I’ve lost count of which pandemic month Zoom became the bane of my existence. Zoom meetings, Zoom classes, Zoom happy hours, Zoom game nights, Zoom graduations. – I think you’re muted. “Please introduce yourself in the chat.”
Likewise, I’m tired of the Zoom-produced movies, shows, and theatrical productions that were popular in the early months of the pandemic. What started out as a need to keep performers working and creating and audiences engaged and entertained has become obsolete and artificial (with a few notable exceptions who found fresh approaches). So now, two and a half years after the pandemic, watching a group of famous actors appear in their little Zoom rectangles in the opening minutes of The Last Movie Stars, I was skeptical. Will this narrative device become a clumsy distraction from the richness of the material?
The six-part HBO Max documentary series, directed by Ethan Hawke, is a big deal that chronicles the storied career and marriage of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. What could have been pure hagiography turns into something much more explicit. Without losing his sense of deep reverence for acting titans, Hawke makes us think about the limits of fame and how telling neat and tidy stories smooths out the complexities of career, marriage, family, and life.
I was completely mesmerized by it all, including, to my complete surprise, the documentary series’ use of Zoom, which gives it a raw and intimate feel. Some of them for obvious logistical reasons. As Hawke explains, shortly before the pandemic, one of Newman and Woodward’s daughters gave Hawke many transcripts of old interviews originally intended for Newman’s abandoned memoirs. In the 1980s, the couple’s longtime friend, screenwriter Stuart Stern, interviewed Newman, Woodward, and many of their friends and collaborators. Later, Newman impulsively burned the tapes. But at some point, Stern deciphered them.
To bring the transcripts to life, Hawke called together an all-star group of “players,” as they are called in the end credits of the old Hollywood-style docu-series. George Clooney voices Newman and Laura Linney voices Woodward. Oscar Isaac voiced The Verdict director Sidney Pollack. Sam Rockwell, who tells Hawk that he’s happy to just get to work while stuck at home, plays Cool Hand Luke director Stuart Rosenberg. Zoe Kazan is Newman’s first wife, Jackie. Martin Scorsese and Sally Field (and her Christmas tree) Zoom in for comments among many, many other celebrity guests. There are also Zoom interviews with Newman and Woodward’s children and grandchildren.
Stylistically, the Zoom shots and banter could look out of place, plain and simple compared to the more technically advanced choice of the documentary series. There are carefully edited segments that combine themes and narratives of Newman and Woodward’s lives with excerpts from their films that reflect what the interviewee is discussing. There are many archival materials: speeches at the awards ceremony, interviews on talk shows, clippings from magazines and newspapers.
So much material to take. I often stopped the documentary series to record some of their obscure films, such as 1961’s Paris Blues, which has an absolutely killer cast of Newman, Woodward, Sidney Poitier and Dianne Carroll. Many of these never-before-seen films starred Woodward. One of the most damaging themes on the show is how she was deeply underestimated despite being a bigger star than Newman at the start of their marriage. Like many women of her generation, she had to become a wife and mother and put her career on the back burner while her husband’s fame skyrocketed.
In one of the transcripts of the interview, she says with unusual frankness that “if I had to do it again, I might not have children.” It still sounds candid in 2022 when motherhood is still too much of a default expectation. The next episode brings up Newman’s oft-quoted line about the longevity of their marriage: “Why should I go eat hamburgers when there’s steak at home?” — which has become a pop culture legend. But here we see Woodward’s response to this: “I’m a vegetarian.” In footage from another interview, she reveals a quote “that could have ended our relationship.”
“I mean, what a chauvinist statement. For God’s sake, I’m not a piece of meat,” she says. “Every time this quote comes up, I want to kill.”
Remarkably, rather than detracting from all of this incredible digging, Zoom’s interstitials end up giving structure to sprawling docu-series. Throughout The Last Movie Stars, we see Hawk chatting with the actors. Before they start reading their transcripts, he gives them some context about the person and the events they are depicting. It serves as an exhibition for our viewers.
Zoom also gives us a glimpse into the process. There are a few moments where Hawke thinks out loud, trying to figure out what the documentary series is about. He answers questions from various actors. At the beginning of the last episode, he contacts his wife and producer Ryan, admitting that he is not sure what he is trying to say in the segment about Newman’s celebrity commodification. In a conversation with their daughter Maya, they discuss how the relationship itself becomes a third person in a relationship, and maybe that’s what the series is about. All this, especially given the number of famous faces, could be tasteless and smug. Instead, enabling these conversations on Zoom becomes an advantage, not a limitation.
It’s really hard to imagine the finished product without Increase. For example, when each of the Newman children looks back at the complexities and tensions in their family dynamics, there is a rawness and honesty that might not have been achieved in a number of more prepared talking-head interviews.
The Last Movie Stars is largely about looking inside pop culture narratives and celebrity myth-making. The lockdown from the pandemic has also forced many of us to look inside ourselves, so it’s only fitting that this series is undeniably a work of the era of the pandemic. But the spectacle and curation of Zoom, especially when it involves a lot of famous people, hasn’t always been the right vehicle for introspection. Especially in those early months of the pandemic, Zoom was an awkward way to compare yourself to others by looking at what other people saw in the background.
And for all its informality, once Zoom has become such a pervasive structure in our lives, it has begun to seem like a more formal commitment. But despite all these annoyances, it’s nice to find that this can still be a new way of storytelling.