From Paramount Pictures
Directed by Martin Ritt
Brandon de Wilde
It's so curious how little I have written about Paul Newman considering he is one of four of my favorite American actors. I have written about the other three, William Holden, Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck. There is simply so much one could say about Newman that I would almost not know where to begin. Almost. But I will get to it one day. It will come in several postings and soon there will be a discussion of his films of the 1960s.
So far, I believe, the only time I've gotten into anything at all was in reviewing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, my favorite Newman movie but here we have Hud, which comes in second in my ranking. But first, second, 12 or 66, it's really difficult to pin down his best roles, to a degree, because he never really turned in a bad performance. And let's be candid, some of his roles are iconic. Like Hud.
Hud was thisclose to making my 50 Favorite Films list and perhaps it didn't, in the long run, because it's a downer. But once said, it is an absolute shoo-in for my Notable 60 Films because of its stunning acting and writing. Hud, the man, was a complete loser (there are stronger, more preferable words, to describe him but I'm trying to be a gentleman of sorts here).
The novel from which Hud was based, Horseman, Pass By, was penned by western writer, Larry McMurtry (who would one day co-write the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain). It would be turned over to the husband and wife team of Irving Ratech and Harriet Frank Jr. (who breathed movie life into William Faulkner's The Long, Hot Summer and The Sound and the Fury). It was considered bold of them to write a character with seemingly no redeeming qualities. Who would want to act such a role and would the public stay away once word of mouth spread about what a snake he was and the general downbeat tone?
But director Martin Ritt knew Newman would be perfect for the part because they knew one another well from just doing three consecutive movies together (The Long, Hot Summer, Paris Blues and Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man) and would do two more in the near future, The Outrage and Hombre. Oddly enough, none of those films was a major success. There were high hopes for Hud because of the superb writing and because it was a part Newman was born to play.
The two years' earlier The Hustler and now Hud would be Newman's one-two punch for knocking the sexy loner out of the ballpark. These two films did more, perhaps, to establish Newman's early acting reputation than any others, which included a mess of Oscar nominations that didn't turn into wins. The Hustler and Hud also started the rather acclaimed "H" quartet of films which would soon include Hombre and Harper.
There was concern that the natural Newman charm would get in the way of playing such a lowlife. It was said that Hud was into booze, broads and brawling. He lived for joyrides in his Caddy convertible looking for action. Women were preferable but punching out some dude was fine, too. He was a drunk, rude, debauched, unregenerate, selfish, corrupt and misanthropic. Or as I would like to add, a well-written, flesh and blood character.
His lubricious manner masked a deeply-held inferiority complex, a well of guilt over his involvement in his brother's death and a bitter regard for how life had turned out. (That bitterness is shared in other ways by his father and the housekeeper. The nephew is the only possible ray of sunshine in the whole affair.) Turning to drink and rampant sex was about the only ways he could stand himself. He would have been the type of sex partner who was in it only for himself. His selfishness would give way to a lot of unhappy ladies... that is, until the next time he was on the prowl.
When he tries to come on to the housekeeper, Alma, she says I've done time with one cold-blooded bastard. I'm not looking for another. He will respond at one point with Honey, don't go shootin' all the dogs cause one of them's got fleas. Still later, dogging her in her little house in back of the main dwelling, he says... you're good at housekeeping, you're a good cook. You're a good laundress. What else you good at?
I just watched the film, all the while looking for any redeeming feature Hud, the man, might have. And I swear the only one I came up with is at least he knew he was a bum. Redemption, if it ever would come, would start there. Newman said that character came to me a lot easier than some of the others.
In case you're one of six people who haven't seen it, it is about four people living on a cattle ranch in the Texas Panhandle. In addition to Hud, it includes his father, Homer, a nephew, Lon, and Alma. Right at the beginning of the film we learn that the herd of cattle could have hoof and mouth disease. If they do have it, they will have to be destroyed, although Hud prefers that they are quickly sold off to unsuspecting neighbors. Against this backdrop is the dynamic of the four characters. It would appear no one truly likes Hud, and indeed, there's not much to like. However, Lon, at 17, idolizes his uncle.
Homer has a lot of starch. He is Hud's nemesis, his conscience. Highly principled, he can speak rather eloquently when it's required, but he is too rigid, a privilege of old age, and he is embittered because, like his son, life had not really worked out as he'd wanted.
Take a quick look at a clip from the film's best scene, the type I live for in a film-- gutsy conflict. When seen in the context of the entire movie, it gave me goosebumps.
Melvyn Douglas, only the year before, had returned to the screen after a lengthy absence, no longer the romantic lead opposite Garbo, Loy and Crawford. He had entered his senior period and a whole new career opened for him. Aged to play a man older than the actor's 61 years, he would rightfully win a supporting Oscar for Hud and a few years later another win for Being There.
Patricia Neal would also win an Oscar, for best actress, as the languid, weary woman, who like Hud and Homer, was also disappointed in life. She was likely more defeated in her love life. She nailed Alma in her slow movements and speech patterns, a woman who finds fun an effort but tries real hard to hold on to her dignity. She was respectful and obedient with the old man, a loving mother to Lon and was likely attracted to Hud physically but repelled by him in every other way. It was a lovely performance.
Brandon de Wilde's part wasn't as showy as the other three but it was a necessary one and the actor turned in one of his best performances in a short career. Lon was torn between his idolatry for his amoral uncle and the respect and tender caring for his grandfather. It is Lon who stops Hud from raping Alma and sets in motion the end of the powerful story.
I always thought it brave of Newman to accept this role... an essentially weak man, morally bankrupt, thoroughly unpleasant. It was the kind of role an actor would need a few years to dig out from under but not Newman. One could never really quite dismiss the actor's immense charm. I was a bit horrified that he didn't win the Oscar and that his Paris Blues costar Sidney Poitier did. Don't get me wrong. I have gone on record saying what a great actor I regard Poitier to be but I didn't find his role as a laborer to nuns in Lilies of the Field to be nearly as complex, nearly as much of a stretch, as Newman's Hud.
Another Oscar winner was James Wong Howe for his breathtaking cinematography. His black and white photography completely captured the desolation, loneliness and unforgiving nature of the Texas Panhandle and totally put the audience member right there.
Hud was a box-office smash. It was nominated for seven Oscars and won three. It is one of the movies' best portrayals of a heal, an antihero. It did a lot for the careers of Ritt and its four stars. It did a lot for me, too.