I remember adding this to my queue shortly after Paul Newman passed away. In retrospect I think it was a wise decision. He never looked so good, both physically and mentally, on screen.
I have a soft spot in my heart for Westerns. And while “Hud” may not be a Western in the conventional sense, because there isn’t really a band of stereotypically savage Indians to chase or a government plot threatening to develop precious land, Hud definitely fits every characteristic of a tragic hero. And for the first time, I actually despised his character. Sure, he was a mysterious, misunderstood loner, but he was also a huge asshole. Kind of like the experience of seeing James Dean’s character in “Giant” after knowing him only as the “Rebel Without A Cause.” But that’s the beauty of these men; not only were they (and that plural includes Brando, of course) anatomically perfect, they brought acting to a level unseen before their time and unmatched since.
In fact, every bit of acting in this film was praiseworthy. Westerns, or more generally “movies about cowboys,” have the unfortunate built-in characteristic of being somewhat alien to the American public. We can all agree that the “frontier” has been gone for over a century, and we started making movies just about a century ago, so the two realms never overlapped. Thus motion picture replicas represent an idealized dreamland of prairie, cattle and simplicity. It’s often hard to understand the motivations of the characters, even if we understand what they do given their circumstances, simply because we have no concept of that life. “The Searchers” may be the best example of America’s fascination with Western mystery; it’s impossible to know why John Wayne’s character acts the way he does, unless you take a film class, because aspects of culture die with its people. John Wayne, in all of his films, did what he did because he had to. And that’s where the line was drawn.
But “Hud” is perhaps the clearest Western ever made. Everything is explained, but not in that hand-fed backstory kind of way. Although we’ll never experience life on a ranch, we’re able to understand each interaction between each character because of the brilliance of the acting. Jim and Pam, for example, may have taken a page out of the URST-book, written long before their time, perhaps in the era of the method actors. Paul Newman and Patricia Neal certainly established it here. (And on another note, I can’t wait to see him opposite Joanne Woodward. Real sparks.) Beyond the romance, though, the true genius is in the interaction between Hud and his father, Homer (Melvyn Douglas). It’s a feat to get the audience to hate a character played by someone beloved, only because the public sees the actor as a force beyond his work. But Douglas established Homer as a good father, undermined constantly by the wild recklessness of his charming, destructive son.
Moreover, it’s easy to lose track of characters in Westerns. Random children appear, various sheriffs step into town, and the whole thing becomes a hot mess of lost egos. But “Hud” kept to a manageable cast, instead choosing to nurture and grow each character every time they graced the screen. It’s a pity they don’t make movies like this anymore.