Bucket List Movie #444: Hud (1963)
Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire. You're just going to have to make up your own mind one day about what's right and wrong.~ Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas), Hud.
Society loves its bad boys, doesn’t it? Certainly in fiction: The Phantom of the Opera, Rochester from Jane Eyre, Stanley from A Streetcar Named Desire, Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Don Draper from Mad Men, just to name a few. They all have the same qualities: brooding, above the rules, tragic pasts, there’s something about “bad boys” that appeal to men and women alike. To men, they can live out their rebellious fantasies through them, to do whatever the hell they want without repercussions. Women love them because they stir our latent, primordial nurturing instincts and we think our love can change them for the better. And, let's be honest, there's something appealing about a rebel, but there are always exceptions. For instance, I consider General George S. Patton a rebel, but he's never lauded in quite the same way. I guess he loses points because he wasn't good-looking or mysterious.
Frankly, I’m sick to my eyeballs of bad boys. Just look at the phrase itself: bad boys! I’m sorry, but “bad” is a deal breaker for me. Just look at the examples I've listed above: we have, respectively, a child predator/torturer/kidnapper, a potential bigamist who locked away his first wife like a circus animal, a brutish rapist, a sociopathic murderer, and a lying, philandering, boozing, gaslighting, negligent, narcissistic identity thief and war deserter. As a woman, it’s a little embarrassing hearing about how another of my fellow females goes through crappy relationship after crappy relationship with loser after loser but still proclaims her love for "bad boys" while lamenting her unlucky love life. The dearly departed comic Bill Hicks said it best:
"I tell you, Satan's gonna have no trouble taking over here 'cause all the women are gonna say: 'What a cute butt.' 'He's Satan!' 'You don't know him like I do.' 'He's the Prince of Darkness!' 'I can change him.'"
This quote is also used on the TV Tropes page for a particular trope that drives me up the wall: Draco in Leather Pants, in which a jerky or just plain evil fictional character is inexplicably romanticized by fans. For example, I've seen more than one person on message boards proclaim that Gaston from Beauty and the Beast is a misunderstood hero, and that Belle was just a snotty bitch who should have given him a chance. Make of that what you will.
Today's BLM, 1963's Hud, thankfully refuses to lionize its titular bad boy protagonist. Unfortunately, when he's played by Paul Newman, easily one of the most beautiful actors to ever grace celluloid with his presence, the Draco in Leather Pants trope is going to kick in, regardless of everyone's best efforts. Newman was rather horrified to discover that many of his fans loved the character of Hud, some even going as far as to call Hud their hero. But if you're willing to curb your impulse to romanticize a jerk, and pay attention to Martin Ritt's silkily directed anti-western, you'll see that sometimes a rebel isn't so lovable, and that a handsome exterior doesn't make up for a rotten interior.
Based on the novel by Larry McMurty, our title character, Hud Bannon, is a 34-year-old boozer, skirt chaser, and all around misanthrope who spends his days on the Texas plains in a gleefully apathetic stupor. We are introduced to him leaving a married woman's house the morning after a drunken tryst. Hud grudgingly helps his aging father Homer (Melvyn Douglas) on his cattle ranch, along with his teenaged nephew Lonnie (Brandon DeWilde) and Homer's warm but world-weary housekeeper Alma (Patricia Neal). Lonnie and Alma are sometimes amused, sometimes bothered by Hud's "devil may care" attitude, but they like him and try to see the good in him. Homer, on the other hand, isn't quite so forgiving. He isn't shy about calling Hud out for his actions, and Hud defensively retorts that his late mother loved him more, and that Homer just wasn't a good father. It's tempting to buy Hud's "poor me" routine, but it doesn't take us long to see Hud through Homer's eyes. Hud never misses an opportunity to lecture his father on his age and inability to work the ranch (though it's evident he couldn't do a better job), makes unwanted passes at Alma when he isn't barking orders at her, and only seems to drive after he's been drinking. Some people "look out for number one". For Hud, he looks out for the only one, himself. "You don't look out for yourself," Hud tells Lonnie, "the only helping hand you'll ever get is when they lower the box."
Yet, for all his clever remarks, Hud is remarkably short-sighted and stupid when a number of Homer's cattle contract foot and mouth disease. The only safe option is to kill them all (which they do, in a nightmarish scene that's not for the faint of heart), but Hud declares they should just sell the cattle for profit, potential consequences be damned:
Homer: That's your solution for getting out of a tight? To pass bad beef on to my neighbors who wouldn't know what they was getting? Or maybe risk starting an epidemic in the entire country?
Hud: This country is run on epidemics, where you been? Price fixing, crooked TV shows, inflated expense accounts. How many honest men you know? Why you separate the saints from the sinners, you're lucky to wind up with Abraham Lincoln. Now I want out of this spread what I put into it, and I say let us dip our bread into some of that gravy while it is still hot.
Homer: You're an unprincipled man Hud.
Hud: Don't let that worry you none. You got enough for both of us.
Hud is basically an Ayn Rand character with chaps and boots.
Like McMurty's other beloved novel-turned-film, The Last Picture Show, Hud doesn't have the strongest of plots, leaning more towards character study. At first it is easy to get suckered by Hud, because he does have a certain swaggering charm (being played by Newman certainly helps), but as the film progresses, we see more and more of Hud's foul behavior, and it hits us that he doesn't just have an ugly side: he's simply an ugly human being.
WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!
This is horrifically evidenced when a drunken Hud shambles into Alma's house and attempts to rape her. Even 50 years later, it is still brutal to watch. When Lonnie comes in to rescue her, it is then that they both realize that Hud is no good, and all the charisma in the world can't erase what he's done. The three most important people in Hud's life, leave his toxic presence once and for all. Homer, by succumbing to a heart attack, and Lonnie and Alma by leaving town. The movie ends the only way it could: with Hud all alone, and not giving a damn that he is.
I feel silly, once again singing the praises of a cast, but, damn, what a cast. It couldn't have worked with anyone else. Newman fearlessly plays Hud as the amoral villain that he is, and never, and I mean never, tries to win the audience's sympathy. Many actors say they try not to judge their characters, but if that's the case with Newman, he's a better person than I. It's almost impossible not to hate Hud, and it must have a been a divine challenge to Newman to play someone with a void where his soul ought to be. He was rightly nominated for Best Actor, and rightly lost to Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field.
Tiresome Observation of the Day: For such a hard-living drunkard, Hud is remarkably fit and trim. Not that I blame Newman, for who wants to go through the headache of gaining and losing weight for the sake of being "Method"?
Patricia Neal, on the other hand, did win for Best Actress. I was surprised that her screen time, in the nearly 2 hour running time of Hud, only totaled 21 minutes. She certainly make an impact as a woman who's been beaten down by life, but who never, ever wallows in self-pity. Alma instead greets life with dry humor and a kind heart. Even when That Incident happens, she refuses to let it drag her down, instead deciding to create a new life. I've always been fascinated by Patricia Neal, and she was somewhat ahead of her time as a movie actress; like Susan Sarandon or Emma Thompson after her, she's naturalistic and soft-spoken, but there's a powerful core of emotion in her personality that keeps you glued to the screen. Neal's own life had more than its share of agonizing tragedies; at the time she made Hud, she had endured the loss of her oldest daughter to measles, so playing a woman who has the fortitude to go on despite her own personal anguish must have struck a chord with her.
I must also make mention of Brandon DeWilde and Melvyn Douglas. DeWilde (who died in 1972 at only 30 years old) is the heart of the movie as Lonnie. In fact, I'll even venture to say he's the true protagonist of Hud. Lonnie starts out a wide-eyed innocent who idolizes Hud, because he's just a kid, and who among us hasn't been young and foolish enough to be in awe of someone who wasn't worth it? But once he see Hud for what he really is, Lonnie finally lets go of childhood and takes the right steps towards adulthood.
Tiresome Trivia of the Day: DeWilde was already a pro at playing wide-eyed innocents in westerns; years earlier, he played Joey, the little boy who idolizes Alan Ladd in Shane.
Melvyn Douglas is crusty, yet dignified and sympathetic as Homer, a man who cares deeply about living life with purpose and principle. He loves his son, but is more than aware of what a failure of a man he is. I know I'm getting a little quote-happy, but Douglas gives one of the greatest smack downs to Hud ever:
You don't care about people Hud. You don't give a damn about 'em. Oh, you got all that charm goin' for ya. And it makes the youngsters want to be like ya. That's the shame of it because you don't value anything. You don't respect nothing. You keep no check on your appetites at all. You live just for yourself. And that makes you not fit to live with.
Replace Hud's name with someone else's, and you have the perfect speech to give any scumbag character. I tried it with Jaime Lannister's name, it still works!
Hud is also sort of the anti-Giant. While Giant reveled in the grandeur of Texas in glorious Technicolor, Hud is filmed in bright whites and soft blacks, and shows the bleak, constricting environment of small town life. It inspires a certain restlessness, and you can almost understand why it drives people like Hud to act the way they do. Almost. But when some misguided critics call Hud the representation of "disaffected youth", all I can think is, "Then may God help us all".