Our Art, Our Lives: On ‘Salty’ and ‘The Last Movie Stars’

When we make our art, we are also making our lives. And I’m sure that the reverse is equally true.

That line is from Look & See, the beautiful documentary about the life and work of Wendell Berry.

I think about it often, and I thought about it again recently as I feasted on two pieces of art simultaneously: the limited documentary series The Last Movie Stars on HBO Max and Alissa Wilkinson’s new book Salty: Lessons on Eating, Drinking, and Living from Revolutionary Women.

In sync

Whenever I notice disparate works of art speaking to each other, I call it synchronicity. It’s one of my favorite things to write about because discovering new connections feels both satisfying and alluring.

The Last Movie Stars, which chronicles the lives, careers, and decades-long romance of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, offered a way into this synchronicity not through the series’ content but through its form. As director Ethan Hawke tells the stories of the two subjects, through clever editing he intercuts scenes from Newman’s or Woodward’s movies that speak directly or obliquely to whatever they were going through at the time in their lives.

Examples include contrasting Woodward’s real-life misgivings about being a mother with her performance in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds as an abusive, resentful mother (acting with her real-life daughter!). Or reckoning with Newman’s own struggle with alcoholism using boozy scenes from The Verdict—a performance inspired by director Sidney Lumet imploring Newman to reveal more of himself in it.

Newman touches on this paradigm explicitly during one archival interview used in the series:

Our characters rub off onto the actor. Probably one of the areas of great discontent is that they probably feel, as human beings, they are merely a series of, a collection of old characters that they played. I sometimes get that feeling about myself, that I have become a series of connectives between the parts of the characters that I really like. And I’ve strung them together into kind of a human being.

A salty symbiosis

That idea of one’s work and life feeding each other while building a kind of accretive self echoed in my mind as I read Salty, Wilkinson’s collection of biographical essays spotlighting nine notable 20th century women who comprise her ideal (if hypothetical) dinner party.

Whether they were writers (Hannah Arendt, Octavia Butler, Maya Angelou), artists (Agnes Varda), activists (Ella Baker), or cooks (Enda Lewis, Elizabeth David, Laurie Colwin), all of them used what they learned in their work and lives to inform—and, ideally, improve—the other:

  • Chef Edna Lewis bringing black Southern cooking to 1960s New York and then beyond with The Taste of Country Cooking
  • Filmmaker Agnes Varda translating her fascination with the ordinary into cinematic curiosities
  • Civil-rights activist Ella Baker practicing communal hospitality as a catalyst for social change and empowerment

These women weren’t movie stars like Newman and Woodward, but their lives were still reflected in their work. They too—to toss a metaphorical salad—were pulling from the strung-together assemblage of old characters they played throughout their lives, making meals with the ingredients available to them.

And that’s all we can do, really. Per Wendell Berry, we make our lives and art concurrently, whether we know it or not.

My compliments to Alissa Wilkinson and Ethan Hawke for the meals they’ve created in these works of art, which are infused with moments and lessons from their own lives that made them all the richer.

One response to “Our Art, Our Lives: On ‘Salty’ and ‘The Last Movie Stars’”

  1. […] The Last Movie Stars. A documentary miniseries about fame, love, art, and work. […]