Showing posts with label Paul Newman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Paul Newman. Show all posts

Saturday, March 19, 2022

SXSW: The Last Movie Stars

Credit: Philippe Le Tellier/Paris Match via Getty Images

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward are the subjects of a new documentary streaming later this year on HBO Max. Told in six chapters, The Last Movie Stars chronicles Newman and Woodward's acting careers, including the sixteen films they made together, and their enduring love story. I had the privilege of attending the world premiere of the first chapter at this year's SXSW Film Festival and am thrilled to share a bit about this documentary with you.

The Last Movie Stars is the brainchild of producer Emily Wachtel who was close friends with the Newman-Woodward family and was able to get access to recordings, photos and home videos used in the film. Ethan Hawke directed the film and gave the project an "actors on actors" perspective.

The project began just as the pandemic put us all in isolation. The film embraces the constraints of the pandemic and is primarily composed of archival footage, movie clips, narration and Zoom interviews. This works quite well in the first chapter and I'm curious to see if continues to work or if it will bog down the rest of the film.

To offer some background, some years ago Paul Newman started working on a memoir. He invited friends and family to tell their stories about their relationships with him including his wife Joanne Woodward, his ex-wife Jackie Witte, his friends and fellow collaborators Gore Vidal, Karl Malden, Sidney Lumet, Elia Kazan and more. He also recorded himself discussing different aspects of his life and career. It's uncertain why but Newman eventually destroyed all of these recordings. Lucky for us, they were all transcribed and those transcriptions survived. 

In The Last Movie Stars, Ethan Hawke invites his actor friends to read the transcriptions in the voices of the various subjects. George Clooney plays Paul Newman, Laura Linney plays Joanne Woodward, Zoe Kazan plays Jackie Witte, Vincent D'Onofrio plays Gore Vidal, etc. Other actors include Mark Ruffalo, Billy Crudup, Sam Rockwell, Oscar Isaac and Steve Zahn. Along with their narrations, there are Zoom interviews with all of the actors. They share their mutual admiration for Newman and Woodward with Hawke who guides the story. There are also of other interviews with figures like Sally Field and Martin Scorsese who don't narrate but offer their perspectives and stories. It's a very meta approach. The audience follows along with the creation of the documentary as they learn more about these two fascinating subjects from film history.

The documentary's core purpose which is to tell the story of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Chapter one focuses on how they became actors, their affair which lead to the break-up of Newman's first marriage and the beginning of their lifelong adventure together. One takeaway from the first chapter is that Woodward very much came into her own at the beginning of her career while it took Newman to really discover himself as an actor. Newman eventually overshadowed Woodward as his fame skyrocketed. However, the two had a mutual respect for each other and Woodward was able to find a deeper meaning to her life and career. With The Last Movie Stars, producer Emily Wachtel and director Ethan Hawke are reintroducing Newman and Woodward to a new generation with the hope that telling their story will help reinforce their legacy as the great actors they were. 

Watching The Last Movie Stars reinvigorated me. My purpose has always been to keep film history alive and share the joys of classic movies with others. This documentary does just that. Having seen the first chapter, I am anxious to see the next five. At the world premiere, Hawke shared that the first three chapters are completed but the last three are still in the editing process. He estimated that they'll be done by June. A streaming date has yet to be announced.

Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas

Ethan Hawke introducing The Last Movie Stars at SXSW

Q&A after the world premiere. Left to Right: Richard Linklater, Emily Wachtel, Ethan Hawke

I hope to do a full review once all six chapters of the documentary are available.

Note to add: While Joanne Woodward is still with us, she suffers from alzheimer's disease and was not able to be interviewed for this project. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Prize (1963)

Directed by Mark Robson, The Prize (1963) stars Paul Newman as Andrew Craig, a celebrated novelist with a penchant for booze and women. Having just won the Nobel Prize in literature, Craig is whisked away to Stockholm, Sweden to accept the honor and fraternize with his fellow laureates. Little does he know he'll be caught up an international web of intrigue. Among the laureates is physicist Dr. Max Stratman (Edward G. Robinson) who mysteriously disappears and is replaced by a look-a-like in his stead. Stratman's niece Emily (Diane Baker) is in charge of the scheme and seduces Craig to keep his nose out of her business. She's got competition from Inger Lisa Andersson (Elke Sommer), the representative from the Swedish Foreign Ministry assigned to look after Craig. To complicate things, Nobel winning scientist Dr. Denise Marceau (Micheline Presle) is counting on the handsome Craig to help make her husband jealous. In the lead up to the award ceremony, Craig has several run ins with international spies who want him dead. Will he save Dr. Stratman, and himself, in time for the big day?

The Prize is a Cold War thriller that doesn't take itself too seriously but really should have. It's a convoluted mess of a film. The dramatic and comedic elements clash and on the whole the story feels disjointed. Had they stuck with the more serious elements of the story or completely revamped it into a silly 1960s comedy, it could have worked either way. But doesn't quite work as is. I had never heard of the film until recently and now I know why. It's not a notable film by any means.

It's still fairly enjoyable for several reasons. First there's Paul Newman. The character of Andrew Craig doesn't quite suit him but Newman could really do anything and make it look good. There is a hilarious scene when he's running away from two hit men and he finds himself at a nudist's conference. It's funny and charming and one of the highlights of the film. By the 1960s, Sweden had developed a reputation for being a sexually progressive culture and that's touched upon in this film. While Elke Sommer plays Newman's main love interest, Diane Baker as Emily Stratman is far more interesting as a character. She's duplicitous but you can tell something else is going on to make her that way. Baker plays her with a subtlety that's rare for that era. Sommer's Ms. Anderson is beautiful but quite boring. Baker was far more interesting. .

As much as I love Edward G. Robinson, he doesn't have much to do in the film and the swap between the real Dr. Stratman and the imposter was weak at best. Other notable actors include Kevin McCarthy who plays Dr. John Garrett, Nobel laureate in medicine, Leo G. Carroll as Count Jacobsson and Micheline Presle as the worldly and playful Dr. Marceau.

Shot in Panavision and Metrocolor for MGM, The Prize is visually stunning and looks spectacular on Blu-ray. If you're smitten with the 1960s aesthetic, like I am, you'll be pleased with this offering. The film was shot on location in Sweden and between the costumes, sets and the good looking cast, it's truly a feast for the eyes.

The Prize (1963) is available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection. When you use my buy link you help support this site. Thanks!

The film has been remastered (1080p HD with DTS HD-Master Audio 2.0). The Blu-ray has subtitles and a trailer but no additional extras.

 Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me a copy of The Prize (1963) on Blu-ray for review!

Monday, August 20, 2018

Silent Movie (1976)

This post is sponsored by DVD Netflix

"What's the matter with you? Don't you know who I used to be?" 

Once celebrated film director Mel Funn is working on his comeback project. With the help of his best buds Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman) and Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise) they set out to make his dream happen. The trio stop by Big Pictures Studios to meet with the Studio Chief (Sid Caesar). Rival studio, Engulf and Devour, run by Engulf (Harold Gould) and Devour (Ron Carey), wants to put Big Picture Studios out of business. Funn offers Studio Chief his idea to save the company: the first silent movie made in over forty years. What could go wrong? With Studio Chief in the hospital, Funn and his crew set out on an adventure to get the biggest stars to be in their picture.

Silent Movie (1976) pokes fun at the film industry while paying homage to the silent films that started it all. This backstage comedy is 99.9% silent. Only one word is uttered and of course the actor to speak it is renowned mime Marcel Marceau. Because why not? Silent Movie is filled with hilarious gags, physical comedy that will leave you in stitches. It has one of the best line-ups of guest stars of any movie. In addition to Marceau, the comic trio recruit Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minnelli, Anne Bancroft (Mel Brooks' wife) and Paul Newman. Each cameo comes with its own highly entertaining comedy sequence. My favorite one was with Liza Minnelli. Brooks, Feldman and DeLuise dress up in suits of armor and enter the studio commissary where Minnelli has lunch. The trio don't know how to move gracefully in their clunky armor and chaos inevitably ensues. I watched that one scene four times before I could even move on to the rest of the film. It's that good.

On the heels of the success of Blazing Saddles (1974), his homage to Westerns, and Young Frankenstein (1974), his homage to classic horror, Brooks was in a position to tackle another genre, one near and dear to his heart.

"I never cared about religion, but I prayed to silent movies. It was my contact with things soulful. I'd go [to the silent movie theater] as often as I could." - Mel Brooks

According to Brooks biographer Dale Sherman (Mel Brooks FAQ), the idea came from writer Ron Clark who presented it to Brooks at a party. Brooks wasn't so sure about Clark's idea. How would a silent movie appeal to a modern audience? According to Sherman, Clark suggested "a movie in color, set in the current time, with all the modern camera techniques available, and with big movie stars... but without sound."

Brooks worked with Clark on the script and added his previous collaborators Rudy De Luca and Barry Levinson to the project. 20th Century Fox was on board with the idea, thanks to the nostalgia boom of the 1960s nad '70s and Brooks' recent box office success. However, just to be safe, the studio wanted Brooks to record sound. Just in case the whole silent movie aspect didn't pan out. But Brooks was confident it would work. The only sound added was Marceau's single word of dialogue, John Morris' score and synchronized sound for the various gags.

Then there was the cast. DeLuise and Feldman, Brooks' co-stars, were on board early on. Bernadette Peters, who plays Brooks' love interest, replaced Madeline Kahn who had to drop out. Then there were the guest stars. Brooks couldn't offer them much money. However, it wasn't a lot of work and it was a great opportunity to be featured in a movie poised for box office success. Caan, Reynolds, Minnelli and others agreed because who wouldn't want to work with Brooks circa 1976? Steve McQueen wanted the Paul Newman part but when he heard it was taken and that his friendly screen rival would be in the picture, he bowed out.

Silent Movie was made for $4 million and grossed over $36 million. It got mixed reviews but a lot of laughs.

Disclaimer: As a DVD Nation director, I earn rewards from DVD Netflix. You can rent Silent Movie on

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Paul Newman is Harper

Paul Newman as Lew Harper in Harper (1966)

"I don't think Paul Newman really thinks he is Paul Newman in his head." William Goldman

Harper (1966)

Paul Newman needed something to get him out of his funk. He was in the midst of a box office drought and the movie he was currently working on was turning out to be a disaster. The year was 1965 and Newman was filming Lady L (1965) in Paris. Newman's part was seriously lacking and he wasn't getting on with his director Peter Ustinov or his leading lady Sophia Loren. Meanwhile, producer Elliot Kastner had a part that seemed perfect for Newman. He flew to Paris to present Newman the script. Newman liked it and was on board with the project. Then Kastner hit a bit of a snag. His director wanted to make some changes that would change what Newman liked about the script. Newman was far too valuable to the project and the director simply was not. So Kastner fired him and hired Jack Smight to take over.

William Goldman, a novelist who was new to the movie business, wrote said script. Goldman met Kastner when the producer optioned his novel Boys and Girls Together. Goldman suggested to Kastner they should make a movie out of Ross Macdonald's detective story The Moving Target, originally published in 1949. Macdonald's book was the first in a series of novels following the adventures of private investigator Lew Archer. The series was so popular that by 1965 he had already published 12 installments. In his lifetime Macdonald wrote 18 Lew Archer mysteries, ranging in publication from 1949 to 1976, and a handful of short story collections. For the role of Lew Archer, the first actor that came to mind was Frank Sinatra. But he turned down the part. Next on the list Paul Newman who seemed an even better fit than Sinatra. Newman would be perfect for the part especially when the 1949 novel was updated with a cool swinging 1960s sensibility. Writer Goldman was new and willing to please. And this came in handy for Kastner when Newman had one big change he wanted to make to his character.

Newman really needed this project to revive his career. He had just turned 40 and knew if he didn't turn things around his career could go south quickly. The letter H had been lucky for Newman. Both
The Hustler (1961) and Hud (1963) served him well and he had to keep that moment going. And that meant Lew Archer had to become Lew Harper. With the name change, Newman could make this character his own. Newman might not have been right for Lew Archer but Lew Harper would fit him like a glove. Newman embodied the charismatic anti-hero, a character type he had done well with before and after. By the mid 1960s, after countless James Bond spin-offs, the film industry was suffering from spy movie fatigue. Going back to the tried and true private eye detective story was a sound decision. But Newman had to make one big concession to take on the role. Back in 1959, Newman butted heads with Jack Warner and acrimoniously parted ways with Warner Bros. Newman wanted the role  of Harper badly enough that he conceded to go back to his old studio. A big pay day ($500k or $750k against 10 percent gross, depending on the source) made the decision easier to swallow. According to biographer Shawn Levy, Newman once told a reporter "A feud should live a full and colorful life and then it should die a natural death and be forgotten."

The movie was simply called Harper (1966) and production ran from June to August 1965. As further insurance for the movie's success, actress Lauren Bacall was hired to play the role of Mrs. Sampson, the rich housewife who hires Lew Harper to find her missing husband. Her presence in the film connects it to the bygone era of classic detective novels and movies. Especially Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, in which she starred with husband Humphrey Bogart in the movie adaptation. Also in the cast of Harper was Julie Harris who played the drug addicted lounge pianist, Pamela Tiffin, Mrs. Sampson's beautiful and manipulative step-daughter, Arthur Hill, Harper's friend and the Sampson family lawyer, Robert Wagner, the family's personal airplane pilot and Shelley Winters, the aging movie star. Janet Leigh played Harper's soon-to-be ex-wife, a character not in the original novel but would add some romantic angst to the plot and more star power to the movie.

Even with all the big names on board, this was Paul Newman's film. Newman honed the Harper character in such a way that according to writer Christine Becker he "reaffirmed his rebel cool status." He modeled some of the mannerisms after Robert F. Kennedy. According to Newman biographer Shawn Levy, Kennedy "had a habit of standing beside people and looking away from them with his head titled when listening to them. It was a weird sort of engaged non-engagement and it fit the character beautifully."

Harper (1966) was a big hit with audiences and Warner Bros. turned a nice profit with their $2 million movie. According to another Newman biographer, Marian Edelman,  "the public loved Harper, and it put Paul Newman back on the top-10 list of box-office stars of the year." The critics were more hesitant about the movie's value but it didn't matter. Newman was back on top. Warner Bros. capitalized on Newman using taglines and slogans like "Paul Newman is Harper", "Excitement clings to him like a dame" and "Girls go for Harper." Perhaps Frank Sinatra, seeing the success of Newman in Harper, changed his mind about making a detective movie. He would go on to play private eye in Tony Rome (1967) and A Lady in Cement (1968).

Harper also did wonders for screenwriter William Goldman's career. According to Lawrence J. Quirk, "Goldman came through and the success of Harper put him on the map." And by the time Harper was released, Ross Macdonald had published book #13 in the Lew Archer series, Black Money, which got a boost from the film. This made up for the mere $12,500 he received from the film.

After Harper, Newman went on to more successes with Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain (1966), Cool Hand Luke (1967) and another H film Hombre (1967). Kastner and Goldman had plans to follow up Harper with another story in the Lew Archer/Harper saga. Unfortunately it never materialized. Newman wouldn't revisit the character of Lew Harper until almost a decade later.

"Harper is a simplified version of Paul Newman you might say. He's a man of action with a certain flare, a certain self-conscious dramatic sense of what he's doing." - Ross MacDonald

The Drowning Pool (1975)

In 1969, Paul Newman joined forces with Barbra Streisand and Sidney Poitier to start the independent production company First Artists. This new project would allow these big stars more control over their movies. Actors like Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman joined later. First Artists films were distributed by Warner Bros. So when the character of Lew Harper came back into Newman's life it meant he had even more say in how things would pan out.

Producer Lawrence Turman had missed out on an opportunity to work on Harper and when the occasion arose to revisit it he wouldn't pass it up. Turman and fellow producer David Foster optioned the rights to Macdonald's second Lew Archer novel The Drowning Pool, which was published in 1950. This time around Macdonald would get a better pay day than he did with harper. He made $100k plus 5 perfect of the net profits. But there were lots of changes to Macdonald's novel to be made. Newman's wife, celebrated actress Joanne Woodward, would co-star in the film and she suggested the story's setting be changed from Southern California to New Orleans. Louisiana was Woodward's old stomping grounds and it would add an exotic, southern element to the film. The screenplay went through three different writers: Tracy Keenan Wynn, Lorenzo Semple Jr. and Walter Hill (William Goldman was no longer interested). The end result was something quite different from the original concept.

According Lawrence J. Quirk, "Newman insisted Stuart Rosenberg, who needed the work, be given the picture." With Rosenberg on board as director, production for The Drowning Pool began in the fall of 1974. The filming was done on location in Lafayette and New Orleans, Louisiana. Newman's Harper travels from LA to New Orleans to help an old client Iris (Joanne Woodward), a frustrated rich housewife who enlists Harper to find out who is blackmailing her. The cast includes Anthony Franciosa as the shady copy Broussard, Murray Hamilton as the psychopath business owner Kilbourne, Gail Strickland as Kilbourne's wife and Melanie Griffith as Iris' precocious and manipulative teenage daughter. The story line and characters are similar to the first story but there is much more at risk for Harper in this film. The "drowning pool" refers to a climactic scene when Paul Newman and Gail Strickland are trapped in a hydrotherapy room of an abandoned asylum. They try to flood the room to escape through the roof. Newman had a blast making The Drowning Pool. According to Shawn Levy, Newman said "I simply adore the character because it will accommodate any kind of actor's invention... It's just lovely to get up in the morning, it's great to go to work, because you know you're going to have a lot of fun that day."

The Drowning Pool was released that summer of 1975. Earlier that same year a short-lived TV show called Archer, based on the Macdonald books and starring Brian Keith as Lew Archer ran from January to March. Unfortunately both the show and the new movie were doomed. The Drowning Pool was a bomb with critics and a box office failure. Why did it tank? There could be several reasons. Perhaps they waited too long between movies and audiences just didn't care about Harper anymore. Maybe Newman had aged out of his character? When you compare the two movies, The Drowning Pool plods along while Harper's pacing has a lot more momentum. Harper is hip and The Drowning Pool takes itself too seriously. While, the second film doesn't capture the magic of the first Newman fans will find much to enjoy from both performances.

Harper (1966) and The Drowning Pool (1975) are now available on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive Collection. These Blu-Ray editions are pristine. They looked like they were filmed yesterday and not several decades ago. The Drowning Pool Blu-Ray comes with a fun featurette called Harper Days Are Here Again showing the behind-the-scenes of shooting with some clips from the film.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I feature titles from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me copies of Harper (1966) and The Drowning Pool (1975) on Blu-Ray!

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