‘The Last Movie Stars’ turns a pandemic into something remarkable.

I’ve lost track of what month of the pandemic it was when Zoom became my raison d’être. Zoom Meetings, Zoom Classes, Zoom Happy Hours, Zoom Game Nights, Zoom Graduations. “I thought you were quiet.” “Please introduce yourself in the chat.”

Likewise, I’m tired of the zoom-produced movies, shows and theater productions that became popular in the early months of the pandemic. What began as a need for artists to work and create and to engage and entertain audiences became stale and artificial (with a A few notable exceptions which found a fresh perspective). So now, two and a half years after the pandemic, I was skeptical to see a bunch of famous actors pop up in their little zoom rectangles in the opening minutes of “The Last Movie Stars.” Will this narrative device become a complex distraction from the richness of the material?

Directed by Ethan Hawke, the six-part HBO Max documentary is a monumental work, exploring the legendary careers and marriage of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. What could have been pure hagiography turns into something much more revelatory. Without losing a sense of deep reverence for the titans of acting, Hawke forces us to consider the limits of stardom, and how clean storytelling smoothes the complexities of careers, marriages, families and lives.

I was totally mesmerized by it all – including, to my surprise, the documentary’s use of zoom, which gives it a sense of rawness and intimacy. Some of this is for obvious logistical reasons. As Hawke tells it, just before the pandemic, one of Newman and Woodward’s daughters gave Hawke a stash of old interview transcripts, originally intended for Newman’s abandoned memoirs. In the 1980s, screenwriter Stewart Stern, a longtime friend of the couple, interviewed Newman, Woodward, and many of their friends and colleagues. Later, Newman is forced to burn the tapes. But at some point, Stern copied them.

To bring the transcripts to life, Hawke called on a star-studded group of “players,” as the documentaries’ old Hollywood-style end credits refer to them. George Clooney voices Newman, and Laura Linney voices Woodward. Oscar Isaac provides the voice of “The Verdict” director Sidney Pollock. Sam Rockwell, who tells Hawke he’s happy to be stuck at home and just get to work, plays “Cool Hand Luke” director Stuart Rosenberg. Zoe Kazan is Newman’s first wife Jackie. Zoom in for commentary from Martin Scorsese and Sally Field (and her Christmas tree) among many other celebrity guests. There are also Zoom interviews with Newman and Woodward’s children and grandchildren.

Stylistically, the zoom shots and banter could have looked plain and simple next to the more technically advanced choices of documentaries. There are carefully edited segments, interweaving themes and anecdotes from the lives of Newman and Woodward with clips from their films that reflect the interviewee’s conversation. There is a wealth of archival footage: awards speeches, talk show interviews, magazine and newspaper clippings.

There is a lot of content to take in. I often interrupted documentaries to write about some of his more overlooked films, such as 1961’s “Paris Blues,” which featured an absolutely killer cast: Newman, Woodward, Sidney Poitier and DeHaan Carroll. Many of these featured films star Woodward. One of the series’ most devastating themes is how, despite being a bigger star than Newman at the start of the marriage, she was underappreciated. Like many women of her generation, she was expected to be a wife and mother, and she put her career on the backburner while her husband rose to stardom.

In one of the interview transcripts, she talks with unusual candor about how “if I had it to do over again, I probably wouldn’t have kids.” It still seems neat in 2022, when motherhood still feels very much like a predetermined expectation. The next episode brings up Newman’s oft-quoted line about the longevity of their marriage – “Why should I go out for a hamburger when I have a steak at home?” – which has become a pop culture tradition. But here, we see Woodward’s answer to this: “I’m a vegetarian.” In another interview footage, she reveals the quote “Our relationship could have ended.”

“I mean, what a chauvinist statement. I’m not a piece of meat for God,” she says. “Every time that quote pops up, I want to kill.”

Remarkably, instead of becoming a distraction from all these incredible excavations, Zoom Interstitials provide a structure to the vast documents. During “The Last Movie Stars”, we see Hawke chatting with the actors. Before they begin reading their respective transcripts, he gives them some context about the person and events they are portraying. This doubles as exposure for our viewers.

Zoom also lets us peek into the process. There are several points when Hawke thinks out loud, trying to figure out what the documents are. He asks various actors questions. At the beginning of the final episode, he meets with his wife and producer Ryan, admitting that he’s not sure what he’s trying to say in a segment about the commodification of Newman’s celebrity. In a conversation with his daughter Maya, he talks about how in relationships, the relationship itself becomes a third person, and maybe that’s what the series is about. All of this, especially given the amount of famous faces, could have been difficult and selfish. Instead, adding these Zoom conversations becomes an advantage, not a limitation.

In fact, the finished product is hard to imagine. without Zoom For example, when Newman’s Each Child looks at the complexities and tensions of their family dynamics, there’s a vulnerability and honesty that a set of over-the-top spoken word interviews couldn’t capture. .

“The Last Movie Stars” is a lot about looking at pop culture narratives and celebrity myths. The isolation of the pandemic has also forced many of us to look inward, making it fitting that this series is undoubtedly the work of the pandemic era. But Zoom’s immediacy and curation, especially when it involves so many famous people, hasn’t always been the right vehicle for introspection. Especially during the early months of the pandemic, Zoom was an uncomfortable way to compare yourself to others, seeing what other people’s backgrounds were.

And for all its informality, once Zoom became a regular fixture in many of our lives, it began to feel like a more formal obligation. But for all those problems, it’s nice to know that it can still be a fresh way to tell a story.

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