In the cinematic pantheon of scum-bags, louses, and all-around rotten motherfuckers, Hud Bannon ranks right up there with the worst of them. He is amoral, unprincipled, selfish and brutish; a lousy brother, uncle and son; a loathsome ass-wipe who would sell cattle with hoof-and-mouth disease in order to preserve his inheritance.
As played by Paul Newman in the 1963 film Hud, Hud’s charm is damned near so disarming that we almost let him off the hook. It is to Newman's credit that he allows himself to portray such an awful man. When Hud forces himself on actress Patricia Neal's Alma, we rightly hate him -- and keep on hating him through the end of the movie. Newman's work is book-ended by performances that steal the movie from him: the late, great, Patricia Neal and the towering Melvyn Douglas -- both of whom won Oscars for their work in this magnificent American film.
It was directed by the profoundly humane Martin Ritt, and based on Larry McMurtry's 1961 novel Horseman, Pass By, one of those enterprises that tried to capture the spirit of the mid-century American West, like The Misfits and Lonely are the Brave, a cowboy movie informed by the 20th century, where all chivalry is dead and the lessons of the Depression and the Dustbowl are still fresh in people's minds.
All Newman's Hud really knows how to do is drink, fuck and have a good time. He is a bit like a down-at-the-heels George W. Bush -- before Jesus got a hold of him and “changed his heart” -- and one minor cut above a Dude-Ranch “Himbo,” stupid and selfish and, above all, entitled.
He is also a metaphor for what more refined (wealthier) Westerners were calling “the New West.” The wide-open town culture of the American Cowboy was being marginalized, and big corporate ranching was becoming the backbone of the industry. In some ways, this movie reads to me like a eulogy for the Cowboy Movie -- or even for the West. The culture was changing. There was a Kennedy in the White House; shit-kickers were not welcome in this American Dream.
A man who had no desire to wear a cowboy hat, or any hat for that matter, Hud and his ilk were being discarded from the American conversation. We were beyond cow-tipping, fucking and fighting -- hell, it was Camelot and we were all “sophisticated.” The cowboy and his culture were disappearing; cowboys got off their horses and strapped on some steel.
Newman the actor had to really bring his “A” game to this picture; he was surrounded by heavyweights, and they brought out the best in him. A desperation creeps into the skin of Hud about half-way through the picture, and Newman's work is riveting -- less so than Patricia Neal, though, whose world-weary, MILF-y Alma has had bastards like Hud before. There is a great scene where he is driving her home and trying to seduce her verbally. He's talking about giving her a back-rub, and her eyes roll low like those of a locomotive -- and she offers him a Fig Newton instead.
Neal was at the height of her powers at that time: pretty rather than beautiful, sexy in that older-woman waitress kind of way and wise. She was an interesting woman who had endured no small amount of tragedy in her life, including a near-fatal stroke when she was young and the loss of a child. She was also married to the great Roald Dahl, a brilliant author, but a philandering husband. Neal soldiered on through whatever life handed her, head held high.
Melvyn Douglas was a much respected stage and screen actor who, via marriage, had survived the blacklist. He was married to Helen Gahagan Douglas, who, while running against Richard Nixon in California, was branded as a “Pinko” by Tricky Dick himself. She lost the election, which effectively ended her political career, but Melvyn Douglas would go on to win another Oscar, years later, for his role in Being There.
Whenever I think of this film, I think of Neal. Her role in it reminds me of a line from the poet Adrienne Rich: “The common woman is about as fragile as a nail . . .”
I think that line hangs on Patricia Neal pretty well. This one is for her.
TONY FITZPATRICK is an artist from Chicago. For his blog, click here.