.

Newman acknowledges the carefully crafted nature of their role in a telling aside in the docuseries when he says, ‘Newman as a sexual object was simply invented. It was never there … there should be a parade in Joanne’s honour as the inventor of the symbol’.

Symbols have power, and they created their own myth. They certainly weren’t going live from their laundry room. Watching the likes of Clooney, Linney, Sally Field, Sam Rockwell and Mark Ruffalo chatting with Hawke on Zoom in the opening minutes of The Last Movie Stars from dream-shatteringly mundane living rooms sure takes the edge of glory off. The mystique has undoubtedly moved on.

Dying light

Who would even qualify these days? There’s something too plastic fantastic about Tom Cruise, once dubbed the last movie star himself, for him to feel genuinely ‘worthy’ of the title. While Julia Roberts may once have qualified, those halcyon days seem to have passed, and Scarlett Johansson’s ill-advised commentaries perhaps nobbled her chances.

Who do you think qualifies? Or is it already over, like the light speeding its way towards the earth from stars long-since dead? It’s a treat, at least, to step into an understanding of stardom that feels vanishingly rare in The Last Movie Stars.

Funnily enough, Newman himself never felt worthy. As he saw it, he was standing in the shadow of Marlon Brando. But then, aren’t they all?

The Last Movies Stars is currently streaming on Binge.