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Director Ethan Hawke On Celebrating Lives, Careers Of Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman In Six-Part Doc ‘The Last Movie Stars’ — SXSW

Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman in undated photo

Ethan Hawke is a student of the art of acting, a four-time Oscar nominee with a deep appreciation for the craft at which he has excelled for more than 30 years. His latest project, the six-part documentary The Last Movie Stars, gives him the opportunity to examine the work of two acclaimed figures from an earlier era in motion picture history, Oscar winners Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

Hawke unveiled the first of six chapters of the documentary this week at the SXSW Film Festival. The documentary’s title is borrowed from an observation by Gore Vidal, a longtime friend of Newman and Woodward’s.

“He called them the last movie stars… because they’re the last generation that came up treated in the same way as Katharine Hepburn and Gary Cooper, the original cinema faces and cinema performers and how they evolved,” Hawke explained during an appearance in Deadline’s SXSW Studio. “It was a time period when that role of celebrity was hard-earned, that it took a lot of work to arrive at that title of a movie star.”

One of Newman and Woodward’s daughters approached Hawke about directing the documentary, and the family granted him access to archives that included a vast collection of interviews recorded for a memoir Newman toyed with writing before his death in 2008. Newman gave up on the literary project and burned the tapes, but transcripts survived. Hawke came up with a novel way of bringing the words to life.

“I just thought, ‘You know what I’ll do… All my friends are actors — I’ll get them to read these things, and we’ll just reenact the life of actors,’” he recalled. George Clooney, Laura Linney, and Sam Rockwell are among those who volunteered. “It became a fun way of telling the story, not with me narrating it or somebody else narrating it, but kind of a collage of all these voices talking about important moments in Paul and Joanne’s lives.”

The documentary is set to premiere on CNN+, the new streaming platform from CNN. The Last Movie Stars will later air on HBO Max. Martin Scorsese is among the executive producers, along with Amy Entelis and Courtney Sexton of CNN Films. Chapter 1 of the six-chapter documentary looks at the love affair between Newman and Woodward, who married in 1958, and their early professional training at the Actors Studio in New York. Newman confessed to feeling insecure about his dramatic chops at that stage, and felt he lacked the “eccentric” spark of some of his fellow students.

“How would you not be insecure if you’re in class with James Dean and Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe and Geraldine Page and Ben Gazzara, and Karl Malden? All these people are in your acting class? I would be intimidated too,” Hawke observed. “But it instantly made them [Newman and Woodward] both very human to me to realize that they didn’t know what was going to happen [in their careers]. They didn’t know if they would be the real thing. They didn’t know luck would go their way.”

Watch the conversation above in which Hawke reflects on some of the great acting teachers in entertainment history, and shares his thoughts on returning to Austin, Texas, the place where he was born.


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