Ethan Hawke Joined the Austin Film Society for ‘Paul Newman’s West’ Series
The acclaimed Texan star paid homage to Paul Newman by sharing a selection of his most powerful performances
By Meher Qazilbash
Photos by Heather Leah Kennedy
Over this past weekend of March 24–26, AFS Cinema hosted a captivating series titled “Paul Newman’s West,” which consisted of five films highlighting Newman’s boundary-pushing work in the Western genre.
Ethan Hawke, the widely-known Austin-born actor, director, producer and writer presented each movie in the series. Hawke also co-curated the program with AFS’s Head of Film Holly Herrick, and participation from AFS Lead Film Programmer Lars Nilsen.
The five titles displayed in the series include The Left Handed Gun, Hombre, Hud, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and Buffalo Bill and the Indians. The chosen stories each showcased themes that are still relevant today, with Newman challenging the classic perception and archetype of the Western genre.
Hawke’s recent project The Last Movie Stars, is a six-part documentary from CNN Films and HBO Max (released in 2022) that chronicles the decades-long careers, philanthropy and relationship of icons Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Released in 2022, the television program features re-enacted interviews between the couple, archival footage and interviews with A-list actors and movie-makers. Academy Award-winning director, writer and producer Martin Scorsese serves as executive producer of the project.
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Using his extensive knowledge and research from creating the docuseries, Hawke introduced and provided context for each flick at the sold-out shows. The two screenings of Hombre and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean were followed by informative and lively Q&As between Hawke and Adam Piron, a writer, filmmaker and the Director of the Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program.
The fascinating discussion between Hawke and Piron explored the message of the films as well as their historic and cultural significance. The two spoke with glowing enthusiasm about the powerful stories and simultaneously navigated a nuanced conversation about the social issues in these classic movies.
During the post-Hombre discussion, Hawke shared that he unofficially subtitled the series “Paul Newman’s Personal War with John Wayne,” as Newman often starred in more progressive narratives.
“If Newman and that generation were taking the Western away from the John Waynes and Jimmy Stewarts … What are we doing with the Western now?” Hawke asked. “We have a few art forms that are American, and what are we doing with them? I wonder if this generation is going to be the generation to make a movie this good but actually have it star a guy with brown eyes.”
Piron and Hawke also spoke about the attempts by director Martin Ritt and Newman to service Indigenous communities in the picture’s messaging and performance.
“I think [Newman and Ritt] are talking to white people, and they’re having a very intelligent dialogue with white people and trying to wake them up at a place where they’re available to be woken up, from the inside,” said Hawke.
Piron added, with regards to one of the final scenes in Hombre, “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 to these people that are impoverished and very much kept out of sight, out of mind.”
The conversation following The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean explored Newman’s portrayal of the masculine identity in Westerns. Hawke said of audiences who saw the original released, “This is completely undermining the Westerns that a whole generation grew up watching; just bringing up, cavalierly, these huge political issues of the moment in a joking way, reminding everybody how disgusting so much of our past is.”
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Hawke, as a devout Newman fan, also elaborated on his understanding of Newman’s relationship to fame and celebrity as seen through the 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 [The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean] 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,'” explained Hawke. “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 … And in the later part of his career you feel the actor starting to make peace with who he is … 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 movies, and I both love that and am happy he later decided it was OK to be Paul Newman.”
For more special and thought-provoking programming like this series, visit AFS’s website to see future happenings.