…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
A moody and atmospheric story based upon a book by celebrated author Larry McMurtry, Hud manages to squeeze some pretty phenomenal acting chops out of its lead actors Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas, Brandon de Wilde, and Patricia Neal – in her one and only Oscar winning performance. As a tribute to Patricia Neal, who passed away on August 8th, I took a look at her performance in this gritty drama from 1963, directed by Martin Ritt. Surprisingly, Neal took home the Oscar for what could be considered a strong supporting performance rather than a lead; however, when she started snagging various critics awards for lead actress for Hud, she landed herself firmly in contention for the Academy’s (lead) Actress trophy. Neal gives a natural, arresting portrayal worthy of the award.
In a true reversal of typical character, Paul Newman portrays Hud Bannon – the selfish and bitter, devil-may-care, ne’er-do-well son of cattle rancher Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas) and uncle to impressionable Lonnie Bannon (Brandon de Wilde). A careless auto accident at Hud’s hand killed Hud’s brother/Lonnie’s father, leaving Lonnie in his grandfather’s care. Lonnie is a rather impressionable late teen (de Wilde plays him with aplomb) who is intrigued by his uncle, despite his rash, rude behavior. Hud and Lonnie share a mutual admiration and attraction for their hardworking housekeeper, Alma Brown (Patricia Neal). Hud, however, is more sexually drawn to Alma and sees her as another female conquest, while Lonnie appreciates her innate kindness and vulnerability.
Times get extremely rough on the ranch when Homer finds his cattle dying from a terrible epidemic (foot-and-mouth disease) and is advised by a local vet that his entire herd needs to be killed to prevent the disease from spreading to neighboring farms. The ever-callous Hud urges his father to sell off the herd instead, which Homer immediately rejects because on principle. Indeed, because Homer is such a thoughtful, principled man – everything Hud is not – the relationship between father and son is an extremely rocky one to begin with. Hud is mostly furious with his father for giving in to the vet’s demands, feeling selfishly that his inheritance will be severely compromised with the destruction of the cattle. After one particularly drunken argument with his father, Hud attempts to rape Alma. The scene is relatively short, but terrifying to watch, because there is barely a sound between Newman and Neal, save for an anguished yelp occasionally from Neal. Lonnie intervenes and defends Alma, but the episode is enough to send Alma packing and leaving the ranch. The cattle are eventually destroyed, devastating Homer to the point of collapse. The final scenes of the film include Homer’s death after falling off a horse while surveying his land late at night. As he breathes his final breath, he accuses Hud of simply ‘waiting for him to die’. Lonnie, now seemingly a grown man after all that has transpired, rejects Hud’s offers to stay on at the ranch and leaves to follow his own destiny away from the bitterness and harsh reality of the desolate Bannon family ranch.
Doesn’t sound like the cheeriest of stories, right? Amazingly, despite the dour plot, Hud, well-filmed in stark black-and white by winning cinematographer James Wong Howe, holds your interest – even if you are not a true western genre fan. This is largely due, again, to powerful performances by the leads. Paul Newman is fabulous as Hud. While he lost the Oscar that year to Sidney Poitier, he nonetheless turns in a unique portrayal that is surely one of his finest. Melvyn Douglas deservedly took home the Supporting Actor Oscar as Homer, Hud’s father. And Patricia Neal is perfect as Alma. Though her performance may not be considered meaty enough to be called a ‘lead’, she certainly commands the screen in her scenes. She makes Alma thoroughly believable – tireless and straightforward, she’s been through some tough times with men (she tells Hud at one point, “I’ve done my time with one cold-blooded bastard, and I’m not looking for another”). Curiously strong and vulnerable all at the same time, she holds her own against the temperamental men of the Bannon family, which makes the attack by Hud so wrenching. I particularly enjoyed the relationship built between Lonnie and Alma – how touching it is when he acknowledges her caring and comes to her defense when Hud goes after her. Strangely enough, in some regards, Hud is a film about growing older and wiser. We see it through Lonnie’s eyes – opened by his repulsion at Hud’s treatment of Homer and Alma.
Patricia Neal’s second nomination came in 1968 for The Subject Was Roses. She lost to Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand. With her recent death, we lost another great actress – her work in Hud and dozens of other films showcase that. Perhaps her portrayal of Alma shows us that there are “no small parts” that cannot be made bigger than life.