The Six Episodes of A Real Marriage of Movie Icons Paul Newman and JoAnn Woodward Will Provide Insight That Can Improve Your Own Relationship

As a family court judge, I served to dissolve tens of thousands of marriages over twenty years. Ethan Hawke (I had heard of him but knew little of his talents) shows us, in six episodes streaming on HBO Max, “The Last Movie Stars,” a documentary of a real long term marriage of fifty years that survived.  That the marriage was of movie icons Paul Newman and JoAnn Woodward, about whom we Boomers think we know everything, keeps us riveted as the truth of their intimacy is revealed. It is well worth a subscription to HBO Max.

In the six episodes, one sees again and again the effort, the trauma, the difficulty, and hardship of two individuals coming together and staying together for fifty years. In the end, this outstanding production shows why it was worth it.  It shows us that having a deep relationship, sharing memories and life, and surviving long years with another human being is worth it.

We see those created memories in pieces of sixteen films that JoAnn Woodward and Paul Newman made together, family videos, their children’s and grandchildren’s recollections, and in their own words from actual transcripts of their story voiced by George Clooney and Laura Linney.

At points in the commentary in which Ethan Hawke directs the discussion, I heard what I had shared with couples over twenty years as a family court judge.  In the series, first, a concept I believe in, you clearly see that their marriage survived because they respected each other and that there are three separate entities in a marriage: each spouse and the marital relationship.  Each must be nurtured. They admit they had no hobbies in common in their marriage, and allowed the other space to be an individual.

Their marriage survived after they saw each other through lustful lenses as two young people and learned they were not the people they saw through those rose-colored glasses.

Their marriage survived the loss of Paul Newman’s son to a drug and alcohol overdose. The trauma of the loss of a child destroys many individuals and marriages and you see this one surviving it.

Their marriage survived Paul Newman’s alcoholism and the toll it took on him and JoAnn Woodward and the family.

Their marriage survived JoAnn Woodward’s lifelong disappointment of the loss of her career and accomplishments and fame to raise the children.

Their marriage survived the roller coaster of fame, their professional wins and losses, hers first, then his, and the professional jealousy of two who wanted the same professional goal but only one succeeded.

Their marriage survived the foibles of each person, the insecurities, the selfishness, rumored  infidelity, and disappointments  in themselves and each other and in the marriage.

I just reread the list of what the six episodes showed I identified that they survived, and I am sure I left something out.  I know thousands of marriages that did not survive even one of these hardships.

Near the end of my professional career, I began to lecture about what I had learned as a family court judge.  See one at this YouTube link

Here is what I learned from my professional experience.

True, JoAnn Woodward and Paul Newman had fame and fortune, but fame and fortune do not necessarily bring happiness.

So, did they have happiness? It depends on how one perceives happiness.  They persevered and, in that perseverance, had successes and pure moments of happiness that it is a pleasure to watch when they occur.  They fought for those moments, those memories.  I learned that in a good marriage one is happy 70% of the time.

They were a team that did not consider divorce as an option, and you see the couple’s commitment to each other and the marital relationship.  Commitment is a key for a marriage to survive long years.

As a family court judge, I wrote a two volume book, “Florida Family Law & Practice,” for professionals on how to make divorce a last resort.  I explained the emotional stages of divorce and when the marriage could be saved and how.  JoAnn Woodward and Paul Newman knew and lived the denial, the depression, the anger, the sadness, the adult adolescence.  They overcame each of those stages and kept moving forward together.

Maintaining intimacy is the other key for a marriage to survive long years and it is hard to maintain intimacy.  Their interviewed adult children say, “they were hot for each other.” JoAnn Woodward and Paul Newman had lust as young newlyweds, which JoAnn Woodward and Paul Newman both show they did not really know what love was.  Love grew.  Most important, they maintained intimacy and when they were in danger of losing it, they rekindled it.

Life interferes with intimacy.  Intimacy is the first to diminish, even in a love marriage.  Intimacy must be nurtured for a marriage to ultimately succeed.  I recommend that couples to make it a priority to go away quarterly, for twenty-four hours, out of their house, away from their responsibilities, worries, hardships, children, electronics.  If they cannot afford anything, camp out in a tent.  Just each other.  To reminisce about the good times, the good memories, what gives them joy together.  If the marriage is in one of the inevitable rough patches, going once a month for six months, and attending marriage counseling for at least three months is a recipe for potential survival and success of the marriage. Repeat the intense intervention as necessary throughout the marriage. This is how, as a family court judge, I believe I helped to strengthen, improve, and save some marriages worth saving (domestic violence is a dealbreaker).

We grandparents owe a duty to our grandchildren to keep their parents’ marriage strong and watch the grandchildren and/or contribute financially, if possible, to make this respite from life happen for twenty-four hours quarterly.

Notice how little I say love.

It is not surprising that the last episode is mesmerizing.  It shows what JoAnn Woodward and Paul Newman reaped from their long years together, the ultimate worthwhile reward of such closeness of two individuals who tried to support each other through thick and thin, experiences and memories of a team that survived fifty years and relished in the joys of that survival.

And the joy of grandchildren.  We see JoAnn Woodward and Paul Newman creating memories with their grandchildren.  JoAnn Woodward reflected on the importance and joy of undivided hours with grandchildren, and having the time to do so in this point in our years. We hear from their grandchildren, who recall the memories of their beloved grandparents. 

Sharing the joy of grandchildren with someone with whom you have made the shared memories of a long full life together is a reward and joy of a long marriage. You don’t know that until it happens.  You don’t know that in the intervening years. A good long term marriage is worth it.

Everything you see in the six episodes, the good, the, bad, and the ugly is the good fifty year marriage between JoAnn Woodward and Paul Newman.

And, they are not bad to look at either.

Joy,

Mema

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