In Hollywood history, no Oscar-winning couple has earned greater admiration than Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. The actors who were married for 50 years before Newman’s death in 2008 are the subject of the six-part CNN Films/HBO Max documentary series The Last Movie Stars, directed by Ethan Hawke, himself a four-time Oscar nominee.
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“I’ve dedicated my life to this profession, and they are kind of the high-water mark of what can be achieved,” Hawke said as he appeared along with his filmmaking team at Deadline’s Contenders Television: Documentary + Unscripted event. “A lot of the stories of great artists — a lot of them end tragically. So it was really fun to study two people who continued to develop, and they became better at their craft and became better citizens and better parents.”
The Woodward-Newman love affair was not uncomplicated. When they first met and fell passionately for each other, Newman was still married to his first wife, with whom he had three children.
“That’s part of what’s so interesting about the two of them,” noted producer Adam Gibbs. “It’s not a fairy-tale love story necessarily, but it’s still really a beautiful, long marriage despite whatever bumps along the way there were.”
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Early in their relationship, Woodward was the bigger star, and she won the Academy Award in 1958 for her lead performance in The Three Faces of Eve. He first was nominated in 1959 for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but didn’t win a competitive Oscar until 1987 with The Color of Money. She stepped back from moviemaking for many years to raise her three children with Newman and her three stepchildren.
“She was a magical mother,” said producer Emily Wachtel. “She knit sweaters for everyone. She treated everybody the same. And if you were in her presence, you felt like you were the only person in the room.”
In the series, Newman describes his upbringing as emotionally constricted, and he was expected to go into his father’s sporting goods business. But after serving in World War II, he lit out for New York to study at the Actors Studio alongside Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and other future stars. He felt he lacked the spark of eccentricity possessed by some of his classmates but made up for that with what he called the “Newman luck.”
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Today, the Newman-Woodward legacy extends well beyond Hollywood into philanthropy. Newman’s Own, the successful food and beverage company, donates 100 percent of its profits to charity.
“He let himself be made fun of for being on spaghetti sauce and salad dressing,” Hawke said. “So many people are so obsessed with preserving how they come across, what their brand is. He betrayed his complete brand, but he did it in the service of others.”
Check back Monday for the panel video.
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