The project relies heavily on transcriptions of recordings of interviews Woodward and Newman made with screenwriter Stewart Stern (of “Rebel Without a Cause” and the Woodard-Newman classic “Rachel, Rachel”) for a project of unfinished personal history. For unknown reasons, Newman destroyed most of the tapes, and the handful that remained were unusable, so Hawke assigns contemporary actors to read the recovered transcripts. George Clooney plays Newman, Laura Linney plays Woodward, and various other performers play actors, directors, and writers who knew them. Each of the voice performances succeeds both as a rough-and-tumble and as shrewd character work (Brooks Ashmanskas’ rendition of Gore Vidal in particular is oddly on point).
The final product suggests a hybrid medium: it’s as if a radio play or podcast had been staged with excerpts from the stars’ films and period-appropriate documentary footage from Hollywood, New York and points in between. . Occasionally we’ll see photos of Woodward and Newman’s family albums, 16mm and 8mm home movies, and clips of Hawke and the voice actors discussing the material via Zoom (Hawke started production early of the Covid-19 pandemic).
The six-hour series follows the two actors from their first joint performances in a New York theater production (they were already dating at the time, although Newman was still married to Witte) through the final years of their lives, and studies changing times along the way. All the expected highlights are covered, from their most acclaimed performances on stage and screen (including Woodward’s Oscar for “Rachel, Rachel” and Newman’s belated recognition for “The Color of Money” ) to their political activism for civil rights and Newman’s forays into race car driving and gourmet food products (Newman’s eldest daughter, Nell, founded Newman’s Own, which donates all proceeds to charity).
But the series is unafraid of the pressure placed on the marriage by Newman’s stardom and drinking and self-destructive behaviors, and the many tragedies they endured, including the 1978 death of Newman’s only son, Scott, from a drug overdose, which led them to establish the Scott Newman Rehabilitation Center. (The center finally closed in 2013.) And it’s quietly telling to hear all of Newman’s children speak so candidly about him and Woodward, about their seemingly insatiable sexual appetites (their room had two doors) at first disreputable marriage (“I can be disgusted with my father when I think of my mother,” says Stephanie Newman, whose mother is Jackie Witte, “But that’s not the only feeling.”)