Who knew a six-hour documentary about a Hollywood marriage would be so electrifying? | Emma Brockes

The synopsis of The Last Movie Stars, HBO’s new six-part documentary about Hollywood power couple Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, doesn’t look promising on paper. Shot at the height of Covid, it’s directed and hosted by Ethan Hawke, threatening us with a long list of A-list actors appearing via Zoom to take on various characters. The source material — hundreds of hours of transcripts of interviews Newman commissioned for a never-to-be-made biography — tells the story not only of the couple and their careers, but of an era, a marriage, and an industry. All of that sounds good, within its limits. But who has the time or inclination for six hours of this stuff?

As it turns out, watching The Last Movie Stars is an extraordinary experience. As a documentary, it differs in form from Peter Jackson’s Get Back, the eight-hour reedited studio footage from the Beatles’ 1969 recording session. The Last Movie Stars is a more conventional project, with commentary and talking heads mixed with archival footage of Newman and Woodward are interrupted. And yet the depth of the material and the sheer audacity of the show’s length invite a similar sense of immersion in Get Back. Newman burned all the tapes from which the transcripts came, for reasons that will become apparent as the show progresses: the revelations are so intimate, so startling, and at times so devastating, that it’s amazing they existed at all.

George Clooney reads for Newman; Laura Linney for Woodward. Interviews with Gore Vidal, her great friend, are brilliantly read by Brooks Ashmanskas. Zoe Kazan – whose grandfather Elia has directed Newman several times and is a featured figure in the material – reads for Jackie McDonald, Newman’s first wife. Newman and Woodward were popular movie stars, but there’s something about the granular level of immersion in their lives that renders celebrity almost meaningless. The portrait of a marriage – not only of Newman and Woodward, but also of the aftermath of Newman’s marriage to McDonald – would, one suspects, be compelling even without the Hollywood glitz.

Of course, there’s a huge added chill that comes from stars playing stars. When Newman discusses the vicissitudes of fame, you know that Clooney, delivering the actor’s words in his own distinctive voice, applies all of the insight to himself. The series also captures an era that saw, as Vidal puts it, “the end of film as a universal art form.” Directed by Marlon Brando and James Dean in his early career, beautiful but not smoldering, quiet, reserved, reserved and unsure of himself, Newman nonetheless rose to iconic status. Figuring out how that happened and how Newman — who says at one point, “I’ve had confidence issues my whole life” — overcame it is like reading a very good novel.

And then there are the personal things. In an interview, Newman says the first time he cried as an adult was at the birth of Nell, his first child with Woodward. The fact that he already had three children with McDonald needs no further explanation, although the presence of Stephanie, one of his daughters with McDonald, in the documentary feels like an incredible asset from a production perspective. “They were so into each other,” she recalls of her father and stepmother, before opening up about how “disgusted” she was with her father for treating her mother, letting the viewer know the story was a lot bigger than that. “Pop was a complicated guy.”

Woodward’s portrait is even more intriguing. When the couple met, Woodward was the star; she had just won an Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve. Newman, on the other hand, could hardly get a lead role. Over the years the balance has shifted. After the couple had children, Woodward increasingly spent time at home with the children. “Why is Shirley MacLaine getting all these parts?” She says bitterly at one point, before admitting, “If I had to do it all over again, I might not have had children.” Hawke says with the sensibility of a movie star who’s with one was married to another movie star, wisely: “Many of us lose our dreams. But most of us don’t have a partner who has exactly the same dreams and theirs come true.”

The impact of all this – the accumulation of detail, the stunning visuals, the startling honesty of the transcripts, in which Newman says at one point with insight rare for the time: “Born in America in 1925, white; this is where happiness begins” – making The Last Movie Stars one of the best TV shows of the year so far. (No date has yet been set for the UK broadcast.) Hawke, disheveled trying to find decent WiFi at his home, orders his famous friends into what might have been a bit of overkill in less able hands. So these six hours about art, love, ambition and disappointment are absolutely electrifying.

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