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'The Last Movie Stars' offers an intimate portrait of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Today, HBO Max premieres a new six-part documentary titled "The Last Movie Stars." It's an intimate portrait of actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, their careers, their lengthy marriage and more. It's directed by actor Ethan Hawke, who enlists many of his show-business friends to help bring life and depth to this couple's biography. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The title "The Last Movie Stars" comes from something Gore Vidal once said about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. The famously acerbic writer was their longtime best friend, and in the years when TV miniseries and made-for-TV movies were getting an unprecedented amount of attention, Vidal was predicting that television would become the dominant new medium and that his friends Paul and Joanne, as a result, would become the last movie stars.

In any case, this particular pair of movie stars is indeed worthy of close and deep scrutiny. The movies they made - together and apart - from her Oscar-winning "The Three Faces Of Eve" to his indelible performances in "Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid" and "Cool Hand Luke," include some inarguable, unforgettable classics. And their private lives are no less captivating. As Ethan Hawke describes Paul and Joanne on Zoom calls to his actor friends, his enthusiasm and admiration are equally clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LAST MOVIE STARS")

ETHAN HAWKE: The only person to be nominated for best actor - I think he's one of three and the only American nominated for best actor in five decades. But then you go look at her career. She won the BAFTA. She won the Oscar. She won New York Film Critics twice. She won - a four-time national champion racing cars. He made money racing cars. And then, of course, they gave away $500 million. So it's a little bit like, OK, how do you start?

BIANCULLI: Ethan Hawke, who, as a teenager, attended the same New Jersey school as one of Paul and Joanne's children, started with more than 100 interviews that Paul Newman had commissioned from friend and screenwriter Stewart Stern. Over a period of years until Newman asked him to stop in 1991, Stern interviewed Paul, Joanne and their family members, friends and colleagues. He assembled a treasure trove of very honest and unvarnished accounts from all those different perspectives intended for use in Paul's authorized biography. But instead of authorizing it, Paul Newman abandoned it. In 1998, he took the audiotapes, dumped them in a big pile and set fire to them. But after recording the interviews, Stern had made transcripts. And those eventually found their way to Hawke, as he explains on another high energy Zoom call.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LAST MOVIE STARS")

HAWKE: This is one box of transcripts that I have. It's hundreds of thousands of pages. I'm trying to ask all my friends to make these audios come alive. It's - I'm trying to turn it into kind of like a play with voices, a community looking back. And so that's what I'm doing here with you. And Sammy Rockwell is going to read the director of "Cool Hand Luke." Laura Linney is going to do Joanne Woodward. Zoe Kazan is going to play Paul's first wife. Karen Allen is playing Joanne's stepmother. Josh Hamilton is going to read the director of "The Sting." Vincent D'Onofrio is going to do John Huston. George Clooney agreed to read Paul.

BIANCULLI: Along with generous and well-selected clips from so many movies and TV shows, "The Last Movie Stars" also includes many fresh interviews with Ethan asking questions on Zoom of everyone from David Letterman and Sally Field to Martin Scorsese and Paul and Joanne's children and grandchildren. We're also shown many vintage interview clips of Paul and Joanne. These all add to the reenacted transcriptions, and those interviews form the heart of this new series. Here's Clooney as Paul recalling when he and Joanne started on Broadway together as understudies in the play "Picnic." Before the play opened, the actor Paul was understudying was fired, and that was the start of it all.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LAST MOVIE STARS")

GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Paul Newman) "Picnic" gave me the wishing well of everything. I was so enthralled with the idea of being a professional actor in a Broadway show. Once it was running, I never even went up to my dressing room. I'd stand in the wings and make a hole in the curtain and watch the audience.

BIANCULLI: Joanne Woodward, though, became a movie star before Paul Newman did, starring opposite Marlon Brando, then getting her own standout role in "The Three Faces Of Eve." Eventually, they became a glamorous Hollywood married couple, but their lives were more complex than they appeared. Their lengthy affair broke up his first marriage, and the blended family's six children had some tough times ahead. Melissa Newman, one of those now grown children, says that's all part of the couple's true story.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LAST MOVIE STARS")

MELISSA NEWMAN: You know, this narrative, this really - you know, they were beautiful. They loved each other. It was simple and that's it and, you know, happily ever after. To a certain extent, I feel guilty dismantling that story because I feel like everybody needs those kinds of heroes, but at the same time, I think they deserve more credit than that.

BIANCULLI: And that's why, as this documentary proceeds from episode to episode and decade to decade, you witness both the honesty and struggle of lives that don't always come easy and that clearly evolve. Paul, an alcoholic, faces his addictions both onscreen and off. And Joanne evolves into a doting grandmother who says there's nothing more important or rewarding than spending time with her grandchildren. Before she gets to that point in her life, though, we hear Laura Linney reading from the transcript of a younger Joanne whose perspective is brutally honest but much less maternal.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LAST MOVIE STARS")

LAURA LINNEY: (As Joanne Woodward) When I was young I wanted to act. And I'll admit it, I didn't permit anything to stand in my way, until I had children. I hope the children understand that although they were each and every one of them adored, if I had it to do all over again, I might not have had children. Actors don't make good parents.

BIANCULLI: The deeper Laura Linney and George Clooney get into the lives and transcripts of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, the more unvarnished their portrayals seem to become. The admissions pulled from their transcripts are often tantalizing or shocking or both. Together with the other elements of "The Last Movie Stars," they put everything in a fresh, more fully formed context. It gives you renewed respect for their work as actors but a wholly different look at their lives as a couple and as individuals.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed "The Last Movie Stars," which premieres today on HBO Max.

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with Michael R. Jackson, who wrote "A Strange Loop," which won this year's Tonys for best musical and best book for a musical, or Bisha K. Ali, head writer on the series "Ms. Marvel," check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And don't forget our newsletter, which you can subscribe to via our website, freshair.npr.org. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.