If you ever find yourself wondering why Paul Leonard Newman, a kid from Ohio born in 1925, is an American icon, you should rent two old movies: The Hustler (1961) and Hud (1963). I realize that some folks think Cool Hand Luke (1967) is the best thing he ever did, but I like Newman better in black and white, where those blue, blue eyes don't get in the way. He doesn't need them.
In this film, Hud Bannon is now 34 years old and has made quite a name for himself in this rambling corner of Texas where his dad owns a cattle ranch. The movie opens with his nephew, Lonnie, looking for his uncle after a particularly roguish night. Lonnie already knows quite a bit about Hud, but he learns more and more each day. The mystique is strong. You see, Lonnie's never been laid, and he's older and better looking than he probably should be for this to be the case.
What makes this movie even more special for me, after seeing it again the other afternoon, is how perfectly it portrays the attitude that made someone like me (along with thousands of others in a life that seems so very long ago) think that apathy and anarchy could be a viable way of life. Maybe if you're thinking that same thought right now, you should rent Hud and watch it. It doesn't have any car chases and there's no foul language and it's in black and white. I guess I've already talked you out of it, haven't I? That's too bad, because you won't find a better movie about how we got to "here" from "there," and "there" was not all that long ago.
The "there" is represented by Hud's dad, Homer Bannon, a respectable rancher, played by Melvyn Douglas. Douglas won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Mr. Douglas was born Melvyn Edouard Hesselberg in Macon, Georgia, in 1901. He lived to be 80 years old, but he was only 62 when Hud was made. His portrayal of a gentleman is damn near perfect. He abides Hud, but his full focus is on Lonnie. The reasons for this become evident during the movie, but the point is that he's given up on Hud as a lost cause. We find out that the reason is solid as the drama plays itself out. I don't want to spoil any of this for you if you're the young apathetic anarchist who might need to see this for the very first time.
The photography is stunning. I doubt Texas has ever been captured better in black and white. James Wong Howe did the cinematography in Panavision. He also won an Oscar for his work on this one. Howe was born two years before Douglas, in 1899, but a long way from Macon, GA. He was born in Canton, China. He lived to be 77. When he was 17, he was a slate boy for Cecil B. DeMille. Do you like these little tidbits? I find them fascinating, but I apologize if I'm boring you.
The nephew, Lonnie, is played by Brandon DeWilde. This is the kid who played Joey in Shane, and there are several folks who think Hud and Shane are the two best movies from this entire period. Coincidence? DeWilde could have used this role to show that he could do other things besides be the "child actor," but he died in an automobile accident at age 30, before he had a chance to find out. Fate?
The Director is Martin Ritt who also did Norma Rae and Murphy's Romance, and the screenplay is taken from the Larry McMurtry novel, Horseman Pass By. Ritt had worked with Newman before, in The Long Hot Summer back in 1958. That's a pretty damn good movie, too, if you've never seen it. It's a William Faulkner story. How many authors who will be remembered in a thousand years do you think are writing for the movies these days? Oh, that guy who wrote the new Men In Black II, for sure. But who else? Anyway, Ritt had been all set to study law at St. John's before he met Elia Kazan, who convinced him to try his hand at the theater. Unfortunately, he got involved with the Communist party (see how all this is leading back to anarchy?) and this got him blacklisted in Movieland for a while. He began teaching in the Actor's Workshop and some of his students included Paul Newman, Rod Steiger, and Lee Remick. He was born in 1914 and died in 1990. He got his one and only Oscar nomination for Hud.
Patricia Neal accepted the role of the live-in housekeeper, Alma. It was pretty gutsy for her to do so, because she's obviously a bit over-the-hill by this point in her life. She's got the Earth Mother goddess thing going for her, and this was the beginning of the hippie generation. So, in retrospect, I guess it's perfect. In one of the most precise moments in the film, when Homer tells his grandson Lonnie that women "like to be around dangerous men," Alma leans into the shot. Hud, of course, is over in the corner getting drunk so very early in the afternoon. Alma tells Hud at one point, "I done my time with one cold-blooded bastard," she says. "I'm not looking for another." She won an Oscar for Best Actress for her role in this movie.
The screenplay was also nominated for an Oscar. But guess what was not even in the running? You got it. Hud's snub for Best Picture is often seen as one of the biggest fuck-ups in Hollywood. When you see Paul Newman getting an Oscar for that godawful piece of crap, The Color of Money, they are just trying to cover their asses for overlooking Hud, cruising in his Pink Cadillac with the top down and all that dust flying around. By the way, Newman lost the Best Actor Oscar that year to Sidney Poitier for his work in Lilies of the Field.
The feel of Hud reminds me of Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show. They both deal with a small town in Texas which is about to fall crashing into the 1960s, like it or not. The music of the 60s is not found in Hud. Lonnie likes to listen to his transistor radio whenever he gets a chance, but the adults are always telling him to turn it off, even though what he's listening to should appeal to them as well. It's the country music that is bleeding from the juke boxes wherever Hud winds up. Elmer Bernstein did the score for the movie. Some of Bernstein's other work includes Walk On The Wild Side, Love With the Proper Stranger, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Sons of Katie Elder, and Baby, the Rain Must Fall.
If you watch this movie for the first time, or if you watch it again after many years, pay attention to one pivotal scene. When the ultimate confrontation occurs between Hud and his dad and we find out just exactly what a man is made of and what Hud is made of, watch what Newman does with that scene. His dad is dead serious and winds up with the line, "You're an unprincipled man, Hud." You'd think that this would take the air out of any soaring balloon of pompous self-righteousness, but Hud still holds his unprincipled ground. The thing that's amazing about this scene is how Newman plays it: His lip and mouth are quivering in some fantastic way to show just how much he (and we) know that he's on shaky ground with all this hyperbole. His fancy bullshit has finally been outed and we know who's who and what's what. He's weak and he knows how small he is when push comes to shove with his dad. It's a sad reminder of all the times you started blaming shit on someone else while you rationalized the "greater good." It was only your "good," but it made sense, didn't it? This film tells you everything you need to know about how we got from "there" to "here." And "here" is very dicey spot. It's only a few steps more down this street to Alex and his droogies carving your ass up for fun, and you thinking, "Well, boys will be boys." I blame Dr. Spock, myself, and I'm glad I was one of the last kids in America to get the shit beat out of him when he needed it.
I'd be writing this from prison, otherwise.
In his own perfect fashion, Hud gives us his outlook on life:
"The world's so full of crap a man's going to get into it sooner or later, whether he's careful or not."
As they say, wish and it will come true.