Ethan Hawke was born in 1970, barely a year after Paul Newman received his fifth Oscar nomination, this one for producing Rachel, Rachel (1968). That film was the first passion project in which Newman directed his wife, muse, and lifelong partner, Joanne Woodward. It would not be the last. They would go on to collaborate again as director and star, and sometimes as co-leads, three more times before Hawke entered the industry. And by the time Hawke was himself getting his start as a teenager in movies like Explorers (1985) and Dead Poets Society (1989), Newman was still racking up Oscar nominations, plus a couple of wins in the 1980s.
To say that talent as immense as Newman and Woodward loomed large in Hawke’s world as a young actor would be an understatement. They were gods. And when their theater company, the Blue Light Theater Company, invested in one of Hawke’s earliest plays, it was as if the deities had tapped his shoulder.
Hawke has been thinking about those early moments a lot in recent years, and even more so about the full legacy of Newman and Woodward. He even dubs them The Last Movie Stars in his new six-part documentary about to premiere on HBO Max later this month. Set to drop on Thursday, July 21, The Last Movie Stars will track the rise of a total original like Newman from mid-century to rebel in iconic roles like Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), to his time as the elder statesman who would seem to pass the baton onscreen to the likes of Tom Cruise in The Color of Money (1986) and to Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition (2002).
Through all of it, too, was Joanne, the serious stage and screen thespian who won her Oscar before even marrying Newman in 1958. Their five-decade partnership remains a gold standard many in their industry aspire to, and a legacy that looms over more than just Hawke.
In The Last Movie Stars, Hawke gets old acting pals and surprise guests to pay tribute to a story they all still hold dear. It’s also a story Hawke shared with us when our editorial director Chris Longo sat down with him at SXSW. The below interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Den of Geek: So you were asked by the daughters of Paul and Joanne to participate in this project and direct it. Can you tell me a little bit about how that relationship began and what were some of their expectations?
Ethan Hawke: It’s got to be scary for them when you open up the doors to your family to tell personal details. They know that the documentary won’t be good if we don’t get personal and don’t get intimate and real. They understand that.
I think what I said to them is, “Listen, I would want to do this but if I’m going to find out that there’s some giant thing I don’t want to know…” I had this idea of who [Paul and Joanne] were to me, that they both kind of were these North Stars in my profession, about what it could look like. They showed you could live a meaningful, substantive life; you could be a good citizen; you could have love; you could have family; and you could be a great artist. Most of the stories are about people self-destructing, people getting in their own way or society brutalizing.
A lot of the stories of artists that get made, usually have some drama in them, and the drama is usually around something hurtful, around failure. So I was like, “Wouldn’t it be great to make a documentary that showed people a hero?” So I told the daughters if I can’t do that, if I’m going to find out that these people were awful, I don’t want to make it.”
And they said, “I promise the deeper you dig, the more you’re going to be able to paint that portrait of a hero, of two heroes.”
What was it about Paul and Joanne that just loomed so large for you in your imagination when you were starting out?
Dead Poets Society came out in 1989, and I moved to New York [afterward]. I wanted to be an actor and was studying acting. At that moment in time, they were royalty.
Here he was, he’d been an icon for so long, starting in the ‘50s with Brando and James Dean, and he’d just won the Oscar for Color of Money. He’d just done The Verdict, and she was running a theater company. She was at every play reading. They were a part of the fabric of New York. What was beautiful about him is he was a movie star, but she was like the actor’s actor, and the fact that she loved him made him really cool, and the fact that he loved her made him not a phony Hollywood schmuck.
… And they donated to my first theater company, and they were doing that with everybody, dance companies, theater companies, people who were aspiring in the arts. They were really trying to pay it forward, or give it back, however you want to phrase it. So, they just loom so large in my brain of what the profession could be.
Like most meetings over the last two years, this documentary opens up on Zoom with conversations you were having with your contemporaries in acting. Can you tell me a little bit about making that choice?
I really didn’t want to do that [at first]. I hate Zoom. I’m so bored of Zoom. I can’t stand it. But what I started doing was asking actors to read these interviews that I’d had about Paul and Joanne that the family had given me. Basically, Paul was thinking about writing a memoir and he had all his closest friends interviewed to help stir his memories, get their points of view. And so, we had all these transcripts, I thought, “Oh God, I’ll get somebody. I’ll get my friends to read these, and we’ll reenact them. So I’ll get Bobby Cannavale to play Kazan.”
And so, as I was Zooming with them, asking them to do it, and started talking about the documentary, the editor and I started placing these Zoom calls in our rough cut as temporary placeholders.
And then we started realizing that maybe we shouldn’t avoid the truth of how this documentary was made, that it was made during the pandemic. It is kind of about the history of movies, and we’re in a history right now. If I really wanted to make a movie about one generation looking back on the other, maybe I should just tell the truth about where this generation is at right now. We’re frozen in our rooms, and while I’ve spent a year avoiding doing this, I started realizing it was the best architecture for the film.
The pandemic gave those of us who were film buffs a moment to pause and revisit a lot of these classics. So I feel like that’s in some way a little serendipitous.
A lot of people were doing that: watching old movies, reading old books, and so my wife and I got to just watch a Newman-Woodward film festival in our house through the pandemic. It was like, “Ooh, that’s a brilliant scene. We’ve got to put that moment in. Oh, that moment’s exactly like their life.” And so, that’s what we did. That’s our pandemic arc.
So, Joanne’s one of the last living legends of that Hollywood golden era. Do you feel that presence of history as you’re putting this together?
You do. You feel a huge responsibility. I mean, this woman was the first woman to ever star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the oldest living Oscar winner. And he’s definitely a card-carrying cinema luminary.
So you do feel a heavy responsibility, especially as a student, an acting student. I love this job, and I would love for young people to understand the seriousness with which that generation started, and how movies have been evolving because it’s changing now. Everything’s changing. It always is. But understanding how we got here really helps.
Have humility and understand that we’re a part of an ancient craft, an ancient profession of storytelling, and when you see yourself in that context, your shoulders can get a little looser and you can have more fun. Simultaneously, you have humility because you’re a part of something much bigger than yourself.
These are screen icons, but what do you hope to illuminate in telling their story that people might not be aware of?
That they’re not icons while they’re doing it. They’re just putting one foot in front of another. They don’t know if it’s going to work out. They don’t know that they’re going to be in a 50-year marriage. They’re worried they might break up next year, you know?
So when you start seeing it through their eyes and you realize that, oh, their life is just as daily and full of insecurity and discomfort as our lives are. They’re living through periods of history, that whether it’s the murder of MLK, or whether it’s the Vietnam War, or whether it’s the Cold War, all these things impacted their work the same way our lives are impacted by what’s happening around us.
Did you ever attempt to model your career on Paul’s career, or even your screen presence on Paul?
He achieved a level of iconography that’s just rare. I mean, that’s kind of why I wanted Clooney to do his voice. There’s a lot of really good actors, but there’s very few movie stars in the way that Paul was a movie star. And part of that had to do with the way television and entertainment was changing.
When Tyrone Power and Clark Gable became celebrities, it was a level of fame, but you still had privacy. [In the ‘60s], the world was exploding. The Beatles were happening, and JFK, the whole… what it meant to be famous, you were now readily available everywhere because of television. It was a different level of fame than the world had previously known. That intersected with Paul’s career. I think that I’ve always avoided that kind of celebrity. And it hit him full force.
Looking back on his films, what were the ones that really affected you kind of early on in your career or as a young man? What were the ones that affected you again as an adult while going back and doing this rewatch?
Well, when I was young, it was Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Sting, right? Those were like five right off the bat. I mean, Cool Hand Luke changed my life when I saw it. I don’t know, it was like a holy experience.
As a Texan, Hud, which is written by Larry McMurtry, [meant a lot]. It’s the Texas movie. So then revisiting them, I just couldn’t believe Paul’s sense of humor in his later work. Slap Shot, Judge Roy Bean, and Buffalo Bill were three that I thought were okay movies when I saw them while younger. But now I was like, “Oh these are brilliant, brilliant movies.” They’re incendiary, kind of punk, Hollywood movies. I mean, Slap Shot is just irreverent as hell, still.
The Last Movie Stars premieres on HBO Max on Thursday, July 21.