The Last Movie Stars, The Hustler, and The Verdict

This six-part documentary series directed by Ethan Hawke, The Last Movie Stars (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️), enthralled me completely. The idea for the documentary came when Hawke was handed thousands of pages of transcripts of never-published interviews with Paul Newman and his wife Joanne, their friends, relatives, and people they worked with. Since the tapes were burned by Newman himself once he lost patience with the biography project, Hawke decided to recreate those conversations and asked his actor friends during the pandemic’s lull period to give voice to those long gone. George Clooney plays Newman and Laura Linney – Joanne Woodward, Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of Elia Kazan who directed Newman a few times) plays Jackie Witte (Macdonald) Newman’s first wife.

It is an unusual but hugely personable amalgam of zoom calls with Hawke’s actor friends, his conversations with Newman’s family members, film footage as well as private archive materials all sealed together with first-hand memories from Newman’s children and grandsons. Hawkes’ passion for this project is infectious and I loved watching well-known actors and directors discussing, in a rather unpretentious zoom-call setting, their admiration for Woodward’s and Newman’s craftsmanship and dedication to their work in film, their philanthropy, and political activism.

It is a fascinating watch about stardom, which is hard for me to grasp at times when almost everyone is famous. But the series didn’t let me forget that these were also human with all their own faults and imperfections. A fifty-year-long marriage that started with a scandal and was far from perfect from what the media showed at the time. The series also doesn’t shy away from Newman’s challenging relationship with his children and his alcoholism that nearly broke the family apart. Woodward, who was a far more successful actress than Newman when they met and had won an Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve (1957) not long after, openly admits that if she was to do it all over again she might not have children. Actors, in her view, didn’t make good parents. Her career subsided whilst Newman went on to become one of the biggest movie stars. Later in his career, Newman become a director, working to get Woodward the leading roles she deserved. Together they made fifteen films.

This is honestly one of the most engaging series I watched this year and I can’t wait to watch films botg Newman and Woodward worked on.

I started with The Hustler (⭐️⭐️⭐️) (1961), which I saw for the first time. A film about a young pool player and his complicated relationships with people and his addiction to the game. When it comes to classics like this one, it makes me think about what it would have felt to see it at the time it came out, and how revolutionary it was. The film provided Paul Newman’s breakthrough role, ushering him into the top rank of Hollywood actors and it is still a great watch sixty years later. The sequel, The Colour of Money (1986), he starred together with a young Tom Cruise in, finally got Newman the Oscar for the best actor.

The Last Movie Stars made me think of Newman’s role in The Verdict (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️) (1982) in a completely new way. In the film, he plays an alcoholic, demoralised lawyer, Frank Galvin, who takes a medical malpractice case. To salvage his career and self-respect he decides to lay everything on one card and takes the case to trial discouraging his clients from accepting a settlement. This role made Newman put everything he was hiding from the world about himself on screen, creating one of the most memorable cinema performances.