Lucky local cinephiles enjoyed a uniquely Austin experience this week at a special series hosted by the Austin Film Society. Taking place March 24-26 at the AFS Cinema, the program featured five Westerns featuring Paul Newman. Austin-born actor Ethan Hawke introduced each film in the series, adding context from Newman's life based on research he did for his recent HBO docuseries, The Last Movie Stars.
Hawke co-curated the series with AFS Head of Film Holly Herrick, with participation from AFS Lead Film Programmer Lars Nilsen. The five films in the program included: The Left Handed Gun, Hombre, Hud, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean,and Buffalo Bill and the Indians. With the exception of Buffalo Bill and the Indians, the films were shown in 35mm for an extra dose of nostalgia.
Giving the series the unofficial subtitle of "Paul Newman's Personal War with John Wayne," Hawke framed Newman's performances as substitutes for the previously established archetypes of earlier Westerns. Whereas Wayne's Westerns played into mythological portrayals of the American frontier, Newman's Westerns present more anti-heroic characters. Most of the films — if not all five — were neither box office successes nor critically acclaimed, but each one pushed the boundaries of its genre to present timeless elements audiences can still enjoy today.
After screenings of Hombre (March 25) and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (March 26), Hawke joined Adam Piron (Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma and Mohawk), Director of the Sundance Institute's Indigenous Program, for deep dives on each film. The discussions gave viewers the chance to hear even more about Hawke's research in his recent docuseries and engage with some of the more difficult themes in the films.
For Hombre, the pair touched on how they felt Newman and director Martin Ritt's work on the film was an attempt to change cultural conversations around Indigenous communities. Hawke said, "I think [Newman and Ritt] are talking to white people ... and trying to wake them up at a place where they're available to be woken up, from the inside." With regards to one of the film's final scenes,Piron added: "It's Newman and Ritt's way of saying — in terms of a larger history of American genocide with Indigenous people — we have to give back what's of value that we've taken... "
Following The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, the pair explored Newman's portrayal of the masculine identity in Westerns. Referring to the film's cast and director John Huston, Hawke said, "These are some of the most macho guys you can imagine, and so you're like, do they even get the joke? We're not sure. They must; there's a certain intelligence to everything John Huston did."
Hawke also elaborated on Newman's relationship to fame and celebrity as seen through his performances in the Westerns chosen for the series: "There's this thing about celebrity that puts you in a glass box … One of the reasons why I like Newman in this movie is because it's him tapping with a hammer really hard on that box going, 'I'm not Paul Newman. I am a human being, and I'm going to be weird.' ... If you're not an actor, you don't know the pressure that gets put on performers to play into their mythology … That's why I love him, and that's why I care about him, care about his work, is because he's constantly breaking out of it … "
Through his research, Hawke said you can see Newman start making peace with that celebrity status in the latter part of his career: "He starts to allow himself to play likable characters again, and I find that kinda touching too in a personal way. He's really resisting being Paul Newman in these [Westerns], and I both love that and am happy he later decided it was OK to be Paul Newman."
Austinites who missed the series can still dive into Newman's career in The Last Movie Stars: Directed by Hawke, the six-part documentary on HBO chronicles Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s iconic careers and decades-long partnership.