May 3, 2011

Movies Revisited: Hud (1963)

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Paul Newman was a great actor: for his talents onscreen, his strikingly handsome features, engaging blue eyes, and a deep, resonating voice. For his charity work off-screen: Newman's Own (one of the most successful non-profit organizations, and one of the best bags of popcorn), The Hole-in-the-Wall camps for children with illnesses, and the countless donations to schools and theaters nationwide.

So it's hard to imagine Mr. Newman, in life or in death, as a jerk. But that's precisely what he portrays in Hud, directed by Martin Ritt. Newman plays Hud Bannon, a reckless cowboy with a penchant for fisticuffs and married women. He spends his days cruising around in his convertible-escaping the wrath of cheated husbands-and his night’s boozing and picking fights at the local bar. He lives at home on a Texas cattle ranch with his father Homer, his teenage nephew Lon and the housekeeper Elma. Hud's mother is dead. And let’s just say him and Pa don't exactly get along.

The plot centers around the family business, which is at risk of collapse after one of Homer's cattle is found dead on his land. Homer and Hud clash over how to respond. Homer believes that if his cattle are afflicted with foot-and-mouth disease then the whole bunch must be killed to prevent an epidemic. Hud selfishly believes that the diseased cattle should be sold off for profit, thus potentially spreading the infection to other livestock.

Young, impressionable Lonnie is caught in the middle. Should he follow in the footsteps of his grandpa Homer, a man of traditional values, or in the blazing path of the young, rebellious Hud, who possesses some of the more free-spirited yet less honorable traits of the younger generation? By the films finale, Lonnie has made his decision and you're not too surprised.

What is surprising is Newman's Hud, a stubborn, villainous SOB that holds a bitter grudge towards the world. If you're looking for a character transformation--a neglected son who sees the error of his ways to gloriously lift the family mantel in "Lion King" fashion-you will be disappointed. (That's right, I just compared Hud to The Lion King.) Hud Bannon is an infection, lurking in the background of every scene (with brilliant cinematography by James Wong Howe), preying off the land with no intention of giving anything back.

Despite losing out in the Best Actor category that year to Sydney Poitier, Newman's Hud stands as an iconic character. He doesn't have the brute tact or charm of Brando's baddie Stanley Kowalski, but he does have a staunch resistance to authority that would eventually make Newman an icon of his era.

Some might see Hud as an oversimplified story with an unjustified antagonism between father and son. But for me, Hud stands the test of time precisely because of this tenuous clash. There is a strange tension in this film, a slow erosion of a family legacy marked by a quiet, barren landscape overrun with tractors and muted out by portable radios and the technology of an oncoming era. It's minimal and effective as an American work of art.

In one particular scene, Newman casually lies on his bed, with a beer, watching TV; a scene quite commonly found in people's homes today. But in Hud, immortalized in black & white, there's something disconcerting about the image. Is Hud's inactivity one of his faults? Is TV and beer part of the problem? If it is, then Hud Bannon is one of the coolest, most likeable jerks you'll ever encounter.

Enjoy this clip:


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