HBO’s “The Last Movie Stars,” Ethan Hawkes’ exceptional six-part series on Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, works on so many levels. For baby boomers who grew up watching the Oscar-winning couple, the series is a strong emotional tug at the heartstrings. For actors and those who love acting, it’s a primer on the craft. For those who love and admire the fact they remained married for 50 years, it’s a perceptive depiction of the highs, lows and struggles of a marriage. And by peeling away the legend of their union, you end up admiring and loving Newman and Woodward more than ever. And be prepared to blubber several times in the final episode.
The couple collaborated on 16 movies and three plays. And in honor of “The Last Movie Stars,” here’s a look at several of those projects.
The two fell in love while working on William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer-Prize-winning romantic drama ‘Picnic.” Newman, who was married with three children, made his Broadway debut as Alan (Cliff Robertson played the part in the 1955 movie) and Woodward was the understudy for both the Madge (Janice Rule) and Millie (Kim Stanley) roles.
The couple, by then married and the parents of two daughters, didn’t have as much luck with their next Broadway collaboration in 1964 “Baby Want a Kiss” penned by James Costigan, who also appeared in the comedy that managed to run 164 performances. The New York Times gave it a kiss off calling it a “self-conscious, pretentious exercise in futility. It wears an air of sophistication, but the real thing is missing despite some vagrant, bright lines. It braces itself for the thrust of sardonic comment, then lets the opportunity draft away in casual vaporings. “
Woodward was the artistic director of the Westport County Playhouse when its production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” moved to Broadway in 2002 with Newman in his first Broadway appearance in nearly 40 years playing the Stage Manager. He was nominated for a Tony for his performance. Woodward was also the executive producer of the 2003 PBS TV version for which Newman earned an Emmy.
Newman and Woodward weren’t married but were very much a couple during the production of Martin Ritt’s sizzling 1958 “The Long Hot Summer,” based on William Faulkner’s novel. Woodward was the bigger star at the time because of 1957’s “Three Faces of Eve,” for which would win the Best Actress Oscar for her tour de force performance, but it is Newman who gives the memorable , Cannes Award-winning turn as the accused barn burner Ben Quick in the southern gothic melodrama. Their chemistry is palpable in the hit. Newman got his divorce from his first wife in January 1958 and married Woodward the next day.
Unfortunately, they followed up “The Long Hot Summer” with the stupid, belabored 1958 comedy “’Rally Round the Flag, Boys!” and the slightly better 1960 glossy romantic melodrama “From the Terrace,” which also starred Ina Balin.
They collaborated with Ritt once again in the 1961 jazz drama “Paris Blues,” which features Duke Ellington‘s Oscar-nominated score. In this black-and-white romance, Newman and Sidney Poitier play expatriate jazz musicians who fall in love with American tourists (Woodward and Diahann Carroll). Though Newman didn’t think highly of the film, the quartet work well with Newman and Woodward meshing beautifully in their rocky road to love.
They followed that with the witless 1963 “A New Kind of Love,” which Woodward wanted to do because she would be decked out in couture clothes designed by Edith Head. Newman hated the script, but agreed to do it. But Newman was right it’s a horrible script.
Woodward received her second Oscar nomination for her lead performance as a 35-year-old virgin in 1968’s “Rachel, Rachel,” which marked Newman’s feature directorial debut. Reviews were strong not only for Woodward’s touching performance, but also for Newman’s nuanced directing. The couple won Golden Globes for acting and directing, as well as from the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. Newman earned a DGA nomination. And he was considered a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. However, he was shut out of the Best Director category, but picked up a nomination for as a producer.
Four years later, he directed Woodward and their daughter Nell in the emotional drama “The Effect of Gamma Rays in Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” based on Paul Zindel’s 1971 Pulitzer Prize-winning off-Broadway play. Though far from the hit of “Rachel, Rachel,” Woodward did win Best Actress at Cannes with Newman earning a nomination for the Palme d’Or.
Newman and Woodward collaborated on another Pulitzer Prize-winner, Michael Cristofer’s 1977 “The Shadow Box” in 1980. The ABC TV movie, which Newman directed, stars Woodward, Christopher Plummer and Valerie Harper in this emotional story of three terminally ill cancer patients, their family and friends. The acclaimed film was nominated for three Emmys including one for Newman. His oldest daughter, Susan Kendall Newman, who was one of the producers, was also nominated.
The least successful of their actress/director projects was 1984’s “Harry and Son,” which marked the only time he appeared with Woodward while also working behind the cameras. Reviews were harsh with Roger Ebert giving it one star stating: “The movie might have worked if it had been a satire of those awful made-for-TV Family Problem Movies.”
Newman directed Woodward one more time in the lovely 1987 feature adaptation of Tennessee Williams‘ landmark 1944 drama “The Glass Menagerie,” with Woodward playing Amanda, Karen Allen as Laura, James Naughton as Tom (he would later direct Newman in “Our Town”) and John Malkovich as a rather odd Gentleman Caller. Newman was nominated for Cannes’ Palme D’Or and Woodward and Allen were in contention for the Film Independent Spirit Award.
The couple followed up “Rachel, Rachel” with a traditional romantic drama, 1969’s “Winning,” which marked Newman’s introduction into auto racing. But what’s compelling about the film in in retrospective is Newman’s strained relationship with his stepson (Richard Thomas) in reel-life paralleled with problems he was dealing with at the time of production with his then teen-age son Scott.
The next year, they made their worst film, the 1970 political drama “WUSA” that bombed with audiences and critics. Woodward had a small role in 1975’s “The Drowning Pool,” which was a turgid sequel to his 1966 hit “Harper.” Perhaps the film didn’t work because, as the documentary points, out Newman was really struggling personally when he made the movie.
Woodward won the New York Film Critics’ Circle best actress award for their final feature film together, James Ivory’s 1990 drama “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.” She also was nominated for a best actress Oscar, a Golden Globe, the Film Independent Spirit Award and National Society of Film Critics honor. Set during the 1930s and 1940s in Kansas, the drama revolves around a wealthy conservative family whose children rebel against the father’s traditional beliefs while their mother tries to maintain a happy outlook on life. The New York Times Vincent Canby stated that Newman and Woodward gave the “most adventurous, most stringent performances of their careers…there is a reserve, humor and desperation in their characterizations that enrich the very self-conscious flatness of the narrative terrain around them.”
Fifteen years after “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” they appeared in HBO’s lauded two-part limited series “Empire Falls.” It would be Newman and Woodward’s last on-screen appearances though they had no scenes together. He won an Emmy for supporting actor in a miniseries or movie and she was nominated for supporting actress.
After providing the voice for the beloved character Doc Hudson in the 2006 Disney/Pixar animated film, Newman retired from acting in 2007 stating: “I’m not able to work anymore as an actor at the level I would want to…so that’s pretty much a closed book to me.” That same year, Woodward was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The day after learning of her diagnosis, he was informed he had terminal lung cancer. Newman would die the following year at 83. Woodward is still alive at 92.
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