The recently released six-part documentary The Last Movie Stars on HBO Max chronicles the lives and careers of iconic show business couple Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. It’s a fascinating look at the complexities of keeping a marriage together over decades and a deep dive into the art of acting. Ethan Hawke, who directed the documentary, has assembled clips that not only showcase their best work, but also illuminate their personal lives. The following is a choice selection of some of their finest films, but this list could easily contain 10 more titles.
The Long Hot Summer (1958)
Newman and Woodward get Southern-fried in this adaptation of William Faulkner’s best-selling novel. Newman plays what was his specialty at the time, a likable leering cad, while Woodward does a turn as a prim and proper socialite. The “y’alls” are laid on thick, but this type of lavish CinemaScope soap opera was the type of thing Hollywood cranked out in the ’50s and this one is a notch above the rest. The cast includes a coquettish Lee Remick, a wild-eyed Anthony Franciosa, and an over-the-top Orson Welles doing his big daddy shtick complete with a ludicrous prosthetic nose… Welles loved fake noses.
The Three Faces of Eve (1957)
Before there was Sybil there was Eve. The movie that made Woodward a star and earned her an Oscar for Best Actress seems a bit melodramatic today, but no less impactful. Based on the true story of Chris Costner Sizemore, who was diagnosed with what was then known as multiple personality disorder, Eve is a must-see for Woodward’s powerful performance. Moving expertly from each personality, Woodward is able to express the inner torture of a woman out of control. There are nice moments of humor that lighten the mood and keep it from being an emotionally one-note film. Eve was a huge hit and would pave the way for countless mental health themed movies of the ’60s and ’70s.
Rachel, Rachel (1968)
It’s amazing that this movie is virtually unknown today. Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Woodward for Best Actress, Rachel, Rachel still stands as Woodward’s most memorable performance. The story of an introverted schoolteacher whose sexual awakening in her mid-30s leads to a deeper re-evaluation of her life, the film has Woodward doing a delicate balancing act of slowly exposing both the sadness and the undying spirit of Rachel. It’s all a true family affair, with Newman behind the camera, in his directorial debut, and daughter Nell Newman playing Rachel as a child. Offbeat and painfully real, Rachel, Rachel fits firmly in with films of the era like Five Easy Pieces and I Never Sang For My Father…not bad company to be in.
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
It’s hard to pick one Newman performance that is his defining role. (Butch Cassidy and Eddie Felson would have to top any list.) But the role of Lucas Jackson seems to be the one that showcases all of Newman’s bag of tricks. Only Newman could have played the freewheeling Luke, a prisoner who spends most of his time running from boredom and looking for a laugh. It might also be the moment that Newman completely broke free of the Brando comparisons that plagued him since the beginning of his career. His performance here as a cool cad, anti-hero, lovable loser, joker, trickster, hipster, and egg lover…is spectacular. Made at the beginning of what might be the best 10-year stretch of Hollywood moviemaking, Luke is filled with memorable moments, great lines and a top-notch supporting cast including George Kennedy (who won an Oscar), Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, and Strother Martin as a man very concerned with communication.
The director Paul Schrader tells Hawke in the documentary that it was Newman’s performance in Hud that redefined the American cinema protagonist. He may be right. It’s not just that Hud Bannon is a grade-A a-hole, it’s that he seems to take perverse pleasure in it. A revisionist Western about ranchers in Texas, Hud was not much like anything coming out of Hollywood at the time. Newman and director Martin Ritt seem to be foreshadowing the anti-heroes of the late ‘60s and ’70s. There is no interest in softening the character with humor, sentimentality, or a final act of redemption. Aided by cinematographer James Wong Howe’s haunting use of black-and-white, this is a film so ahead of its time that today one marvels that not only was it made by a major studio, but that it was also a box-office success.
The Verdict (1982)
Newman as a Boston attorney who’s down on his luck and looking for one last shot…sadly, that shot is of whiskey. He does come up lucky when he’s given a medical malpractice case that may produce a large settlement. It’s not just the script by David Mamet, or the sure hand of director Sidney Lumet, that make this one of the great legal dramas, it’s Newman’s willingness to expose some of his own demons battling alcoholism. This is acting at its most raw and revelatory, both uncomfortable and unforgettable. The film should have given Newman his first Oscar, but he would wait four more years before a win for The Color of Money.
They Might Be Giants (1971)
No, no, not the band (although they did take their name from the film). This is Joanne Woodward at her most light and fun as a psychiatrist who goes on a loopy adventure with a millionaire patient (George C. Scott) who believes himself to be the great Sherlock Holmes and her to be Watson. Giants is a film that did nothing at the box office. Offbeat and whimsical, audiences and critics weren’t sure what to make of it. Today it has a cult following who delight in Woodward and Scott as oddball sleuths running around New York looking for clues. A film so quirky that it’s ready-made for a Wes Anderson remake.
Slap Shot (1977)
A film that’s as funny and filthy as anything being made today, Slap Shot still stands as one of the grittiest, grungiest, and foulest sports comedies of all-time. Following the highs and (mostly) lows of the minor-league hockey team the Charlestown Chiefs, Newman is Reggie Dunlop, a player-coach who will do anything to keep fans coming back. With news the Chiefs may be sold and broken up, the team develops a successful goon style of play that miraculously makes them popular and profitable. The film, which might seem like The Bad News Bears on ice, is really a sly commentary on corporate control of sports and its commitment to one thing: the bottom line. Newman never looked better, sporting wild silk shirts and long leather coats. The film is as fun for its ’70s fashion as it is for its uncouth behavior and bloody brawls. Oh, and that reminds us: nothing beats Newman’s pep talk with the Hanson Brothers.