Ethan Hawke’s fascinating new documentary on Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward shows that being married and famous is anything but easy
Not one to waste a lockdown, Ethan Hawke spent the dark days of 2020 assembling The Last Movie Stars, a remarkable documentary series on one of his heroes, Paul Newman. But not just Newman, because the great star of the 1950s and ’60s was part of one of Hollywood’s most celebrated and enduring couples.
Newman was married with two kids when he met actress Joanne Woodward during rehearsals for the Broadway play Picnic. It was, as they say, a coup de foudre: the pair fell madly in love, got married in 1958 and stayed together for the next 50 years, each excelling in their chosen fields and supporting the other’s ambitions. There were problems along the way: Newman lost a son, Scott, from his first marriage and, as we find out in Hawke’s documentary, he also struggled with alcoholism.
But theirs, it seems, was that rarest of things: a happy Hollywood marriage. More than that, it was a successful power-couple marriage, and Hawke, who in the late 1990s was briefly part of a high-wattage Hollywood liaison with Uma Thurman, must know what it is like.
The Last Movie Stars is based on transcripts Newman compiled for a proposed biography that never materialised, and in Hawke’s six-part series, which will air here later this year, A-list stars including George Clooney, Laura Linney, Rose Byrne and Karen Allen line up to read testimonies from Newman’s intimate circle.
The results are remarkably revealing, and show that even in the best power couples, the balance of success is rarely equal. When Newman and Woodward met, she was the big star, having just won a Best Actress Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve. He had yet to land a major role, but over the years, the scales shifted as she had kids and he became a huge star.
“Why is Shirley MacLaine getting all those parts?” she muses bitterly at one point, before making a remarkably honest admission. “If I had to do it all again, I might not have had children.” In his voiceover, Hawke wisely sympathises. “Many of us lose our dreams,” he says, “but most of us don’t have a partner who has the exact same dreams, and his come true.”
It’s entirely natural that film actors should fall in love and marry, but that doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea.
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were Hollywood’s original power couple, and quite possibly the most powerful duo of them all. He was the swashbuckling hero of Zorro and countless other adventures, she the “girl with the curls”, America’s sweetheart: they met in 1916, and subsequently married. As two of the highest paid actors in silent-era Hollywood, they put their star power to good use when they joined forces with Charlie Chaplin and DW Griffith to form their own studio, United Artists.
The idea was to give artists complete control over pictures, and for a time the studio was a success. But Pickford and Fairbanks’ marriage fared less well, as both their careers were destroyed by the arrival of sound, and in 1933 he ran off with an English socialite, Lady Ashley, ending the dreams of this most glamorous of couples.
In 1932, as Charles Chaplin was tiptoeing his way painfully into the sound era, he met and began a relationship with a woman almost half his age. Chaplin was 43, Paulette Goddard 22, but for a time at least, the pair found love — and mutual career benefits.
Chaplin was a huge star, a one-man film studio, and Goddard might at first have looked like yet another of his conquests. But she was a comic actress of remarkable talent and grace, and in 1936 helped him create possibly his greatest film, Modern Times. She positively shone as Ellen, an orphaned girl whom Chaplin’s Tramp befriends, and her performance made her a star.
Chaplin planned numerous projects with Goddard as his co-star, but only one of them, The Great Dictator, ever saw the light of day. And by the time that anti-Nazi polemic was released in 1940, the Chaplin-Goddard liaison was on the rocks.
There was, on the face of it, something slightly unsavoury about the initial meeting of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Indeed, their director on To Have and Have Not (1944), Howard Hawks, thoroughly disapproved of their budding relationship, and did his best to scupper it. Bacall, a New York model, was just 19 and making her acting debut: Bogie was 44, a three-time divorcée whose combustible relationships had provided rich fodder for the gossip columnists.
It all sounded a bit creepy, but the Bogart-Bacall alliance turned out to be a meeting of equals. They made three more memorable films together — The Big Sleep, Dark Passage and Key Largo — had two children, and by Bacall’s own account, were blissfully happy until Bogart’s untimely death in 1957.
Spencer Tracy was one of Bogart’s fondest drinking buddies, and in the 1940s and ’50s he and Katharine Hepburn became one of Hollywood’s most compelling power couples.
There was a caveat though, as Tracy and Hepburn were never officially a couple at all. “I’m afraid I’m a bit tall for you Mr Tracy,” Hepburn quipped when this unlikely pair met on the set of the 1942 George Stevens comedy Woman of the Year, but they quickly fell in love.
But Tracy was married, and refused to divorce his wife, so he and Hepburn kept their 26-year relationship a secret.
They became a hugely successful box office pairing, making nine films together, the last of which, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, was completed just 17 days before his death from a heart attack. It was Hepburn who found him: “He looked so happy to be done with living,” she said later, “which, for all his accomplishments, had been a frightful burden for him.”
In the late 1950s, Newman and Woodward became the up-and-coming Hollywood power couple, effortlessly cool and extremely well connected. But once they could afford to, they increasingly began to shun the limelight, leaving the stage to other couples who became objects of fascination for the press.
Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were rarely off the front pages during their blink-and-you-miss-it two-year marriage. The baseball star was obsessively jealous, possibly also physically abusive, but when Monroe left him, large sections of the American public turned on Monroe and never forgave her. She, meanwhile, quickly entered another power couple, hooking up with radical playwright Arthur Miller: their marriage also failed.
But if there was one power couple that generated more column inches than any other, it was Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Married twice, eternally combustible, they seemed at times more like rock stars than movie actors. She was Hollywood royalty, a child star turned box office beauty, he a working-class boy from a Welsh mining town with a drinking problem and a chip on his shoulder.
They met on the sumptuous sets of the 1963 epic Cleopatra, and Taylor, who was married to Eddie Fisher at the time, caused a Hollywood scandal by beginning an affair with the young tearaway Burton. Their decade or so together was seldom peaceful, but they did electrifying work as a couple on screen, particularly in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which they played a bickering, drunken, heartbroken couple.
Though they never married, Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland annoyed a lot of God-fearing Republicans in the early 1970s when they took their anti-war satirical revue on the road. In the 80s, though, Jane would shift towards the centre, becoming an exercise guru and settling down (for a time) with media mogul Ted Turner.
In the 1970s, Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw were for a time the golden duo, though their relationship may not have been as rosy as it seemed. And by the mid-70s they had been overtaken by Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, he the great screen actor of his day, she the talented daughter of director John Huston. Their parties became the stuff of legend.
Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell might not have been as glamorous, but have had incredible staying power. They started dating in 1983 — and are still together — having both forged successful acting careers while raising a family.
The 1980s was a kind of golden age for the power couple: Sean Penn and Madonna were practically the only thing the media wanted to talk about for a few brief years in the late 1980s, but Bruce Willis and Demi Moore became real Hollywood power brokers during their tabloid-friendly 13-year marriage.
When he first met Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks was on the verge of becoming the biggest film actor of his time. Their enduring marriage has been among the most dignified the movie industry has seen. Brad Pitt has been involved in not one but two power couples (with Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie), neither of which ended particularly well for him. Recent outbursts aside, there’s always been something chillingly pre-planned about the way Will Smith and Jada Pinkett go about their business.
And when Ben Affleck got involved with Jennifer Lopez in the early 2000s, much fun was made of the fact that on the red carpets, he looked like a rabbit in the headlights. How we sneered, but now, 18 years later, they seem happily reunited, and may yet become the peerless power couple God intended them to be.