In the third episode of The last movie stars Ethan Hawke‘s excited docuseries about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, there is a long segment devoted to: Rachel, Rachel. Directed by Newman and starring Woodward, the 1968 drama tells the story of a lonely schoolteacher who is disenchanted with life and longs for a transformation of her world. In the arc of Newman’s career, the quiet indie was an oddity; he just played in cool hand Luke, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was around the corner. It was also a surprising turn of events for Woodward, whose career had cooled down as she focused on raising their six children. But, like The last movie stars points out that the film is a powerful symbol of Woodward and Newman’s dynamism, not just serving as a forgotten predecessor of the kind of run-and-gun indies created by director-actor pairings like John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, but also as an emblem of the beauty and difficulty of their marriage. Of the 16 films Newman and Woodward worked on together, Rachel, Rachel is perhaps the most essential of all.
Woodward had wanted to make the film for years. Based on the novel by Margaret Laurence a joke from God, the script was written by screenwriter Stewart Stern, who was friends with the couple. The story was simple, yet emotionally rich, following the lead of Rachel, a 35-year-old woman who lived at home with her mother. She is a shy spinster with no romantic prospects and no hope that her life will ever change. “I’m right in the middle of my life,” Rachel complains. “This is my last ascending summer. Everything else just rolls downhill into my grave from now on.”
As The last movie stars makes it clear that the decade leading up to this film was an era of great transformation for Newman and Woodward, who were married in Las Vegas in 1958. Woodward was originally the bigger, more acclaimed star, winning an Oscar for his role in The three faces of Eva just months before their wedding. In the years that followed, the duo co-starred in well-received films such as The long hot summer and Parisian Blues, polishing their reputation as Hollywood’s golden couple. At that time, Woodward and Newman had three children in quick succession. Woodward also became the stepmother to Newman’s three children from his previous relationship with Jackie Witte, making an extraordinary effort to blend the families; The last movie stars does everything it can to highlight this, including interviews with Woodward’s stepchildren, all of whom praise her dynamic upbringing.
During that time, Woodward’s career slowed — and Newman’s exploded. In just a few years, he went from playing second fiddle to James Dean and Marlon Brando to one of the defining leading men of his generation; a 10-time Oscar nominee, also for appearances in films such as Hat and cool hand Luke and a wink to the best photo for Rachel, Rachel; and a powerful sex symbol known around the world for his icy look. Woodward took this to heart and mocked her husband when asked about his success in interviews. (“He’s got a pretty face, so maybe he’ll make it,” she once joked.) The big equalizer in their relationship was the fact that, despite his massive success, Newman found Woodward to be the superior actor, according to daughter Lisa Newman.
“[Woodward] knew that her husband, who was really famous, deeply believed that she was a much better actor than she was,” Lissy said in the docuseries. “And he did a lot to prove it. He adored her as an artist.”
Around the time of making cool hand Luke, Newman had become interested in bringing good scripts to the screen even though there was no part for him. Enter Rachel, Rachel. He and Woodward teamed up to produce it, but found it difficult to gain industry support, even though Newman had just come out of one of the most iconic films of his career. Even with all that power, a sensitive drama about a woman’s midlife crisis was — and still is — a hard sell in Hollywood. So Newman and Woodward put their own money into the budget, and Newman decided to direct it himself, to “serve his love for his favorite actor”, Hawke. told TCM.
The resulting film is poignant and quietly devastating, a portrait of a woman struggling to find joy. Rachel goes to school, teaches her students and then comes home to take care of her mother. She is weighed down by the slump in a small town, often crying alone in her room or staring at the ceiling as her punitive inner voice reminds her how worthless she is. There are flashes of potential for change: a flirtatious reunion with an old high school classmate, a trip to an experimental church. And through it all, there are wild fantasies and revealing flashbacks, showing how Rachel’s strict upbringing shaped her worldview.
Woodward is, simply put, amazing at it. She plays Rachel to devastating effect, tapping into the character’s deep grief. From the moment she appears on screen and almost mumbles Rachel’s depressing narration, the film’s simple plot develops serious seriousness. But she doesn’t spend all of her screen time wandering and grumbling. The film features demanding scenes, including one in which Rachel has a massive meltdown during a church service, crying and screaming among the congregation members. But it’s a testament to Woodward’s talent that some of the film’s most compelling moments are the quieter ones, with Rachel reflecting on what her life has become.
Nearly six decades later, Rachel, Rachel feels surprisingly contemporary and raw, worthy of conversation with movies like Wanda and A woman under the influence. Rachel, Rachel, should also be noted, came out before both films and served as a precursor to two works that would represent the era’s bold indie that focused on stories about complicated women. If Hawke and Martin Scorsese, which Newman directed in the color of money, pointing in the docuseries, Rachel, Rachel should be considered a pivotal turning point in American independent cinema.