WHEN YOU THINK of romance on the silver screen, it’s likely that Ethan Hawke springs to mind. The actor, director, writer, and producer has starred in some of the most enduring love stories on film. But he isn’t one for saccharine rom-coms; in nearly all of his leading-man roles, Hawke has shown audiences the unvarnished truth about love — it’s messy, it hurts, and still, it’s worth it. He first won hearts as Troy Dyer, a kind of Holden Caulfield for the slacker age, in the 1994 film “Reality Bites,” directed by Ben Stiller. From “Great Expectations” to “Maggie’s Plan,” he continued to feature in many romances across stage and screen. But he is perhaps best known for the Before Trilogy: “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” and “Before Midnight,” three films about the two-decade arc of a couple’s relationship, made with Richard Linklater and Julie Delpy. The raw real-life dialogue in those films, and the brilliant treatment of a core question animating our lives — can passion last? — have entered them into the pantheon of great love stories.
Now Hawke is set to release “The Last Movie Stars,” a six-part documentary series on the 50-year love story between Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, which will air on CNN+ later this year. Like so many of Hawke’s undertakings, the series, executive produced by Martin Scorsese and produced by Ryan Hawke, is an homage to the chaos, challenges, rewards, and ineffable beauty of the thing we call love.
To celebrate February, we sat down with Hawke to hear about some of his favorite love stories on film and why they endure. Here is the actor in his own words.
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Mr. & Mrs. Bridge
I’ve seen about a million and a half movies in my life that deal with young love and first love and heartbreak — movies that end with people getting married, or begin with people getting married and end with them getting divorced. But there are so few movies made about two older people who love each other immensely, who’ve spent their lives together. There are few that attempt to deal with the nuance and details of a lifelong relationship and how complicated it is, how rich and full and empty and just multidimensional a relationship that spans multiple decades can be.
There’s something special about watching Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who met as understudies in 1954, doing their final film together. They made around 16 movies together and this was the last time they acted together. It was Joanne’s idea to make the movie. She loved the novels — it’s based on two novels by Evan S. Connell, “Mr. Bridge” and “Mrs. Bridge” — and I think after seeing “Room with a View” or “The Remains of the Day,” those kinds of Merchant Ivory productions, she approached Jim Ivory to see if he would direct it.
It’s a movie that’s about absolutely nothing and everything at the same time. It’s a portrait of a failed marriage or a successful marriage, depending on how you look at it. I’ve heard Martin Scorsese call this film a masterpiece and I really agree. It’s a movie that should have been impossible to make. Nothing happens in it, except a lifetime.
Both of their performances are remarkable, hers especially so. I would say it’s one of the greatest love stories ever made. It doesn’t do it justice to call it that because that makes it sound like some kind of Valentine’s Day thing, and it’s so much more complex than that. It’s a movie that you will not regret watching.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
I saw the film “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” when I was a senior in high school. I was about 18 years old. First off, I fell in love with Juliette Binoche. Second, I discovered for the first time what a remarkable actor Daniel Day-Lewis is. The director, Phil Kaufman, had done “The Right Stuff,” which is another one of my all-time favorite movies. But this one manages to capture the novel, by the Czech writer Milan Kundera, in a way that you just think is impossible.
I remember seeing this movie twice. They used to do “Tuesdays for Two,” so for two bucks you could see a movie on a Tuesday evening. I went several weeks in a row, trying to bring any girl who would go with me, because I just wanted to fall in love like the characters did.
The movie manages to accomplish the fantasy we all have of never letting love die by simply dying together, which is kind of depressing [laughs], but the way it’s presented in the film makes it kind of feel like a miracle. I remember there’s a moment in the movie where Daniel Day-Lewis goes up to Juliette Binoche and hands her a note that says “Take off your clothes.” What follows is worth watching. That really burned a hole in my head, so senior year I went to the prom and I had this mad crush on a young woman all through high school. She always had a boyfriend and he was Mr. Popular, captain of every sports team, you know — I thought I had no chance. But on a whim, I walked up to her at the prom and I handed her a note that said “Take off your clothes.” And [laughs] the evening went very well. I’m forever grateful to that film.
If I had to pick my favorite movie of all time, I think it would have to be “Reds.” It was made in 1981, at the height of anti-Communist feeling in this country, about the only American buried in Red Square: John Reed, who wrote “Ten Days That Shook the World.” He’s incredible and his love affair with Louise Bryant is the stuff that legends are made of.
They lived out in Croton-on-Hudson, and they had a wild love affair with Eugene O'Neill. John Reed and Eugene O’Neill were friends and Louise Bryant had an affair with both of them. So to watch Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson go toe-to-toe for the love of Diane Keaton is pretty thrilling. Jack Nicholson gives one of his all-time greatest performances in the supporting role. And for Warren Beatty — this is his masterpiece. Anyone who rolls their eyes at Warren Beatty, if they ever do, they need to see “Reds.” Sondheim did some of the music. It’s written by Elaine May. Vittorio Storaro shot it. It’s just a flat-out reason-to-live great film. I just can’t say enough about it.
“Paris, Texas” is Wim Wenders’ masterpiece. It’s written by Sam Shepard and stars Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski. It’s kind of classic Shepard terrain, but seen through the eyes of Wim Wenders, who’s more of a poet-scientist than a filmmaker. The way the camera just adores both the characters and the landscape, the way it celebrates both the language and the performances, it’s like a small miracle of a film. Ry Cooder does the score and it’s one of the most magnificent scores ever.
I blame this film for a lot of my personal hang-ups. I saw it when I was really young and I can’t imagine it’s a good movie for a young man to see. I mean, Harry Dean Stanton is hardly a hero; he’s ravaged by years of alcohol abuse and running away from intimacy, and yet, Nastassja Kinski — who’s, you know, competing with Helen of Troy for the most beautiful woman in the world — is madly in love with this disaster of a man. Prompting in the brain of the young man an enumeration of the benefits of being an emotional wreck. You know, there’s the idea that somehow that will make the Nastassja Kinskis of the world love you. I have not found that to be true, but I have found the movie worth revisiting over and over throughout my life. There isn’t a wasted frame in the film. And, while I don’t think this says anything positive about me, I just find it one of the most romantic films I’ve ever seen.
Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of "Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls." Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.