Have you ever seen a photo of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in their youth? Sure, they were both blonde, pretty, and bright blue-eyed — but the real reason they were an iconic Hollywood couple (and still are) wasn’t their good looks, it’s because of how they looked at each other. Even in photos from 60 years ago, their chemistry and friendship shine through; they always seem to be standing with their arms around each other, laughing and hamming it up for the camera.
Newman’s first film to make a smash at the box office was 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He starred opposite Elizabeth Taylor and earned his first Oscar nomination for the role — soon after, his boyish good looks and charm made him the star of many women’s daydreams, as well. He eventually became a household name playing troubled heroes and renegades in films like The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But despite his enormous success — and the temptations that come with it — Newman, for the last 50 years of his life, only had eyes for one woman.
A new six-part documentary on HBO Max explores this 50-year marriage in rich detail. Titled The Last Movie Stars, it follows the history of Newman and Woodward as a couple: meeting as equals, beginning a relationship, forging their acting careers side by side, and staying together for the long haul despite a sometimes rocky path. Although Newman died in 2008 and Woodward has Alzheimer’s (so she could not participate in the series directly), their legacy as an extraordinarily loving pair lives on. Here are five reasons the duo remain a favorite Hollywood couple.
They were crazy about each other.
Woodward was a self-assured woman who did not appear threatened by her husband’s sex symbol status. In an interview with Today, she made sure to note that his attractiveness was hardly the most important part of their bond. “He’s very good looking and very sexy and all of those things, but all of that goes out the window and what is finally left is, if you can make somebody laugh,” she said wisely. “And he sure does keep me laughing.”
While he played the “heartthrob” very well in the public eye, Newman obviously made his wife feel plenty beautiful in private. “I’ve long since adjusted to my husband’s status as a superstar and a sex symbol,” Woodward said. “The only place I’m a sex symbol is at home, and I’m very lucky that my husband thinks I’m sexy. I don’t worry about women who come on strong with him.”
In a 1998 interview, Newman expressed a similarly romantic sentiment, attributing their marital success to “some combination of lust and respect and patience. And determination.”
It seems this passion never faded, even well into the couple’s elder years. In a 2015 interview with Town & Country Magazine, then up-and-coming actor Ansel Elgort recalled a conversation he’d had with a professional driver. “The nicest guy [I ever drove] was Paul Newman,” the driver told Elgort. “He asked me about myself, but also he had his wife in the back seat, and this guy was like 80 and he was making out with his wife. They were just PDA and they were giggling and his arm was around her and he’s kissing her.”
They dealt with — and overcame — some bumps in the road.
Admittedly, the couple had a complicated beginning. When Newman met Woodward in 1953, he was married to Jackie Witte, with whom he had three children. Woodward didn’t want to break up a family, so she and Newman remained friends — until eventually, he asked his wife for a divorce. Newman married Woodward in 1958, one year after the two starred in their first film together, The Long, Hot Summer. Newman’s choice to leave his first wife was a difficult one, and something he felt “guilty as hell” about. A quote from his biography, Paul Newman: A Life, reveals the depth of his remorse: “I’ll carry it with me for the rest of my life,” he said.
However, it seems that once Newman fell for Woodward, his wandering days were over. According to Paul and Joanne: A Biography of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, when Paul was once asked in an interview about rumors of marital infidelity, he responded, “I have steak at home. Why should I go out for hamburger?” To her credit, Woodward didn’t appreciate being compared to meat: “Every time I hear that line, I want to burst,” she apparently stated.
They were both real actors — in support of, not in competition with, each other.
Although Paul Newman is definitely more of a “household name” today, Woodward was a fearless and committed actress in her own right, receiving four Oscar nominations and winning one long before her husband did. Her Academy Award was for The Three Faces of Eve in 1957, while he was nominated seven times (and lost) before finally winning for 1986’s The Color of Money. At the time of her win, Woodward made a cheeky consolation “Noscar” for her Oscar-less spouse.
In total, the pair worked on 16 films together. Sometimes they both starred, as in The Long, Hot Summer, Paris Blues, A New Kind of Love, and Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. Other times, she starred while he directed or produced, as in Rachel, Rachel, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, and The Glass Menagerie.
But the actors weren’t mere movie stars — they both got their start in theater and returned to the stage later in life. They met when 28-year-old Paul was making his Broadway debut in the play Picnic and Woodward (then 22) was an understudy. When Newman was in his late 70s, he portrayed the narrator in Our Town on Broadway, a production that got its start at the Westport Country Playhouse, where Woodward was artistic director.
They maintained separate interests.
In spite of their apparent togetherness, Woodward and Newman kept to their own hobbies throughout the marriage. Newman famously loved fast cars and took up race car driving after filming Winning in 1969, going on to compete in many professional racing events.
Of his wife’s supportive role in this endeavor, Newman said in a 2006 interview, “She has been patient beyond almost anything. She married an actor. She had no idea he’d spend his weekends at racetracks.” He apparently then showed off a sweet gift Woodward had given him: a Rolex with the words “Drive slowly” inscribed on the back.
Woodward, for her part, enjoyed much quieter interests: she loved books, ballet, and knitting, and was frequently photographed with knitting needles in hand. Instead of the Hollywood Hills, the couple settled down in an 18th century Westport, Connecticut farmhouse, as Woodward in particular wished to savor a private life and raise their three children out of the limelight.
They shared a passion for philanthropy.
The power couple was actively involved in a variety of charities. Most notable, of course, is Newsman’s Own Foundation, which directed profits from the sale of Newman’s Own foods to nonprofit organizations (you’ve no doubt seen the salad dressing, pasta sauce, and popcorn whose labels bear an illustration of Newman’s face). Nearly $600 million in profits (to date) from the sale of Newman’s Own products have been donated to benefit local, national, and global organizations.
Additionally, Newman founded the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for children with serious illnesses, while Woodward mentored young actors.
We should all be so lucky as to find a relationship like this one. Unfortunately, there’ll only ever be one Paul Newman — but all things considered, it sounds as though Paul was every bit as lucky as Joanne was. Check out the documentary on HBO Max now!