Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, with the Oscar won by the actress for ‘The Three Faces of Eve’ (1958).
The starting price was one million dollars and it was finally sold for 15.5 million, the highest ever achieved at auction for a wristwatch. It belonged to Paul Newman and had been given to him by his wife, Joanne Woodward, with the inscription “drive carefully”. That is to say, it was not a watch, it was a symbol, the closest a mortal could get to the incorruptible love of the couple with the best photo album in history.
The documentary series The Last Movie Stars (HBO) by actor Ethan Hawke —not yet released in Spain— dedicates six chapters of one hour each to tell the true story of the most handsome man in the world and the wonderful actress with whom he shared more than half century. Through unpublished material, a hundred interviews with the couple, friends and colleagues —Newman, who intended to use them to write his memoirs, burned the tapes, but the transcripts survived—, in addition to talks with his children and grandchildren, Hawke achieves the most difficult yet: magnifying the legend. And he does it by bringing them down to earth, showing that their relationship was not perfect —because none of them is—, humanizing the last stars, as his friend Gore Vidal, a writer, called them.
Newman: “We pounced on each other, leaving a trail of lust everywhere: hotels, motels, public parks, bathrooms, rental cars, swimming pools and beaches”
It was the family that commissioned the documentary. Says one of her daughters, Melissa: “People think of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman and they think of the perfect marriage. To some extent, I feel guilty about dismantling that story because everyone needs those kinds of heroes, but at the same time, I think they deserve more credit. It was not easy, it was hard work, sometimes ugly. And that is precisely what triggers merit, what gives them, also off screen, the essential quality of good actors: authenticity.
They met in 1953 in the office of their common agent. “Up the stairs,” she recalls, “this ad creature appeared. He looked as if he had been kept on ice. And I hated him.” That first negative impression was quickly overcome. He says: “Orphans have a big appetite for everything. And we pounce on each other like orphans, leaving a trail of lust everywhere: hotels, motels, public parks, bathrooms, rental cars, swimming pools and beaches. Woodward, explains Gore Vidal (one of the interviewees, voiced by actor Brooks Ashmanskas), “came home saying that she had met the man she was going to marry. And he was already married!” The affair lasted five years until Newman divorced his wife, Jackie Witte —also interviewed—, with whom he had three children under the age of five. One of them, Stephanie, explains: “The divorce destroyed my mother. She wanted to be an actress and on top of that Joanne she got the Oscar!”. Because in the beginning, the star was, effectively, Woodward. Then everything changed. “I’m just a creature that she invented,” Newman declares, referring to her “sex icon” image.
They married in 1958 and had three children. Newman’s fame multiplied and the career of Woodward, now the mother of a large family, suffered. “They are all wonderful. I love them. But if I had to do it over again, I’m not sure she’d have kids,” she confesses in the documentary. Despite everything, Stephanie today has the name of her stepmother tattooed on her arm. “She was the one who made us a family,” her sister Melissa explains of her.
Woodward: “Every time the hamburger line comes up I want to kill. I am not a piece of meat!”
The marriage then interpreted an unfair and universal script: while she grew old and took care of the kids, he rose and became more interesting. “What is it like to be married to Paul Newman?” She was asked in interviews. A presenter addressed the public one day, in front of the actor: “Would you let him leave the house if you were his wife?” It was at that time when he pronounced a phrase that went down in the history of romanticism: “Why would I go out to eat a hamburger if I have steak at home?” She didn’t like it at all: “What a chauvinistic statement,” he explains in one of the documentary’s interviews (voiced by Laura Linney). “I’m not a piece of meat, for God’s sake. Every time that phrase comes out, I want to kill.”
They also overcame the terrible death, by overdose and at only 28 years of age, of Scott, Newman’s eldest son, —“Guilt will be with me until the day I die”—, and the actor’s alcoholism. Finding him on the ground one day with a gash in his forehead, Woodward took the girls and left home. He gave her an ultimatum: either the drink or them. Finally, they reached a pact: “Only beers.”
Paul Newman and his son Scott follow a car race in 1972. The actor’s eldest son died in November 1978, aged 28, of an overdose. Photo: Getty Images
The most beautiful man in the world was surprisingly very insecure. He doesn’t speak highly of himself throughout the documentary, where actor George Clooney voices transcripts of interviews his friend, screenwriter Stewart Stern, recorded for that memoir project. Woodward not only “invented” him as a sexual icon, he also taught him to love himself.
In 1983, on their 25th anniversary, after much difficulty, they renewed their vows and remarried. The text they both read says: “Happiness in marriage is not something that just happens. You have to create it. Cultivate patience, the ability to forgive and forget. Being together in front of the world”.
In 2007, Woodward was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and nine days later Newman with cancer. Before going to the hospital for the last time, he looked for one of those socks that Americans hang from the fireplace at Christmas and put his compass inside his wife’s, so that she would have a gift for the first holidays that they were not going to spend together in 50 years. By then he had burned the interview tapes. Paul Newman had grown tired of Paul Newman. Fortunately, his friend Stern had already transcribed everything.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1965. MGM / The Kobal Collection (The Picture Desk)
With them came the scandal
If that of Newman and Woodward was the story of exemplary love, despite the fact that it began in adultery, that of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton was that of scandal. They met when he was 28 and she was 20. “She was so extraordinarily beautiful that she almost laughed out loud on the spot. She was unquestionably gorgeous. In short, it was too much, and if that wasn’t enough, he completely ignored me,” he would say. “He kept flirting with me, but I refused to be another notch in her belt… How little she knew,” she would say.
They did not see each other again until nine years later, in Cleopatra. By then she had already been married four times: with Conrad Nicky Hilton Jr. —heir to the hotel chain—, at 18; with the English actor Michael Wilding, at 20; with producer Mike Todd at 25 —he died a few months later when his plane crashed, called Lucky Liz (Lucky Liz)— and with Eddie Fisher —Todd’s best friend and married to one of Taylor’s best friends, Debbie Reynolds— at 26. Scriptwriter Mario Parra, author of Romances de cine (Editorial Berenice), explains that the press began to accuse the actress of “home breaker” and he lost the series The Eddie Show that was broadcast on NBC. Shortly after, in 1960, she began filming Cleopatra and “sparks flew”.
Actress Elizabeth Taylor in ‘Cleopatra’ (1963), by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Taylor and Burton did not take off despite the fact that they were married to other people. “The Vatican”, recalls Parra, “eventually condemned the couple, accusing them of ‘erotic vagrancy’ and Fox tried to sue them for damages alleging that the extramarital affair and all the bad publicity it brought had a negative impact on the film, despite the fact that it ended up being the highest grossing of 1963″.
After two million-dollar divorces, they married in 1964. Burton gave her an emerald and diamond necklace valued at $150,000. The book also includes the history of La Peregrina, an impressive jewel gift from Felipe II to María Tudor in 1554: “Burton won it in a bid for 37,000 dollars to Alfonso de Borbón, who intended to return it to Spain. Upon losing the auction, the royal house, in a show of good Spanish losing, denied the authenticity of the pearl, proclaiming that the real one was in the possession of Queen Victoria Eugenia, a fact that was denied. The grave of the actress’s third husband, by the way, was desecrated in 1977 by thieves looking for the engagement ring that Taylor wanted to be buried with.
La Peregrina, by Elizabeth Taylor, at Christie’s in Madrid before being auctioned in New York.ÁLVARO GARCÍA
After the initial scare, the press fell in love with that explosive couple that, as Burton said, created “more commercial activity than many small African countries.” Then he started drinking – up to four bottles a day – and in 1973 the couple separated. In the summer of 1975, accompanied by their respective lovers, they met in Switzerland to settle the divorce, but instead decided to remarry. They lasted less than a year. Burton married another woman and Taylor married her number seven husband, John Warner, a Republican senator “who she quickly grew bored with,” Parra recalls. In 1982, she interrupted a Burton play by going up on stage to whisper to him in Welsh, “I love you.” The audience broke their hands applauding. The actor Gabriel Byrne would say: “The most theatrical and unforgettable moment I have ever seen on stage”. But it does not work. At one point Burton eloped to Las Vegas with one of her young assistants and married her. Taylor checked into a detox clinic.
At the end of the summer of 1984, shortly before he died, he said goodbye to her by phone with a “goodbye, love”. She was 58 years old. His widow forbade Taylor to attend her funeral. She respected her decision and waited to visit the grave. A few days later she received a letter from Burton. They hadn’t stopped writing to each other, not even when they were married to other people. As Joanne Woodward said: “No one understands the relationships of others. Only the two people involved know what keeps her going.” The two loves lasted, each in her own way, a lifetime.
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, in 1978. John Jay (CORDON PRESS)
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