Director Martin Ritt said about Hud that “it was intended as a deeply moral film about the American heel-hero Clark Gable used to play for half a film before he got converted. I wanted to carry the character to its logical conclusion. I was shocked when young audiences idolized Hud and wrote letters telling me they hated that stuffed shirt old man. I should have sensed that Haight-Ashbury was just around the corner.” The hippie movement (and its ramifications) had little if anything to do with audiences eating up Paul Newman’s heel. It may likely have had everything to do with feelings viewers felt deep inside themselves—that they were more like Hud than any of the others in the story. The strength of Newman’s performance is that it belies the moral pointer weaving under the strain of moviemakers remembering their central theme as target. Maybe nowhere more than in Texas are there ranchers so bored with the drudgery of their lives and made morally lethargic by the eternal heat that they become tempting cads out of relief. Newman’s good looks and his Cadillac convertible are his entree into the bedrooms of equally bored housewives whose husbands are out of town, his swaggering insolence momentary blips of excitement. It’s true that barroom brawls out in the sticks were—and perhaps still are—forms of Saturday night entertainment; getting trapped in the parched, empty(headed) vistas of Hud (or Giant), it’s clear why everybody drank and fornicated. Before multiplex cinemas, cable TV, drugs and computers, not much else defeated the dreariness. That’s why the story’s intentions don’t hold up; the environment alone contradicts the prissy morals. Winning a best actress Oscar for what’s no more than a supporting role, Patricia Neal still earns the accolade: as Alma the housekeeper to Hud, his father (Melvyn Douglas) and nephew (Brandon deWilde), she’s at the pinnacle of her queerly highbred style—despite being clothed in mail order blouses and dresses. She may be the only actress to have used her lazy Southern-fried speech as real sexual edge: she invites not flirtation or seduction but riled-up responses. (Remember Gary Cooper’s in The Fountainhead?) Maybe that’s why she’s unique—we’re never able to fully account for her appeal. Douglas won an Oscar as well—a validation perhaps of those letters Ritt received—but it’s not until he has to shoot his two beloved longhorns that we (as adults) begin to feel something for him. The real pleasure in Hud is of course Newman. To embittered Douglas, deWilde says, “Why pick on Hud? Nearly everybody around town is like him.” But there’s no one like him in the movie—and one look at the famous Phototeque glossy which became a best selling poster confirms it. He’s emancipating—invigorating, incorrigible, carnal as hell—and if we’re supposed to somehow react moralistically, it would be false to our not-so-private feelings of envy, lust, even cheerful idolatry. In spite of the stock judgmental intentions of Ritt and writers Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, Newman’s Hud became the early 60s’ most popular antihero. And though moralists claim otherwise, I’d contend Hud’s not altogether immoral; this is a man whose father died in his arms; this is a man who apologizes to Alma after his failed attempt to force sex on her. Is it really a would-be rape? All Alma wants is to be asked. The fact is, she’s as turned on by Hud as the rest of us.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.