Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Beguiling Charms of Handsome Self-Interest

"It don't take long to kill things. Not like it does to grow."

-- Melvyn Douglas (Homer)

It is entirely natural that formative personalities with a thing for cinema will gravitate towards Paul Newman. From the late 1950s through the early 1970s he’d picked up where James Dean left off, becoming the embodiment of the handsome, brooding rebel, a man at home with tough guys and dangerous ladies, operating outside mainstream moral codes. Because becoming an adult entails following societal rules—the wife, the job, the mortgage, the taxes, the Judeo-Christian value system— flouting them, or at least making it up as you go along, can make a man feel unique, alone among a crowd of dullards, though all his desperado might be, at best, a smokescreen covering up the insecurity about making one’s way in the world, and at worst, a tragic absence of real human empathy.

Of all Paul Newman’s films, the one I think best embodies this juxtaposition of charming hustler and selfish man-boy is Martin Ritt’s Hud, based on the novel Horseman, Pass By, written by Larry McMurtry. Produced in 1963, Newman plays the eponymous Hud, a philandering cowboy who works for his father, Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas), and razzes his nephew, Lonnie (Brandon De Wilde) and housekeeper, Alma (Patricia Neal). They live on a ranch in a large spread in remote cattle country Texas. The crisis in the story involves one of their cows dying of foot-and-mouth: a highly contagious livestock infection that requires special quarantine measures as well as the immediate slaughter of all infected animals to contain the disease.

James Hong's cinematography sometimes reminds you
of Edward Hopper surveying Texas

Of course, the right thing to do is to follow the law. Homer doesn’t like the situation one bit— he’s been a rancher all his life and stands to lose his fortune. But the alternative is knowingly swindling his neighbors, passing his crisis on people who trust his word, which not only means bankrupting a man after looking a man in the eye with a strong handshake but also possibly unleashing an epidemic that could affect the region, if not the nation, infecting millions of cows and financially ruining hundreds of other families, who like the Bannons, have been living off the land for generations. But that’s exactly what Hud proposes to do before the government veterinarian can declare an emergency situation: “Let us put some of our bread in that gravy while it’s still hot.”

Beware of men bearing flowers?

Caught between Homer’s sense of duty and Hud’s self-interest is Homer’s grandson, Lonnie, an impressionable sixteen-year-old getting to the age where he is figuring out what kind of man he wants to be. It’s not such an easy path. Soft-spoken, addicted to cowboy ballads on his wireless, he admires Hud’s way with women, the devil-may-care attitude that puts him in daily situations most sensible men would recognize as dangerous, like driving drunk and tomfooling with married women. Living off his family wealth and good looks, Hud acts impulsively with a sense of entitlement oblivious to naysayers and moralists. For a kid suffering both hormones and virginity politely, the spectacle of a man that gets what he wants—what society fetishes but does not altogether condone, that of the virile, uninhibited lothario— is heady inspiration.

Uncle Hud and his corruptible nephew

Essentially then, Hud is a family drama about the contestation of two ways of life. And though we naturally sympathize with Homer, we can’t help liking Hud. Newman’s performance inspires every man’s inner sixteen-year-old. We know he’s wrong, even morally repugnant, but Newman plays him so charming that the audience— women, but especially men— forgive him. This is good for a film but bad for us as a species. That we could be so bamboozled by charisma suggests why so much has gone wrong for America in the last thirty years. The character, Hud, epitomizes the late twentieth century politicking corporate cowboy that would connive us out of our clean skies and untouched frontiers with huckster good ol’ boy hucksterism.

“Don’t plant ‘em where I park,” he barks at the housekeeper, Alma, after she reprimands him for driving over her flowers. It’s a small detail—an automobile crushing a delicate patch of Mother Nature— but suggestive of how little Hud is tied to the land. He has none of his father’s frontier spirit. There is no romanticizing this vast, stark, dusty landscape. A modern man trapped in rural Texas, Hud is a new kind of pioneer, the technocratic cowboy, much more comfortable behind the steering wheel of a convertible than holding the reins of a horse.

Hud anticipates the opportunist millionaire oilman that would transform Texan power. His father, Homer, senses that his son represents the changing times. When it becomes clear that the family’s situation has become perilous and it’s suggested that they drill for resources, Homer rails beautifully against a future landscape ruined by tractors, derricks, and tarmac scarring up God’s country: “What can I do with a bunch of rotten oil wells? I can’t ride out there and prowl amongst them like I can my cattle… I can’t feel a smidgen of pride in them. I want money to come from that something that keeps a man doing for himself.”

The moral contest escalates as it becomes certain that their cattle will be ruled dangerous. But Homer never doubts there is any other way than living by his conscience. “I want out of this spread what I put into it,” Hud tells his father. It leads to a painful confrontation in which Homer reprimands his son in the clearest possible language: “You don’t give a damn… You don’t care about people… You don’t value nothing. You don’t respect nothing. You don’t check your appetites. You live just for yourself which makes you not fit to live with.” Lonnie expresses some solidarity for his uncle, arguing that Hud may be selfish but he’s not so different from everybody else. Homer, recognizing that he may lose his grandson to Hud’s easy living, responds sadly, “Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire.”

The bulldozer & the horseman

It’s a beautiful line, prescient of our contemporary celebrity culture that has blurred the traditional merits of heroism. I don’t remember exactly how I felt watching Hud fifteen years ago other than liking the film and loving Paul Newman for it. But watching it recently, I no longer felt empathy for his character, only tremendous respect for Newman for giving such a contemptuous antihero magnetic charisma. From this viewing many years later, I have to wonder what kind of person I was at twenty that I could be taken with a character so symbolic of man’s capacity to trample the earth and his fellow men. Is it just me? Or is it a mistake nearly every young man makes in his long journey to goodness?

1 comment:

  1. Great essay. I remember Pauline Kael making some points about his magnetism but just to run down her liberal friends. I've recently returned home and have been thinking about who I wanted to be earlier--so very relevant.