The project draws heavily on transcripts of recordings of interviews Woodward and Newman did with screenwriter Stewart Stern (of “Rebel Without a Cause” and the Woodward-Newman classic “Rachel, Rachel”) for a never-finished personal history project. For unknown reasons, Newman destroyed most of the tapes, and the handful that were remained were unusable, so Hawke assigned actors to read the salvaged transcripts. George Clooney plays Newman, Laura Linney plays Woodward, and assorted supporting performers play actors, directors, and writers who knew the couple. Every one of the voice performances succeeds as both an approximation of the person’s sound and an interpretive bit of character work (Brooks Ashmanskas’ version of Gore Vidal, in particular, is eerily on-point).
The end product suggests a hybrid medium. It’s as if a radio play or podcast had been set to clips from the stars’ films and period-appropriate documentary footage of Hollywood, New York, and points in between. Occasionally we’ll see photos from Woodward and Newman’s family albums, bits of home movies, and snippets of Hawke and the voice-actors discussing the material via Zoom (Hawke started production during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic).
The six-hour series follows the two actors from their first appearance together in the same New York stage cast (they were already dating at the time, even though Newman was still married to his first wife, Jackie Witte) through the final years of their lives. Along the way, “The Last Movie Stars” surveys the changing times. All the expected high points get touched on, from Woodward and Newman’s most acclaimed performances on the stage and screen (including Woodward’s Oscar for “Rachel, Rachel” and Newman’s belated recognition for “The Color of Money”) to their civil rights activism and Newman’s forays into race car driving and gourmet food products (Newman’s eldest daughter Nell founded Newman’s Own, which gives all profits to charity).
But the series doesn’t shy away from the strain placed on the marriage by Newman’s stardom and drinking and self-destructive behaviors, or the many tragedies they endured together, including the 1978 death of Newman’s only son Scott of a drug overdose, which led them to create the Scott Newman Center for rehabilitation. (The center finally closed in 2013.) And it’s quietly revelatory to hear all Newman’s children speaking so frankly about him and Woodward, from their apparently insatiable sexual appetites (for extra privacy, their bedroom had two doors) to the unsavory start of the marriage (“I can be disgusted with my dad when I think of my mom,” says Stephanie Newman, whose mother is Jackie Witte, “But it isn’t the only feeling.”)