“People will think of them as the last movie stars”: so said Gore Vidal of his friends, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. It is a verdict that bequeaths to Ethan Hawke the title of his six-hour docuseries on the legendary Hollywood couple (Sky Documentaries/Now TV) and animates the 51-year-old actor-director’s infectious desire to capture the lightning of the stars’ relationship and creative partnership in a bottle.
What made Newman, who died in 2008, and Woodward, who turned 92 in February, so special? There were, after all, many other such golden pairings: Clarke Gable and Carole Lombard; Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall; Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy; Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth; Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh; and, of course, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (for more on this truly tumultuous relationship, check out Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, The Marriage of the Century by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger).
Yet, in a town where celebrity marriages can be over in 24 hours, Newman and Woodward’s lasted for half a century. They appeared together in ten movies: the first, Martin Ritt’s The Long, Hot Summer released in 1958, in which, as drifting chancer Ben Quick and plantation princess, Clara Varner, they can hardly take their hands off each other; the last, James Ivory’s Mr & Mrs Bridge, 32 years later, in which they play an aging couple in conservative Kansas City during the 1930s and 1940s, looking back with melancholy on the passing of time. On top of this, Newman directed or produced five films in which Woodward starred. As an engine of movie-making, their marriage is without parallel in the history of Hollywood.
As he describes in a series of excited Zoom calls to friends during the pandemic – Billy Crudup, Ewan McGregor, Vincent D’Onofrio, Zoe Kazan – Hawke’s principal source material is a cache of 100 interviews conducted on Newman’s behalf by the late Stewart Stern – who wrote Rebel Without a Cause – for a prospective autobiography. For reasons unknown, the actor decided to destroy most of the tapes. But, miraculously, the transcripts survived, turned up in Woodward’s Connecticut home, and have enabled Hawke to reconstruct the story using voiceovers and archive footage.
George Clooney speaks Newman’s words, while Laura Linney plays Woodward – though the highest accolade must go to Brooks Ashmanskas, whose evocation of Vidal is eerily accurate. (The discovery of this archival treasure trove has finally enabled the construction, 14 years after his death, of Newman’s memoir, set to be published in October as The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man.)
The series is, first and foremost, a fascinating account of the complex dynamics that course through a long relationship between two artists of cultural significance. According to Newman, “what held Joanne and me together was that anything seemed possible… The promise of everything was there from the very beginning.” They met briefly at their agent’s office – “I hated him” – but became an item during preparation of the Broadway premiere in 1953 of William Inge’s Pulitzer-winning play, Picnic.
Newman was already married to the actress Jackie Witte, with whom he had three children. But his affair with Woodward was scarcely secret. On the set of The Long, Hot Summer, their co-star Tony Franciosa later remarked, “we thought they were already married. They were so obviously, so beautifully together.”
Their happiness, of course, came at a terrible cost. As Stephanie Newman recalls: “My Mom was divorced – and then Joanne got her Oscar”. Woodward won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Nunnally Johnson’s The Three Faces of Eve (1957) – an otherwise mediocre film about multiple personality disorder that depends entirely upon the screen presence of its star.
He came from Shaker Heights, Ohio; she from Thomasville, Georgia. They were both products of the Actors Studio, the great nursery of late 20th-century dramatists and performers, founded in 1947 by Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis. And one of the most important insights of The Last Movie Stars is that Woodward was always the greater talent. As Vidal noted, with typically brutal candour: “Everything [with Joanne] is instinctive, everything is natural. The difference is that he’s constantly thinking, thinking, thinking.”
Yet – in the most pointed example of what he himself called “Newman’s luck” – it was the lesser actor who was to become the true superstar. James Dean was set to play the world middleweight champion, Rocky Graziano, in Robert Wise’s Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), but was killed in a car crash in September 1955. Newman took his place.
In Robert Rossen’s pool-hall masterpiece The Hustler (1961) and Ritt’s tale of the apparently cursed Bannon cattle ranch in Texas, Hud (1963), he finally emerged as fully-formed screen icon, restless, sexually charismatic and unapologetically aggressive. The ice blue eyes blazed with fresh passion; and this, Newman was the first to admit, reflected the inspiration and guidance of his wife, as much as native ability.
“I am a creature of her invention,” he said, “There should be a parade in Joanne’s honour as the creator of the [sex] symbol.” Though a committed liberal and supporter of civil rights, he often described himself as “an emotional Republican” who had been coaxed out of his inhibitions and taught how to empathise and burn with feeling on and off screen by Woodward. One only has to observe him singing ‘Plastic Jesus’ in Cool Hand Luke (1967) to appreciate the significance of this tutelage.
She also grasped that, for all the applause lavished upon him as a solo performer, he was best when working with a foil: if not with her, then, with, say, Piper Laurie, who is devastatingly good in The Hustler as the doomed alcoholic Sarah Packard who falls for Newman’s pool shark, Fast Eddie Felson. As Roger Ebert noted: “The real contest… is not between Fast Eddie and Minnesota Fats but between Eddie’s love for Sarah and his self-destructive impulses.”
It was, again, Woodward who urged her husband to team up with Robert Redford in George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969); a triumphant pairing that was revived to unforgettable effect in the same director’s The Sting (1973). Even in The Color of Money (1986), Martin Scorsese’s below-par sequel to The Hustler, Tom Cruise’s rapport with Newman was sufficiently strong to earn the latter his long-awaited Oscar.
Without his wife’s inspiration, in other words, Newman would certainly not have scaled the heights that he did; and director Paul Schrader would not have described him to Hawke as “the most important performer in the history of cinema”. She took delight in his phenomenal success – but also, as she admits on camera, resented it.
In similar spirit, she reflected upon the price to her career of raising their three daughters with striking ambivalence: “I hope the children understand that, though each and every one of them were adored, if I had it to do all over again, I might not have had children. Actors don’t make good parents.”
A fascinating subplot in The Last Movie Stars is the central role that Tennessee Williams played in the couple’s creative path. In his memoirs, the playwright wrote of Newman, who starred in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) with Elizabeth Taylor and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) that, along with Marlon Brando, he was “terribly good. He works up to a part slowly, but when he finally gets to it he’s marvelous.”
In practice, however, it was Woodward who was truly liberated by Williams’s characters. She is unforgettable as the reckless, desperate Carol Cutrere, opposite Brando in Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind (1960), an adaptation of the play Orpheus Descending.
As John DiLeo writes in Tennessee Williams and Company: His Essential Screen Actors: “[I]t remains her most underrated and overlooked film performance… Woodward delves inside the character, not only her sexuality, recklessness, and loose physicality, but also the pain and isolation that inform her behaviour.” It is apt, too, that the last movie in which Newman directed his wife should have been an adaptation of The Glass Menagerie (1987), in which she played the fading Southern belle, Amanda Wingfield.
To its credit, The Last Movie Stars makes no attempt to airbrush out the difficulties and traumas that the couple experienced in their many years together: his heavy drinking, his self-indulgent obsession with racing cars competitively, and the death in 1978 from a drug overdose of his son Scott. Woodward kicked Newman out at least once for his transgressions. Theirs was a real life together, not a cloying fairy tale.
What Hawke’s series amounts to is a love letter to a past era in Hollywood and to two of its giants. Since he saw Butch Cassidy as a child, he says, “the movies have been the church of my choice.” I can relate.
Yet what future does this church really have in the 2020s and beyond? This week, it was reported that Cineworld, the world’s second largest cinema chain, edges closer to bankruptcy in the US. Will there be any true movie stars in the future if there are no movie houses?
Here are this week’s recommendations:
House of the Dragon (Sky Atlantic/Now TV)
Only a few days after Better Call Saul, the six-season spin-off to Breaking Bad, reached its masterly conclusion, here comes another prequel series with a lot to live up to. When Game of Thrones came to an end in May 2019 – after eight seasons, and 73 episodes – it was already certain that the George R. R. Martin franchise would be back with new tales of Westeros, of dragons, of feuding families and plenty of sex and violence.
Post-pandemic, House of the Dragon has finally taken flight, and does not disappoint. Opening 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen, the new series is much more tightly focused upon the fortunes of her family (though we hear mentions of the houses of Tully, Stark and Lannister), and – specifically – the question of who will succeed the decent but sickly King Viserys I (Paddy Considine). In the first episode, his Queen, Aemma Arryn (Sian Brooke) is heavily pregnant and Viserys is convinced that Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) will soon have a baby brother. Positively hissing with ambition is the King’s brother, Daemon, wonderfully played by Matt Smith as a paramilitary psychopath, misogynist and all-round villain. He and Rhaenyra speak to one another in the ancient language (subtitled) High Valyrian – adding to the dark atmosphere of intrigue and dormant grievances reigniting.
Showrunners Miguel Sapochnik and Ryan Condal had about $20 million to spend on each episode – and it shows, from Rhaenyra’s epic flight on her dragon, Syrax, to a lavish and bloody tournament that channels, without embarrassment, the spirit of Arthurian legend. Much of House of the Dragon is pure spectacle, and it is too early to say whether the prequel will engage the viewer as powerfully as the original series did. But of one thing we can already be certain: winter is coming.
City on a Hill Season Three (Paramount+)
In spite of the involvement of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon – the original story was written by Affleck and Chuck MacLean – City on a Hill has yet to receive the acclaim it is due. Set in 1990s Boston, the series hinges on the complex relationship – oscillating between alliance and hostility – between FBI Agent Jackie Rohr (Kevin Bacon) and Assistant District Attorney Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge). Not since the heyday of Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti in the early seasons of Billions has there been anything like it on the small screen.
In the third season, Rohr has left the FBI and landed what appears to be a cushy job providing private security for the family of a former bureau colleague. Ward, meanwhile, is still tying to reconcile his high ethical ambitions with his embroilment in the corrupt machine of Bostonian justice and politics.
Hodge is superb – but the show belongs to Bacon, who delivers a career-best performance. Morally shambolic Rohr may be, but he can still quote from the great “muckraker” journalist of the early 20th Century Lincoln Steffens, from Mayor James Michael Curley’s memoir I’d Do it Again, from Voltaire, General Patton and James Baldwin. The point being that, beneath all the compromise and failure, there lurks a moral self rooted in learning and wisdom. Is it too late for Jackie Rohr to redeem himself? That is what keeps you watching and makes City on a Hill unmissable prestige television.
Anaïs in Love (selected cinemas, video on demand)
In the first moments of Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet’s directorial debut, we see Anaïs (Anaïs Demoustier) careering through the streets of Paris exactly as Greta Gerwig did in New York in Frances Ha a decade ago. She is fast-talking, reckless, and pretentious (“I don’t want to meet interesting people, I want to be interesting”). She is even annoyed that her mother – whose cancer, we soon learn, has returned – does not appreciate Marguerite Duras as much as she does.
Bored by her boyfriend Raoul, she begins an affair with an older man Daniel (Denis Podalydès) which soon sours, too. She is powerfully drawn, however, to Daniel’s partner, Emilie (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, superb), a successful author, and pursues her to a writing retreat.
At which point, the film shifts gear dramatically, as Emilie finds herself reciprocating the younger woman’s feelings and what begins as just another way of keeping boredom at bay becomes, for Anaïs, a grounding and transformative experience. The use of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at key moments in the plot is exquisite, and the movie is full of fine touches, such as the scene in which Anais, Emilie and Daniel awkwardly watch John Cassavetes’ Opening Night. A beautiful study of love’s capacity to make time stand still.
The Long Knives – Irvine Welsh (Jonathan Cape)
Welcome back to DI Ray Lennox of the Serious Crimes Division in Edinburgh, first seen in Irvine Welsh’s Crime (2008) and, more recently, in BritBox’s dramatisation, starring Dougray Scott. And there is plenty in this splendid sequel that harks back to the earlier novel – not least the return of the horrific killer Gareth Horsburgh, “Mr Confectioner”, now behind bars.
That said, no previous knowledge is required for those who have not yet encountered the damaged, disillusioned and zealous Lennox – a character whose roots lie in noir detective movies, refracted through Welsh’s unique lens. Ray struggles with the bottle and with drugs, and with the experiences of his own childhood, but remains implacably determined to help the victims of the corrupt establishment that so sickens him (“Britain is essentially a nonce state; young bodies are seen as rewards for wealthy paedophiles, who have to be protected at all costs”).
Almost 30 years since Trainspotting launched Welsh into the literary stratosphere – a West End musical is currently in the works – it should hardly be necessary to point out that his books are not for the faint of heart. But (lest anyone failed to get the memo) The Long Knives opens with the castration and murder of a Tory MP (“Most of Scotland helping us with our inquiries then”) and continues in that spirit for more than 350 pages.
The narrative pace is terrific, and Welsh remains as audacious as ever, plunging Lennox (for instance) into the vexed political world of trans activism. He also captures deftly the ambivalence of his main protagonist (“if their victims are finally turning on abusive men of power, then that is, perhaps, an honourable instinct for a citizen, but useless for a policeman. It confirms to him how hopelessly miscast he is”). Welsh will turn 64 next month: it’s excellent to report that, on the basis of his 13th novel, he isn’t mellowing in the slightest.
What We Owe the Future: A Million-Year View – William MacAskill (Oneworld, 1 September)
In an era of dystopian gloom, William MacAskill has emerged as one of the preeminent champions of cautious and grounded optimism: which is to say that he believes firmly in humanity’s capacity to do something about the perils that it faces – but only if we approach the future in the right way.
In this remarkable book, MacAskill – who is an associate professor in philosophy at Lincoln College, Oxford – takes as his premise the probability that our species is in its infancy. So far, about 117 billion human beings have inhabited this planet; and just under seven percent of them are doing so right now. On the basis that we will make it the average lifespan of a mammalian species – one million years – we have 800,000 years to go, and 112 trillion future lives to think about.
This, he argues, should shift our perspectives dramatically towards “longtermism”: to the threat of climate emergency, of course, but also the risk of technological stagnation, of pandemics, of overmighty AI and so on. At the heart of his argument is the recognition that adaptation will always be contingent upon circumstance: we need to be ready for a very wide range of possibilities and probabilities. Few assumptions about the future are secure and we must plan accordingly.
Especially compelling is MacAskill’s historically-based contention that there are moments when a “lock-in event” of great magnitude occurs and a value system becomes dominant for a long time; a process which he compares to hot glass cooling: “The resulting shape could be beautiful or deformed, or the glass could shatter altogether, depending on what happens while the glass is still hot.”
Equally striking is his proposal that changes in patterns of individual consumption – becoming a vegetarian or vegan, for example – may be intrinsically moral, but have less impact upon climate change than, say, donating a chunk of your salary to a clean air agency. The most important ethical decision any of us will make, he says, is our choice of career. I am already re-reading What We Owe The Future: without question, one of my books of the year.
Act of Oblivion – Robert Harris (Hutchinson Heinemann, 1 September)
Since the publication in 1992 of his best-selling fictional debut, Fatherland, Robert Harris has established himself as a literary Time Lord: travelling through history in search of stories that will form the basis of consistently gripping novels. Not since Robert Graves has an author breathed life into the ancient world as brilliantly as Harris did in the Cicero Trilogy. In Munich (2017), he extracted a tale of espionage and adventure from Neville Chamberlain’s summit with Hitler.
In Act of Oblivion, we are whisked back to England in 1660, as Charles II marks the restoration of the Stuart dynasty to the throne by declaring an amnesty for all who fought against his father Charles I – save the regicides who were directly involved in the trial and execution of the king in 1649. Thus begins what Harris calls “the greatest manhunt of the seventeenth century” – and specifically the pursuit of Colonels Edward Whalley and William Goffe across New England by Richard Nayler, a clerk to the Privy Council.
Whalley and Goffe existed, in contrast to Nayler, who is Harris’s creation. That said, he is as convincing a character as any in the book (“He was one of those shadows who moves, anonymous, along the private passages and through the council chambers of every nation in every age – a word here, a warning there, a secret imparted, a person betrayed – a most useful shadow”). And, as we soon learn, he has his own deeply personal reasons for pursuing the two Roundheads-in-exile.
The evocation of Restoration London and of the settlements of New England is superb, as (predictably) is the writing. Harris’s mastery of his craft is peerless, and the 450 pages of his latest novel race by like the winds of wintry Massachusetts.
HOLY FVCK – Demi Lovato
Much has happened to – and been accomplished by – Demi Lovato since her days on the Disney Channel, and her eighth studio album is a powerful account of her struggles with addiction and mental health difficulties as well as her determination to evolve creatively.
In which context: this is a terrific pop-punk record that owes much more to, say, Courtney Love and Joan Jett than to her earlier formula of soul and R&B, and, as such, it is more confident and rewarding than last year’s Dancing With The Devil…The Art of Starting Over. ‘Skin of My Teeth’ begins with the fiercely delivered line ‘Demi leaves rehab again!’ – and, though there is plenty in these 16 tracks about sobriety and the “vices” which she admits to still missing, this is not just another recovery album. There is no victimhood, either: “My demons are on the hunt,/ But my angels taught me how to run./ I got two wolves inside of me/ But I decide which one to feed”.
Most harrowing is ‘29’ in which the artist reflects upon her relationship with the actor and producer Wilmer Valderrama when she was 17 and he was 29 (“thought it was a teenage dream… but was it yours or was it mine”). But there is optimism in the final track, ‘4ever4me’, a love letter to an unnamed man – an apt note on which to conclude a fine album that is all about the nuance of survival and resilience.
György Kurtág: Kafka-Fragmente – Anna Prohaska and Isabelle Faust
Forty fragments of Kafka’s diaries, letters and another text found after his death, transformed in 1986 into a Dadaist song cycle for soprano and violinist by a Hungarian classical composer, inspired by the findings of art psychology: easy listening? Hardly. But this extraordinary recording by Anna Prohaska and Isabelle Faust deserves to be listened to more than once, as its emotional depth and daring become clearer and clearer to the listener.
The Lieder vary in length from 14 seconds to almost seven minutes, and in tone from the lyrical to the frenzied repetition of the word ‘Nein’ in “Nichts dergleichen”. Alongside such expressions of trauma, the exquisite “Traumend hing die Blume” is all the more striking, and Prohaska’s ability to collaborate vocally with Faust’s violin is often transcendent.
Kafka is a writer whose work seems more relevant than ever; especially his greatest novel, The Trial, which will celebrate its centenary in 2025. Kurtág himself turned 96 in February and, in this recording, receives the honour that is his due.
Close to Home – Aitch
The hype surrounding the release of the first album by 22-year-old Manchester rapper Aitch – AKA Harrison Armstrong – was almost drowned out by a serious, if accidental faux pas: painting a promotional mural over an existing and much-loved image of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Hard to think, indeed, of a worse launch for a record whose primary purpose is to celebrate Aitch’s love of his home city and its pop cultural heritage. Effusive apologies have been offered and the original mural is being restored.
Close to Home, meanwhile, is certainly a step up for the young musician, whose 2018 breakout track Straight Rhymez quickly clocked up 12 million views on YouTube. Though the content is still chart-oriented pop-grime, homage is paid to Mancunian glories past, with the voice of Shaun Ryder on the track ‘1989’, which also samples the Stone Roses’ ‘Fools Gold’. There’s a successful excursion into Afrobeats on ‘Money Habits’, and guest appearances by Ashanti on ‘Baby’ and Ed Sheeran on ‘My G’ – a touching tribute to his 12-year-old sister Gracie who has Down syndrome (“And if the world is cruel / I will be the last one standing here to protect you”). Time and again, he reaffirms his devotion to Manchester: “I ain’t going anywhere”. Maybe – but listening to this accomplished debut album one suspects that civic loyalty may yet be trumped by the lure of global success.
And finally… many thanks to Andrew Butler, Tortoise’s Head of Social, for these tips on what to see at the Edinburgh Fringe:
“Aside from the waste piling high and wide from the Grassmarket to the Royal Mile, the (ever so slightly less navigable due to the lack of an official app) Edinburgh Fringe has come back roaring back in fine style following the pandemic.
If you find yourself lucky enough to be there in the next four days, here’s some comedy recommendations.
- Sam Campbell – Comedy Show: It’s a good sign if a show leaves you wanting to see it again immediately. The Australian absurdist continues to burnish his career as one of the scene’s must-see performers with his riotous, weird and wacky hour.
- Sophie Duker – Hag: If she isn’t already a household name due to multiple TV appearances since her 2019 debut, she soon will be. A well-crafted hour touching on themes of sexuality, race and star signs.
- Jazz Emu – You Shouldn’t Have: An intricate multi-media show from a ludicrously talented comic who will not be playing 150-seat venues for much longer.
- Rob Auton – The Crowd Show: The spoken word-poet-comedian once again brings a fine hour of dry, heartfelt reflections on living through a pandemic with his trademark warmth.
- Bilal Zafar – Care: After becoming one of the pandemic’s breakthrough stars on streaming platform Twitch, Zafar returns to standup with an assured show on his experience of being a minimum wage, zero-hours contractor in a care home for the rich.”
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy of HBO, Paramount +, Sky Atlantic and Getty Images