Children of Newman and Woodward’s, and from Newman’s first marriage, are strong presences, especially in the later episodes, but the most brutal, insightful and often hilarious commentary comes from the vintage quotes of the two subjects, especially Woodward. (One of the few original interviewees who is still alive, she was found to have Alzheimer’s disease in 2007, a year before Newman died.) It was never a secret that she was, for much of their time together, a better actor than her vastly more famous husband, and that her career went into eclipse when she took on most of the burden of caring for their children. But it’s still sobering to hear, in her own words, how clearly she saw the disparities and how deeply she felt them.
Hawke and his editor, Barry Poltermann, elegantly weave together their assortment of material. The readings of the old interviews are played mostly on top of the film clips, with the sound mixed so that the voices in the interviews and in the movies alternate, fading in and out.
With so many movies to choose from, Hawke is almost always able to make the clips correlate with what’s being said about Newman’s and Woodward’s lives, in ways that can be obvious but are often clever. While we hear Newman’s first wife, Jackie McDonald (voiced by Kazan), talk about being replaced by Woodward, we see — but don’t hear — scenes of “From the Terrace,” in which Woodward played the wife being abandoned by Newman’s character. (A nice touch in the casting: When Robert Altman is quoted in regard to “Buffalo Bill and the Indians,” he is voiced by the Native American director Sterlin Harjo.)
Hawke asks, “What was it like to be them?,” and the answer you’re likely to take away is that it was a lot like being us — difficult and frightening, happy and adventurous — with the volume turned way up. The difference that shines through doesn’t have to do with fame or accomplishment but with passion: Newman and Woodward were crazy for each other for more than 50 years, through tragedy, infidelity, drunkenness and professional jealousy. You hear it in their words, and you see it, crystal clear, whenever they’re together onscreen.