The Secret History of Hollywood's Most Enviable Marriage

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·5 min read
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Photo credit: Courtesy HBO Max
Photo credit: Courtesy HBO Max


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Once upon a time, Hollywood created a pantheon of celebrity couples, partners on-screen and off. The 1940s gave us Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The '50s brought Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, the subjects of The Last Movie Stars, an eye-opening documentary directed by Ethan Hawke. (All six parts of the series premiere on HBO Max on July 21).

The romantic legend of Newman and Woodward is irresistible. He was a superstar, a blue-eyed wonder in films including Hud, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Cool Hand Luke, one of the best looking men ever to appear on screen. Woodward, an acclaimed actor's actor, won an Oscar early in her career for The Three Faces of Eve, and continued to work while raising their three daughters. They were married for 50 years, until his death in 2008. Sigh. Who wouldn't want to live that life?

Photo credit: Darlene Hammond - Getty Images
Photo credit: Darlene Hammond - Getty Images

But Hawke's lovingly honest series reveals what the old-time Hollywood publicity machine never did: that they had an on-and-off affair for five years while he was married to his first wife, that he struggled with alcoholism so much that she once took the kids and left, that his later affairs were no secret.

Exploding the myth actually makes Newman and Woodward more real, and more in sync with the world today. "If you turn them into fairytale figures, you don't have to ask yourself challenging questions," Hawke tells T&C. "You just think, 'God gifted them with a lifelong love affair and aren't they lucky,' as opposed to saying, 'Wow, they worked really hard on loving each other and really suffered and yet they used all that to continue to grow.' That's what I find really inspiring." And they did last for over half a century. Such an enduring relationship is almost unfathomable for celebrity couples now, when a five-year run seems long and it's a challenge to keep up with the Kardashian spouses.

WATCH THE LAST MOVIE STARS NOW

The Newmans' youngest daughter, Clea, who went to school with Hawke, came to him with the idea of the documentary and thousands of pages of interviews. In 1986 Newman had started on an autobiography, and asked his old friend, the screenwriter Stewart Stern, to record interviews with him, Woodward, and his friends and colleagues. Five years later he asked Stern to stop. Newman burned the tapes, but the transcripts survived.

Hawke took the idea in a bold direction that could easily have been static but turned out to be dynamic. He assembled a starry cast to talk to him on Zoom and read from the transcripts in voiceover. George Clooney is the voice of Newman and Laura Linney is Woodward. Zoe Kazan is Newman's first wife, Jackie (yes, she talked!) along with Sam Rockwell, Billy Crudup, Sally Field, and others. Their voices are interspersed with the real Newman and Woodward, snipped from on-camera interviews through their careers, and movie clips. They were electric in their first film together, The Long Hot Summer (1958) and poignant in their last, as an aging couple in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990). You can see why he became a sex symbol and she earned another Oscar nomination as a repressed schoolteacher in Rachel, Rachel (1968), which Newman directed. Hawke also talks to four of Newman's five daughters, including Stephanie, the youngest of his three children from his first marriage.

Photo credit: Silver Screen Collection - Getty Images
Photo credit: Silver Screen Collection - Getty Images

The revelations are sometimes raw. When their affair began, Paul says, "We left a trail of lust all over the place, hotels, motels, public parks, and bathrooms," which Clooney delivers with a wry spin. Joanne says, "From the first time I met Paul, I always knew he was a drunk," a line Linney speaks matter-of-factly.

Casting the elegant Woodward was easy, Hawke recalls. She was one of Linney's great personal mentors. Woodward is now 92 and, as the documentary notes, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2007. And very few people have the high-profile stardom Newman did and Clooney does. For that reason, Hawke says, "I thought Clooney might have insight into what Paul was talking about. And I think it was important, especially for young people, to understand how famous Paul Newman was, so I needed to conjure that icon status." Newman's career always overshadowed Woodward's. "Joanne certainly didn't want to be only Paul Newman's wife," Hawke says. "It'd be dishonest to think that it wasn't hard to live with the kind of hero worship that surrounded her husband."

In the series, Melissa Newman says about the simplified, fairy-tale version of her parents, "To a certain extent I feel guilty dismantling that story because everybody needs those kinds of heroes, but at the same time I think they deserve more credit than that."

Photo credit: Bruce Glikas - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bruce Glikas - Getty Images

That myth was the creation of a different media age, of course. One episode shows typical magazine headlines like, "The Newmans: How to Stay Married in Spite of Success." A gossipy article from the '70s suggests a rift, saying, "Whispers around the Newman marriage are mounting to a quiet roar." But those whispers never did roar. Was that because the press was less intrusive, and there was no social media? Or did the press not probe more because no one really wanted to shatter the fairy tale? All those reasons likely played a part.

The documentary's title comes from Gore Vidal's interview, speculating that since television was overtaking film, his great friends the Newmans might be the last movie stars. Nice sound bite, but more than 30 years later—really? Clooney is right there.

With divorce common and social media everywhere, though, theirs could be the last Hollywood marriage idealized in that happily-ever-after way. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson or Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn may be among the most stable pairs in Hollywood today, with Emily Blunt and John Krasinski on course for a younger generation, but such examples are increasingly rare. Newman and Woodward may well be the Last Movie Star Couple, seen in a new light that lets us admire the deep, imperfect love and truth of their gorgeous 50-year-plus romance.

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