How the Universe Sent Paul Newman to Ethan Hawke

The director discusses his HBO Max series and recent AFS screenings

Ethan Hawke (accompanied by Sundance Institute's Indigenous Program Director Adam Piron) at AFS Cinema after the March 25 screening of Hombre, part of his five film series Paul Newman's West. (Photo by Heather Leah Kennedy)

Ethan Hawke wasn't expecting to spend several years of his life working on a biographical docuseries about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, but somehow that's exactly what happened – even if he's not quite sure how. "The universe is in charge of things," he grinned, impishly.

That seems to have been reason enough for Hawke to direct The Last Movie Stars, his six-episode show for HBO Max. And from there the universe sent him last weekend to AFS Cinema for sold-out screenings of five of Newman's Westerns, suitably gathered under the banner of Paul Newman's West.

Well, it wasn't solely the universe. In between screenings of deconstructionist myth The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and Buffalo Bill and the Indians, and clad in a red jumpsuit (a tribute to Newman, who adopted the style after Hud and kept them on throughout his 35-year motor racing career), Hawke put it down to an unexpected phone call.

Out of the blue, the couple's eldest daughter, Nell Newman (most recognizable for the famous photo of Paul and she spoofing Grant Wood's landmark painting American Gothic), called him up. She'd got his number, and asked him to make the documentary about her parents. It turned out that Paul had started working on an autobiography, and had recorded many hours of interviews with friends, family, and associates. He finally abandoned the project and burned the tapes, but luckily transcripts survived, and Nell wanted Hawke to use them to tell her parents' story.

"I was really flumoxed," Hawke said. He'd directed a documentary before, 2015's Seymour: An Introduction, but had no immediate desire to do another. At the same time, how can any actor turn down a chance to immerse himself in the life and thoughts of Woodward and Newman, two of the greatest talents Hollywood ever embraced? So he called his old friend and collaborator, Richard Linklater, for advice, "and I remember Rick just said, 'I think the universe just put this in your lap. I think you're the guy.'"

But when the chance came to screen some of Newman's works at AFS, Hawke could eschew classics like The Hustler and Cool Hand Luke in favor of less seen but still vital works in Newman's resume like Hombre (1967) and The Left-Handed Gun (1958), which Hawke described as "Billy the Kid as Rebel Without a Cause.

However, the decision to concentrate in Westerns came back to a famous story about Newman walking in to the studio commissary one day, and there was John Wayne, the defining face of the Manifest Destiny era of horse operas, sat at a table. "John Wayne says, 'How's the revolution going, Paul?' and Paul says, 'Well, Duke, it would be going a lot better if you weren't on the wrong side.'"

There's an immediate comedy to the moment ("John Wayne was a draft-dodger who was pretending to be a tough guy, and Paul Newman served in the Pacific and undermined the myth of John Wayne") that lead to Hawke wryly subtitling the series "Paul Newman's Personal War with John Wayne." Yet even a good laugh at the True Grit star's expense was not enough to launch a film series, "That story really got me thinking about these Westerns and how much Paul's true self is in these movies," Hawke said.

Paul Newman in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, part of Ethan Hawke's AFS Cinema series, Paul Newman's West.

It's not that these films were more biographically accurate than, say, Wayne's brownface performance as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror: but they spoke to political truths about colonialism, violence, race, and masculinity that were important to Newman. "Judge Roy Bean, Buffalo Bill, Hud, these are movies that he really made happen," Hawke said, "and I started to see why. The Western is such a great place to discuss politics without talking about politics."

The Last Movie Stars is available on HBO Max now.

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Ethan Hawke, Paui Newman, AFS Cinema, Paul Newman's West, The Last Movie Star, HBO Max

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