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Art, Love, and Movies: HBO’s The Last Movie Stars and Editor Barry Poltermann

Dec. 14, 2022 at 7:01PM

What art moves you and why? Have you ever thought about it? Have you tried to make sense of the art that affects you emotionally? 

I’m thinking about this because I just got off a Zoom call with my friend Barry Poltermann, editor of the HBOMax series The Last Movie Stars, which was directed by Ethan Hawke. It’s a film centered around the lives of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, but really it’s about art. Or more specifically how we might think that we choose art, but it’s art that actually chooses us. 

It seems silly, but this hit home for me while I was driving in my car. Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy” came on, and I started to tear up. Spare me the Crow hate. This art has chosen me. I’m not sure why the song has such a profound effect—maybe it’s because the song and its themes just feel so honest. “I belong a long way from here” is a feeling I have often felt. Really, who hasn’t? The chorus hits me hard—her voice hitting the high note when she sings, “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad, if it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?” It kills me. The tempo of the song is perfect. It washes over me. I can visualize the range of emotions Sheryl is going through—loneliness, trepidation, isolation, self-doubt, and yes, happiness—in the song.

There are a ton of other examples like this, where art hits me emotionally. My experiences as an Italian American reflected in The Sopranos speaks to me; the philosopher in Crimes and Misdemeanors talking about life being a collection of decisions we make is something I find powerful. The incredible craft and artistry of Everything Everywhere All At Once took my breath away. Standing in front of Picasso’s Guernica at MOMA is a mind-blowing experience that left me standing in awe. The 360-degree Van Gogh experience in Chicago had me shaken to the point where I couldn’t move.

I could go on and on. The things that speak to us are hard to explain and extremely personal. But when you are confronted with some form of art that does it, you know. 

Through their 50-year marriage (one that ended when Newman passed away, and shortly thereafter Joanne—a long-lasting relationship that is a Hollywood anomaly), Newman and Woodward were in 16 movies together. The roles they chose—the art they chose—were not random or coincidental.

There’s an exchange between Newman and Woodward during an interview that illuminates this, where Woodward recalled, “All during the picture, we laugh at each other [even though] we’re at each other’s throats in every scene. Of course, there’s something nice I think about being able to fight with your husband and get paid for it.”

Newman, quick-witted, responded with a laugh:

“Well, like Stanislavski said, art is never accidental,”

Yeah, art chooses us—it is a reflection of our own nature.

Barry elaborates, “(Director Ethan Hawke) wanted people to understand by the end of episode one that when Paul and Joanne are acting in these films, it’s a performance the way a rock star performs. Like, when Bob Dylan has written a song, and he’s performing it, it’s coming from within him. And it’s his work. Like when I see these scenes in these movies, I want you to understand this as they are. They’re performing like Dylan performs.”

Poltermann worked closely with Hawke, editing the 6-part series, which plays out a lot like a novel. As you watch you get the feeling the movie almost came to life organically; it’s not a film retrospective, it’s not necessarily outwardly biographical, and it’s not constructed like most docu-series are with cliffhangers and plot twists.

Ethan and Barry’s close collaboration was textbook; two different creative lenses pushing toward the same goal. I got the feeling from Barry that it was a process of positive reinforcement and constructive criticism, experimentation, and long discussions about life that informed the direction of the film. And there was certainly mutual respect between the two.

“I would wake up in the morning to these texts from (Ethan) that were like, you’re a genius. You’re amazing. I can’t believe how great this is,” Barry told me. “ And then just pages of like—I love this, I love that, I’m not sure about this, or whatever. And then you’d call him, and he’d be excited. And the energy and the enthusiasm just kept coming. And then he might take the thing he just told me was amazing and say, let’s not do that. But you always felt good.”

“Between the two of us talking, we could figure out what we needed to do. As long as the director is positive and talented and pushing forward for the same reason and to the same endpoint that you’re pushing towards.”

The collaboration obviously worked. The Last Movie Stars is an intricately layered film about how art and life intertwine and interact; about what love is and how it changes over time; and how pop culture has evolved—or not—over the second half of the 20th century. It’s powerful, moving, thought-provoking, and yes, immensely entertaining.

Newman’s desire to create his own art is the impetus behind what made The Last Movie Stars a reality. In his later years, he decided to write a memoir and asked his friend, Stewart Stern, who most notably wrote the screenplay for Rebel Without a Cause to interview his closest friends, colleagues, and family. Those interviews included Directors Martin Ritt and George Roy Hill, longtime friend Gore Vidal, Robert Redford, and Newman’s ex-wife Jackie McDonald.

Unfortunately, Newman discarded the project and burned all the tapes. But before he destroyed them, transcripts were made of all the interviews, which sat idly in boxes for a few decades and then, ultimately, found their way into the hands of Ethan Hawke.

Barry gave me a glimpse into how the project—to bring these lost transcripts to life—appealed to Hawke. “One of the things that this movie became about for him, that I don’t know if he knew going in, is about how to live a life in the arts that doesn’t destroy you,” Barry told me. “You know, how you can be a celebrity, how you can make meaningful art, how you can have a spouse that also has ambitions that are similar and wants to make things happen on their own, that you don’t clash with each other and steal the oxygen from each other.”

The subject matter held an even deeper and personal meaning for both Barry and Ethan—Barry, whose partner is an accomplished documentary filmmaker, and Ethan, who was famously married to actress Uma Thurman. They saw a sliver of their own lives reflected in the Newman/Woodward relationship.

Hawke employed many of his friends to voice the parts from the transcript, which included Newman and Woodward, who in the film are voiced by George Clooney and Laura Linney.

The movie begins with quick cuts from the Zoom calls between Hawke and his colleagues from the movie industry: the aforementioned Clooney and Linney, Billy Crudup, Sam Rockwell, Vincent D’Onofrio, Steve Zahn, Zoe Kazan, and Hawke’s daughter, Maya. The Zoom calls fly in the face of the traditional ways interviews are conducted in most documentaries. We see celebrities in full pandemic mode, at home. It made me remember how genuinely happy people were during the lockdown to connect in any way possible.

On many virtual calls, you can feel the distance. But on these virtual calls, there is a palpable connection between the participants. They are the least virtual of any virtual calls I’ve ever seen—they feel very real, incredibly honest, and extremely authentic. Sam Rockwell’s hair is a mess, and it’s perfect.

But the thing that made the Zoom calls so enthralling was Hawke himself; he’s animated, passionate, poignant, curious, jovial, and introspective. You might even say geeked out. The way he talks about movies with his friends isn’t much different than the way many of us talk about movies with our friends. It’s completely relatable even when Hawke is talking to someone like Martin Scorsese, who we know as an incredibly accomplished film director, but who comes across like a normal, everyday funny Italian guy who is a massive movie buff.

For me, watching accomplished film actors discuss film is like crack.

Their collective passion for Newman and Woodward, used as a storytelling device, intercut with scenes from classic films and their many public appearances, is an incredibly effective pastiche. Life and art collide, profoundly.

It was their lifelong friend Gore Vidal who called Paul and Joanne “the last movie stars.” Barry explained the thinking behind Vidal’s sentiment—“[Paul and Joanne] were the last people that came up in the era of classic movie stars—the Jimmy Stewarts and the Clark Gables. They were the tailend of the studio system,” he said.  “The movies used to be the most important thing in the culture.” 

It’s true. And when you consider some of Newman’s most significant work—Hud (which director/writer Paul Schrader calls “The most important performance in the history of cinema”), The Hustler, The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and his Oscar-winning performance in The Color of Money, his impact on pop culture is unquestionable. Joanne’s Oscar-winning performance in The Three Faces of Eve jettisoned her into stardom, but her career took a backseat to Paul’s only to see a resurgence in the early 70s with the films Rachel, Rachel and The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.

photos by Courtesy of HBO
photos by Courtesy of HBO

We watch their married life and their celebrity lives intersect, and you can’t help but wonder if a relationship like theirs is even possible in the era of social media. The lives of celebrities are so much more public now and, outside of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, it’s hard to find an example of a celebrity couple who defied divorce. It’s an unbelievable testament to their character as individuals and their power as a couple. 

Joanne knew full well the difference between the public and private persona of their relationship and knew the nuances were complex. “Nobody understands anybody else’s relationship,” she says in episode four. Words to live by in social media culture.

It was the nature of their relationship that ultimately set the course for The Last Movie Stars, which is exemplified in a conversation we see over Zoom between Ethan and his daughter, Maya. You can sense that Ethan is still unsure even during the making of the film what the film is about and Maya reminds him of something he told her about relationships—that in every relationship there is a third person; the person that represents the two people together, that evolves and grows with the relationship. It offers Hawke an aha moment—and viewers as well. 

The film’s central sequence revolves around the film Winning from 1969, one in which Joanne and Paul play a married couple, and Paul plays a race car driver (very meta, as they would say in today’s parlance). Paul was drawn to it because it reflected their lives so well, and Paul even made adjustments to blur the lines between fiction with reality.

Barry Poltermann

Barry Poltermann

Award-winning editor and film business entrepreneur Barry Poltermann talks about his latest project, “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond,” the story of the making of Milos Forman’s film Man On The Moon, where actor Jim Carrey literally became Andy Kaufman on and off set.

Barry talked to me about the editing process and how, when he saw Winning, it was the ultimate example of life and art colliding. “There are times when you’re watching you feel like you’re seeing something really authentic,” he told me. “And I think in Winning when I watched it, I watched it through the prism of those transcripts. And I really felt like I was seeing Paul and Joanne explore some real shit.”

One of the key scenes in The Last Movie Stars is a scene from Winning where Paul and Robert Wagner are playing a game with a cigarette, a cocktail glass, and a quarter. Barry said, “I’m watching that scene with cigarettes and the quarter. And when she says, ’Oh, yes he just wants to win’ And that look on her face? It’s like, you know that’s their relationship at that point.”

Art, celebrity, culture, and two people in love—it’s all in there. 

As Joanne says in episode two:

“Paul would say, love is an art. And I lucked out.”

It was the art, indeed, that chose them.

Some photos by Courtesy of HBO