Paul Newman’s iconic performance in the 1963 classic still impresses with its potent impact.
Long before J.R. Ewing of Dallas established himself as The Texan You Love to Hate, Paul Newman made an indelible impression as another beguiling cad from a different part of the Lone Star State.
In Hud — the stark and unsettling 1963 film based on Larry McMurtry’s novel Horseman, Pass By — Newman startled audiences, captivated critics and earned an Academy Award nomination for his fearless performance as Hud Bannon, a charismatically hunky and brazenly amoral Texas Panhandle cattle rancher who dismays his aging father (Melvyn Douglas, who earned an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor), disillusions his worshipful nephew (Brandon De Wilde), and very nearly rapes his cynically feisty housekeeper (Patricia Neal, who claimed the Academy Award as Best Actress of 1963).
The movie was one of 25 notable productions inducted Wednesday into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress because of their cultural, historic and aesthetic importance to our nation’s film heritage. But one can very easily imagine the irreverent response of Newman’s character had he been told of this honor: “Yeah? Well, it’s about damn time!”
Hud is a man who takes whatever he pleases — and never worries about whoever he displeases. (“The only question I ever ask any woman,” he arrogantly crows, “is, ‘What time is your husband coming home?’”) When he learns their herd has been infected with hoof-and-mouth disease, his first reaction is typically self-serving: He encourages his father to promptly sell the cattle to unwary customers before the bad news is public knowledge. (His dad, a deeply moral man, rejects the idea.)
Eventually, he seeks help from a lawyer to take total control of the ranch from the old man — because, just like J.R. in the 1978-91 Dallas series (and J.R.’s Hud-like son, John Ross, in the 2012-14 Dallas reboot), he’s hell-bent on drilling for oil on the family property, despite anyone else’s objections.
In the final scene, after being abandoned and left alone in an empty house, Hud appears to pause, if only temporarily, to reconsider his selfish behavior. But then he smiles, and offers a dismissive wave, as to repeat to himself — and to the audience — his personal code: “You don’t look out for yourself, the only helping hand you ever get is when they lower the box.
Fifty-five years after its premiere, Hud continues to impress viewers with the undiminished power of its spare, blunt-force narrative, and the flat-out swaggering brilliance of Newman’s iconic lead performance. Indeed, the film not only isn’t dated — it actually seems revolutionary, when compared to contemporary Hollywood fare, in its uncompromising approach to rendering what one critic called “a charming monster.”
At the time of its release, Time Magazine hailed Hud as “a provocative picture with a shock for audiences who have been conditioned like laboratory mice to expect the customary bad-guy-is-really-good-guy reward in the last reel of a western.” And critic Arthur Knight marveled in The Saturday Review that a mainstream Hollywood movie had the audacity to depict a protagonist who “is purely and simply a bastard.”
“The distinction of Hud,” critic Judith Crist added, “is that it presents an unpleasant truth about people without the pretty packaging, without the [sop] that easy answers and penny ante analysis provide, without the slightest sweetener to satisfy our sentimental yearnings. And perhaps the most encouraging aspect is that the making of such a film and our appreciation of it indicates that we are getting out of the lollipop stage at last.”
Then as now, such a boldly offbeat movie usually needs the considerable muscle of a superstar behind it in order to reach the screen. But even though Newman was, in 1963, one of the most bankable stars in the known universe, the bean-counters and green-lighters at Paramount Pictures were more than a little apprehensive when director Martin Ritt (who’d previously worked with Newman on The Long Hot Summer, Paris Blues and Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man) and scriptwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. first floated the project.
“I remember when the studio executives were reading the script,” Ravetch told Newman biographer Shawn Levy. “They paled. One of them said, ‘When does he get nice?’ I said, ‘Never.’”
As Levy notes in Newman: A Life, director Ritt took great pains “to make sure the film’s themes of corruption weren’t overcome by a romantic image of fading cowboy life.” So Ritt had renowned cinematographer James Wong Howe emphasize the desolation of the Texas Panhandle during several weeks of filming — in very unromanticized black and white – at various places in and around Claude, Texas.
Larry McMurtry takes partial credit for the choice of location. At the time Paramount purchased rights to his novel, he was teaching world literature courses at Texas Christian University — and doting over James McMurtry, his infant son — in Fort Worth. (He would later write the novels Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show — and earn an Oscar as co-scriptwriter of Brokeback Mountain, another movie inducted Wednesday into the National Film Registry.) One day, he was visited by a studio executive who asked McMurtry if the author had any contacts in the Texas Panhandle. McMurtry put the exec in touch with his cousin, Alfred McMurtry, then a rancher in Clarendon, near Claude.
“Paramount promptly rented not only a lot of Alfred’s land,” McMurtry writes in Hollywood: A Third Memoir, “but also his cattle herd and a good number of his cowboys.”
Thanks to these rental agreements, “Alfred McMurtry made a lot of money out of what became a movie called Hud, but I didn’t begrudge him his good fortune, since he did have to put up for a while with the considerable aggravation of a movie production, whereas I did not. I was safe in Fort Worth, with a living and lively child.”
McMurtry was invited — begrudgingly, he suspects — by the filmmakers to visit the set in Claude for an afternoon. He didn’t get to meet Newman — or Patricia Neal, “whom I really did want to meet” — but he enjoyed a different type of movie magic while leaving the town that was doubling as Thalia, the fictional location of many McMurtry books.
“Driving through Claude the next morning,” McMurtry recalls, “on my way back to my wife and young child, I noticed that the water tower in Claude didn’t say Claude anymore: it said Thalia. That my invention had caused a small town in North Texas to change the name on its water tower — even temporarily — was thrill enough to me. And Hollywood provided it!”
In its official announcement of this year’s National Film Registry selections, the Library of Congress noted that, in 2017, Motion Picture Academy President John Bailey chronicled the production of Hud and offered his impressions of the film’s relevance more than five decades after its release: “Naked and narcissistic self-interest have always been a dark undercurrent to the limpid surface stream of American optimism and justice, but it is not a reach to see the character of Hud as an avatar of the troubling cynicism of that other side of American Populism — the side that espouses a fake concern for one’s fellow man while lining one’s own pockets. Hud, a lothario at the wheel of his crashed convertible, raising a shroud of dust clouds in its trail, is nothing more than a flimflam 19th century snake-oil salesman and carnival barker. His type erupts over and over onto America’s psyche like a painful pustule.”
One can easily imagine Hud’s response to this, too.