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Hud (1963): Paul Newman's Polarizing Antihero

Updated on September 12, 2014

The Oscar-winning film of Righteousness and Immorality in the American West

Paul Newman’s passing six years ago spurred many film enthusiasts to look back on the career of one of cinema’s most talented and memorable actors. Paul Leonard Newman was born January 26, 1925 in Westport, Connecticut and died in September of 2008. Over the course of his life, Newman starred in dozens of films and received ten Oscar nominations for best actor/supporting actor, eventually winning for his leading role in The Color of Money (1986). Among the films in his long list of nominations is the far less publicized Hud (1963). Hud was nominated for seven Oscars and won three, including Best Supporting Actor (Melvyn Douglas), Best Actress in a leading role (Patricia Neal), and Best Cinematography, black-and-white (James Wong Howe). This film, often swept to the wayside by Newman’s more recent films like The Verdict (1982) and Road to Perdition (2002), is a showcase of his raw acting talent and a reminder to audiences everywhere that he truly was one of the greatest actors of all time.

Based on the novel, Horseman, Pass By, by Larry McMurtry, Hud is the story of a small, unconventional family living in the American southwest. This family consists of Homer Brannon (Melvyn Douglas), the father of Hud (Newman), and Lonnie (Brandon de Wilde) who is Hud’s nephew, and their housekeeper, Alma Brown (Patricia Neal). The film opens with Lonnie making his way into town to find Hud, which is not difficult, considering he carved a swath of disturbance and destruction through town during his rowdy escapades the night before. Lonnie was instructed to bring Hud back to Homer’s ranch so that they could ask his opinion about the cause of death behind one of their heifers. The family fears that the heifer might have been killed by hoof and mouth disease, which would mean that the rest of their cattle could also be infected and, therefore, pose a threat of epidemic proportions. Here, the main conflict arises. Hud wants to sell the entire herd before the FDA can test them, find that they have the disease, and require them to be slaughtered and disposed of. Homer, on the other hand, wants to follow government protocol and his own moral compass to have the herd tested so that his misfortune doesn’t spread to others. The arguments between the two persist throughout the film until Hud finally decides that his ailing father is no longer capable of running the ranch and pursues legal action to take it away from him.

The argument between Homer and Hud is not just a conflict between the wills of two individuals, but also a battle of philosophies that epitomizes a changing of American mentality as the ways of old begin to seem too inefficient and outdated for the next generation who can’t wait to take the reins by either inheritance or force. An aging Homer Brannon represents the ways of the old American southwest. He believes in respecting his fellow man, abiding by the laws of the land, and generally being an honorable and decent human being. Hud, by contrast, represents the shift to the more self-centered, “progressive” ideology that is not dissimilar from that of Wall Street. Hud’s philosophy concerning the issue of the cattle is determined by his cynical outlook of the world, which is made clear when he says, “This country is run on epidemics, where you been? 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.” To which his father replies, “That’s your solution for getting out of a tight? To pass bad beef onto my neighbors who wasn’t knowing what they was getting? Or maybe risk starting an epidemic in the entire country?”

Homer and Hud have disliked each other’s choice of lifestyle for as long as they can remember. The have always disagreed on the definition of right and wrong, but right in the middle of these two raging bulls is innocent, impressionable Lonnie. Lonnie, who is coming of age during this film, is teetering precariously on a moral fence and could end up leaning either towards his uncle or his grandfather. As the story progresses, Lonnie tests the waters of both worlds while receiving some kind advice from Alma, who tends to remind him of the good-natured side of his character. He sees the unbridled and unrestricted life of Hud as glorified, but his innate sense of morality always keeps him from following in Hud’s footsteps for too long. As for his grandfather, Lonnie has an infinite amount of respect and admiration and it is eventually that endearing respect which spurs him to become a man who strives to live an honorable life.

Hud is a film about people. It is the story of four very unique characters who are expertly portrayed by exquisitely cast actors. The most memorable of these four is, undoubtedly, Newman, as his character is an intriguingly rude, rowdy, and rambunctious lone wolf who lives entirely for himself. Hud drinks heavily, uses women, and picks fights with perfect strangers, just for the thrill of it all. But despite all this, the audience somehow comes away from the film not despising this textbook definition of an immoral character. This is because Newman doesn’t just draw a caricature of a villain or rake, he creates a multidimensional character who is believable as a real human being—someone who the audience can identify with and even pity.

After the alluded-to car accident (caused by Hud) that resulted in the death of his brother, Hud lost faith in the world and adopted the philosophy that life is short to waste on others. As a result, he drifts into alcoholism in an attempt to forget his unhappy past and spends his nights in the constant pursuit of instant gratification in the form of bar fights and affairs with respectable women. However, Newman’s character also manages to elicit emotions from the other end of the spectrum. In another light, Hud can be seen as a character who’s philosophy on life is admirable, in that he refuses to be beaten and let the course of his life be decided by the limitations of society. Newman’s portrayal of Hud blurs the distinctions between right and wrong and causes the audience to see the multifaceted character from every angle, as one should ideally strive to view his fellow man.

In addition to its impeccable Newman-led cast, Hud also distinguishes itself through the artful cinematography of James Wong Howe. Filming entirely in black-and-white, Howe captures the subtle beauty of the American southwest in every scene. Each frame highlights the details of the Brannon family—everything from the massive, raw power of a hundred head of cattle stomping across the plains to the wrinkles etched in Homer’s aged faced. However, much like the characters themselves, Howe creates scenes that are anything but black-and-white, making sure to utilize every shade of grey between the two distinctive extremes.

Howe’s stylistic approach is comprised of two main types of camerawork. Firstly, his stationary shots are rarely on a plane with the main focus of the scene and often incorporate either high or low angles to emphasize characters or objects that are being showcased in that moment. Secondly, he incorporates a more casual approach to filming that flows with the movements of the characters and gives the audience a natural viewing sensation, as if they are seeing the scene through their own eyes instead of watching a stationary screen. However, what is perhaps most important of all, Howe’s cinematography gives Hud a timeless quality that, when coupled with the screenplay and quality acting, creates a movie that has earned a place among the canon of America’s most poignant films.

Hud is a film that, though seemingly carried by the title character, is about a shift in ideologies from individuals of one generation to the next. It focuses on this conflict that arises when the two can seemingly no longer coexist, something that members of any generation (from preteens to retirees) can relate to at some time in their lives. However, without Newman’s powerful performance as the lead character, would the film have been nearly as memorable? We know we should find his repugnant character detestable in almost every sense of the word, yet we can’t get enough of him. Newman manages to bring Hud to life in extraordinary fashion, proving that true art can find beauty in even the most reprehensible subjects. His uncanny ability to steal the scene and make his passionate mark in any film is what separates Newman from the thousands of actors who shared the stage with him during the course of his lifetime.

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© 2014 Joseph Steigmeyer

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