A bold, unsung masterpiece about right and wrong, old and new
The stark yet powerful classic “Hud” is a deceptively complex film in just about every way. What would appear to be a drama about a teenager, his uncle and grandfather on a cattle ranch in Texas, is actually a profound examination of life in a changing world. Their relationships guide us into a look at living with principals versus having none, the old versus the new, and how all behavior (good or bad) has consequences. Although classified as a western, “Hud” is primarily a character study, and one of the most compellingly dramatic father son relationships on film. The acting is so natural it doesn’t look like acting, and so rich you can’t help but have an immediate emotional investment in all of the characters. They are presented through such exquisite direction and photography that you can’t take your eyes off the screen. This film is abundantly stimulating and profound.
“Hud” was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including “Best Picture”, winning three. While considered a classic, this film is somewhat overlooked these days. Perhaps because its themes are so subtly delivered it can appear cryptic at times. Or it could be because its star, Paul Newman, was in two other milestone films around the same time which to some degree unfairly eclipse “Hud” (although this is my favorite of the three).
"Hud" is a film that was on the brink of a new cinema. It was made at a time of upheaval and unrest in the US, with civil rights riots and the start of the war with Vietnam. This unrest most likely prompted the beginning of a more bold and daring time in cinema, and “Hud”, one of the leaders of the pack, loosely depicts the death of the American Dream. The film is very much about how we choose to live our lives, who we look up to, who we resent, and the ramifications of our choices. The grandfather in the film says a potent line to his grandson (who idolized his unscrupulous uncle “Hud”): "Little by little the look of the world changes because of the men we admire”. And as the film progresses, we realize that sentiment can apply in any direction.
With a somewhat streamlined look and feel, director Martin Ritt holds nothing back in immersing the viewer into life in a small Texas town and seducing us to crave more about these characters. His direction earned him his one and only “Best Director” Oscar nomination. Martin Ritt began as an actor and joined the Group Theater in New York where he worked with Elia Kazan (who I mention in “A Face in the Crowd” post). Ritt acted in and directed plays, and then began directing television in 1950. Come the McCarthy Era he was blacklisted from television and became an acting teacher at the Actors Studio. After the Red Scare, he directed his first feature film “Edge of the City” in 1957 with Sidney Poitier (who you saw in “In the Heat of the Night”). Ritt worked with Paul Newman twice before “Hud” - in ”The Long, Hot Summer”, and "Paris Blues” (which also starred Poitier). He would direct twenty five features, often about social issues, including several classics such as "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold", "Norma Rae", "Sounder", "The Great White Hope", "Pete 'n' Tillie”, “Murphy's Romance”, and "The Front". Many consider “Hud” his crowning achievement. Martin Ritt died in 1990 at the age of 76.
I’m thrilled to introduce the work of one of my all-time favorite actors, Paul Newman, who stars in the title role as “Hud Bannon”. An international legend, icon and charismatic movie star for over fifty years, he gave countless extraordinary performances in many classic films. He was listed among the top ten box office stars fourteen times between 1963 and 1986 (twice being #1). Paul is such a skilled actor that if you watch him closely, you will rarely if ever find a false moment. He had a charming cockiness about him, and early in his career became best known for playing rebellious, complex and brooding characters, often with a subtle humor about them. He was also known for his beautiful looks and piercing blue eyes. When I was in an archeological museum in Italy, I was half joking when I commented that the heads of many of the idealized Roman statues looked just like Paul Newman - and they did! He excelled possibly better than any other actor at playing likable, morally ambiguous characters. “Hud” is perhaps the most unsympathetic role of his career, yet because of his likable quality, it’s hard to hate him. He is so mesmerizing at making this man who lives only for himself a complete and whole person. I can’t picture any other actor in the role. To help prepare for the part, he worked on a ranch for a brief time before filming. Paul Newman started acting in school productions at the age of seven. After high school he enlisted in the Navy and fought in WWII as a rear gunner. After the war, he went to college and studied acting. He ended up in New York in the class of famed teacher Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio where he learned to internalize his characters - a trait that would influence his acting work for the rest of his career. He first appeared on stage and TV, making his Broadway debut in William Inge’s 1953 play “Picnic”, where he was discovered by Hollywood. His film debut came in the 1954 sword and sandal epic, “The Silver Chalice”, a film he later called “the worst motion picture produced in the 1950s”. His second film was the 1956 biopic “Somebody Up There Likes Me”, in which he portrayed real life boxer Rocky Graziano. That performance brought him acclaim, as he brought a realness and roughness still somewhat new to the screen. It prompted people to call him the next Marlon Brando. In 1958 he starred opposite Elizabeth Taylor in the film version of the Tennessee Williams play, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, a film pivotal to Paul’s career as it placed him on the brink of stardom and gave him his first of nine Academy Award nominations. His biggest breakthrough came with the 1961 classic film “The Hustler”. That film was the start of perhaps the most important time in his career, as it was the first of three landmark films which defined his screen persona, cemented his status as a great actor, and gave him his next three Oscar nominations. The second of the three was “Hud”, and the third was “Cool Hand Luke” in 1967. Paul was now a film icon and would forever be remembered for these three films. His next significant films were opposite Robert Redford in the two classics, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in 1969, and “The Sting” in 1973. Both films turned Paul into a superstar. He would continue to work pretty steadily through the 1980s, slowing down a bit from the 1990s onward. He gained a sort of new respect in the 1980s, garnering three more Academy Award nominations, including his only Oscar win (for his seventh “Best Actor” nomination) for the 1986 film “The Color of Money” opposite Tom Cruise, which was a sequel to “The Hustler”. In Paul's last film, he was the voice of "Doc Hudson", a 1951 Hudson Hornet, in the Walt Disney animated film “Cars”. Quite a fitting last film, as Paul was a car racing aficionado, winning several major races. A few more of his classic films not yet mentioned include "Sweet Bird of Youth”, “Absence of Malice”, Alfred Hitchcock's "Torn Curtain", "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean", "The Towering Inferno", "Slap Shot", "The Hudsucker Proxy”, “Exodus”, "Nobody's Fool”, “Road to Perdition”, and one of my favorites, “The Verdict”. He was also a director, directing one TV movie and five feature films including "Rachel, Rachel” and "Harry & Son". Paul married his first wife at an early age, and they had three children together. In the 1958 film, “The Long, Hot Summer”, he costarred with actress Joanne Woodward and the two became soulmates. Just after filming, Paul divorced his first wife and married Joanne. He and Joanne had three daughters together and stayed happily married for 50 years until Paul’s death. It was one of the few successful Hollywood marriages. Paul was a politically active liberal in the 1960s, campaigning against the war with Vietnam, for the banning of nuclear weapons, and in favor of gay rights. When he later found out that he had made it onto Richard Nixon’s "list of enemies” he was quoted as saying “Being on President Nixon's enemies list was the highest single honor I've ever received”. Paul was a major philanthropist, conceivably donating more money to charity than any other movie star in history. His son Scott died in 1978 from a drug overdose, and to honor him Paul opened the “Scott Newman Center” for drug abuse prevention. In 1988 he cofounded “The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp”, a summer camp for seriously ill children. Probably his most famous philanthropic endeavor was creating a line of food products called “Newman’s Own” in 1982, beginning with his salad dressing. Still in business, the company gives 100% of their profits to various charities, and has donated over $500 million thus far. In addition to his nine acting Oscar nominations and one win, Paul was awarded the Academy’s 1994 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, as well as an honorary Academy Award in 1986 for his body of work as an actor. Despite his statuesque good looks and talent for playing slightly brash gents, he always seemed accessible, like he was one of your buddies. That quality, plus his kind and generous nature, is no doubt a large part of why he remained so endearing throughout his life and career. Paul Newman died in 2008 at the age of 83.
Melvyn Douglas brilliantly portrays “Homer Bannon”, endowing him with a quiet strength. He is so believably engrossing as the aged backbone of the family. “Homer” movingly represents the dying principled past. His performance won Melvyn his first “Best Supporting Actor” Academy Award, and he was no stranger to awards, wining one Tony, one Emmy, and two Oscars. He had a fifty year film career, starting as the leading man in his first film, the 1931 screen version of “Tonight or Never”, a role he originated on Broadway. In the film he appeared opposite movie star Gloria Swanson. In his early films he appeared opposite many major stars such as Claudette Colbert, Lupe Velez, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, and Greta Garbo. Garbo would become his most well-known costar, as they made three films together, “As You Desire Me” , her final film “Two-Faced Woman” , and what some consider to be her best sound film, the 1939 classic “Ninotchka” (which is also the film for which Melvyn is most remembered). He continued to work steadily in film, sometimes appearing in as many as seven films in one year. He was a huge star in the 1930s, working until about 1950. Melvyn was politically a liberal, and with the McCarthy Era (which primarily targeted liberals, Jews, minorities, homosexuals, government employees, and labor unions activists) he became what was called “gray listed” (not officially blacklisted but denied work because of presumed political or personal affiliations, real or not). That made it very difficult for him to get work in films, so like some others in his position, he turned to television where he did the bulk of his work from 1949 through 1977. He saw a boost in his film career just before his death, appearing in six films between 1979 and 1981, including the classic 1979 film “Being There” (one of my favorites) for which he won his second “Best Supporting Actor” Academy Award. Some of his other classics include "Captains Courageous", "The Sea of Grass", "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House", "Ghost Story", "The Candidate”, and the 1970 film “I Never Sang for My Father”, for which he earned a “Best Actor” Oscar nomination. He is the grandfather of actress Illeana Douglas. Melvyn Douglas died in 1981 at the age of 80.
Patricia Neal is phenomenal as the housekeeper “Alma Brown”. If you are following this blog and watching the films, you’ve seen her twice before, in “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, and “A Face in the Crowd”. I wrote more about her in both of those posts. Her performance in “Hud” is so layered and nuanced I can only imagine how astounding it must be to watch it on the big screen. “Alma” is not glamorous but is so real and womanly it is no wonder she is the desire of the two younger men in the household. Patricia brings a wonderfully tough, no-nonsense quality to the role. For her portrayal of “Alma” she won her only “Best Actress” Academy Award. As I mention in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” post, Patricia had a rough life, and “Hud” came at a particularly difficult time, as just before filming began she suddenly lost her seven year old daughter. Little did she know that just over two years later she would be in a coma while pregnant with another child. It is a testament to her skill as an actress that one could never tell how grievous her life was from watching her performances.
Brandon deWilde is superb as “Lonnie Bannon”. He brings the exact touch of teenage innocence to the role, mixed with a yearning to figure out life and the people around him. “Lonnie” is on the brink of becoming an adult. Brandon’s acting is terrific as we even learn about his character when he is not speaking - just from the way he reacts. When you watch the film, notice the way he looks at “Hud”, whom he idolizes. Born to two actors, Brandon deWilde became an actor at a very young age. He was a sensation at seven years old in his first part, the 1950 Broadway production of “Member of the Wedding”. That success led to his first film, the classic 1953 drama “Shane”. His star making role in that film earned him a “Best Supporting Actor” Academy Award nomination (the youngest in a competitive category at the time). That would be the only Oscar nomination he would receive in his all too brief career. Next was the film version of “Member of the Wedding”, directed by Fred Zinnemann (who I mention in the “High Noon” post). Brandon would continue acting mostly in television, including starring in the TV series, “Jamie” in 1953. Some of his other notable films include "All Fall Down", "In Harm's Way", "Night Passage", and "Blue Denim”. He is best remembered for his performance in “Shane”. Brandon was married twice, the second time for a little more than the last three months of his life. He was killed in a car accident near Denver, Colorado in July of 1972. Sadly, Brandon De Wilde was only 30 years old when he died.
A bit of trivia: The small part of "Mrs. Lily Peters” is played by cult icon Yvette Vickers. “Mrs. Peters” is the married blonde who enters the restaurant with “Hud”, while “Lonnie” and “Homer” are in a booth eating. Yvette was an actress, Playboy centerfold, and singer. She is mostly known for her roles in two low budget cult 1950s science fiction films - as “Liz Walker” in “Attack of the Giant Leeches”, and as “Honey Parker in “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman”, the role with which she is mostly identified. Her first appearance on film was an uncredited bit part in the classic "Sunset Boulevard”. She worked mostly in television. By the time “Hud” came around her career was in decline. Yvette’s mummified body was discovered by a neighbor in 2011, and it is thought she may have been dead for up to a year. Yvette Vickers was believed to have been 81 when she died.
The other star of “Hud” is undoubtably the cinematography by James Wong Howe. This film is a prime example of the beauty of black and white cinema. The film's power would be greatly diminished by being filmed in color, as the high contrast black and white adds a tremendous artistic drama. “Hud” is in many ways a film about humans in the world, and characters are often placed against the sky - whether the pitch black of night or sparsely floating clouds in the day. Wong Howe won the film’s third and much deserved Academy Award, for “Best Black and White Cinematography”. It was one of two Academy Awards for Wong Howe out of ten career nominations (his other win was for the 1955 film “The Rose Tattoo”). He is considered a master of cinematography and is one of the most famous, influential and prestigious cinematographers in history. Born in China, he came to the US when he was five, began taking still photographs when he was 12, and at 17 got a job picking up film scraps from the cutting-room floor in a film company. That’s where he learned about cameras, lighting and film production. By the time he was 20 he became an assistant cameraman, and then a cinematographer at 23. He worked from silent films to sound, from 1923 until 1975. An innovative artist and expert in lighting, Wong Howe was a pioneer of deep focus, hand held cameras, and wide angle lenses. He photographed just over 140 films, including such classics as "Kings Row", "Shanghai Express", "Yankee Doodle Dandy", "Picnic", “Seconds”, “Mantrap", "The Old Man and the Sea”, "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter", "Laugh, Clown, Laugh", "The Thin Man", "The Strawberry Blonde", "Body and Soul", "Come Back, Little Sheba", and his final film, "Funny Lady”. James Wong Howe died in 1976 at the age of 76. When you see his name in the credits, you know you’re going to see stunning visuals.
Edith Head, whom I talk about in the “A Place in the Sun” entry, created the costume design for “Hud”. Her work here is a great example of how costumes aren’t about being dazzling, but helping to make the film look authentic, appropriate to its time and setting.
You are in for a real treat this week with a thought provoking and emotional gem filled with electrifying performances across the board. “Hud” is a film I cherish. Enjoy!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
“Hud” was made towards the end of the Production Code (which I talk about in the “Red Dust” entry) and it breaks several of the Code's rules. In particular, this film is noted for being one of the first to have a bad character not pay for their behavior. At the very end of the film, after “Lonnie” leaves, “Hud” drinks his beer, thinks for a second about changing, but closes the door, lowers the blind, and goes back to his old ways. A chilling statement indeed.
In case you were wondering, no animals were harmed in the making of “Hud”, which might be hard to imagine after watching the harrowing cattle-slaughter scene. It looks so authentic because the film is directed and shot so expertly. Much of that scene was created through editing, going back and forth between the cattle and firing guns. Bungee cords were tied to the cattle’s legs and shaken to get them to move when shots were fired, and they were given some sort of harmless substance to make them sick.