Paul Newman’s Most Troubling Performance Was in This 1960s Classic

The Big Picture

  • Paul Newman’s performance as Hud in the film Hud was captivating and complex, drawing audiences in despite his character’s lack of redeeming qualities.
  • Director Martin Ritt skillfully juxtaposed Newman’s outward sex appeal with the character’s internal desolation through cinematography.
  • Hud’s relationships with his nephew Lonnie and housekeeper Alma reveal the depths of his character and his ability to manipulate others for his own gain.

Trigger Warning: The following references sexual assault.The Pacific-blue eyes. The aquiline nose. The puckish grin. The lean physique. They all added up to make Paul Newman even greater than the sum of his parts. In films like 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and 1962’s Sweet Bird of Youth, the Oscar-winning actor was the embodiment of the term « matinee idol. » His ability to combine innocence and naïveté with an intense sense of lurking animalism drew moviegoers to him like magnets to a steel blade. Newman came into his own as a sex symbol in director Martin Ritt‘s 1958 melodrama The Long, Hot Summer. Standing shirtless in the steamy evening Mississippi heat outside Joanne Woodward‘s bedroom, clutching a pillow and calling out, « Clara! Claaara! » Newman was the man every woman (and more than a few men) wanted to invite inside the house. Film critic Fiona Underhill described the star-making scene as Newman doing « …some smoldering in her (Woodward’s) direction while the sweat glistens off his forty-seven stomach muscles in the moonlight and she (understandably) clutches her chest. » Director Martin Ritt, clearly aware of the young actor’s almost hypnotic influence on audiences, was certain Newman was the right choice to play callous rogue Hud Bannon in 1963’s Hud, the big screen adaptation of Larry McMurtry‘s (Brokeback Mountain screenwriter) 1961 novel Horseman, Pass By.

Ritt was taking a gamble, though, since Hud‘s title character was feral — cold, cruel, and with virtually no redeeming qualities. How would audiences react to seeing Paul Newman, their Panavision dreamboat, playing a true brute without a glint of humanity? Ritt’s instincts were right. Hud turned out to be not only one of Newman’s best career performances, but he was never more troubling or complex as the misguided miscreant who destroys hearts and souls as he stumbles aimlessly through life.

Hud Bannon Is an Ugly Soul Inside a Beautiful Face

Image via Paramount Pictures

Hud Bannon is a desultory wretch, a man without purpose straggling through life rather than living it, unable to break free from the damaged familial bonds that keep him tied to his father’s failing cattle ranch in a dusty Texas panhandle town. Despite his bleak existence, Hud has an alluring, intoxicating physicality and cynical charm that draws people in. To women, he’s the hot stove they know they shouldn’t touch. To men, he’s the dangerous heel to be feared and respected. It was Newman’s ability to mask Hud’s hopelessness with his pretty boy looks that made him the perfect match for the character. When audiences first see Hud in the film, he’s being retrieved by his exasperated nephew Lonnie (Brandon De Wilde) from the home of one of the town’s married women following a raucous night out.

Filmed in black and white, Hud denies viewers the opportunity to gaze at Newman’s blue eyes and tan skin, but it doesn’t matter. In his tight denim jeans and partially buttoned tartan shirt over a white tee, Newman exudes libidinous desire as he shuffles onto the porch. It is, in fact, the spectacular black and white cinematography by James Wong Howe, who won an Oscar for his work on Hud, that contrasts Newman’s undeniable outward sex appeal with his character’s internal desolation. Howe ingeniously juxtaposes the stark dreariness of the Texas landscape, a symbol of Hud’s own emotional reality, against the unbroken beauty of Newman’s face. Throughout the film, Howe highlights barren gray landscapes, occasionally dotted with shabby white shanties and withering barns, sidewalks nearly empty except for the appearance of a few scraggly wranglers stumbling by. Yet among the dismal images of the gradual atrophy of a place lost to time and change, Howe bathes Newman’s Hud in crisp focus, frequently shooting him from a low-angle perspective to accentuate the character’s commanding physical presence, establishing an awareness that while Hud sees himself as someone more important than he really he is, he’s nothing more than just another unremarkable presence in a town that would otherwise envelop him.

Why Is Hud & Lonnie’s Relationship Complicated?

Paul Newman as Hud and Brandon deWilde as Lonnie in Hud
Image via Paramount Pictures

When Lonnie tosses Hud a stray high heel shoe he’s found in the front yard of the betrothed woman’s house, it’s clear what happened behind closed doors the night before. « I’ll be able to charge a stud fee for you by the time that story gets around, » Hud boasts to the woeful young man. Hud has a potent swagger, but that’s all he has. Spiritually, he’s a wreck, a fractured soul who covers his despair with alcohol and philandering. The deeper Hud slides into his anguish, the more he plays the part of the cad, and it’s precisely that poignant contrast that makes Hud both so provocatively inviting and disagreeably stifling.

Lonnie is one of the few within Hud’s orbit who sees beyond his uncle’s facade. He both pities and admires his uncle, wanting to embrace the wounded side of the man who can’t find his way while also wishing he could be as skilled a ladykiller as his would-be mentor. Director Ritt spends much of the film exploring the complicated relationship between Hud and Lonnie, the idea of machismo, and the homoerotic imagery of the lonesome cowboy. Ritt recognizes the subtext so masterfully imagined in McMurtry’s novel, a theme McMurtry would later visit more directly 42 years later in his Brokeback Mountain screenplay, and uses it to further accentuate Hud’s puzzling hypnotism.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scene where Lonnie is injured while working on the ranch. Hud hoists the young man over his shoulders like a wounded calf and carries him to his bed, Lonnie gazing up at the impossibly beautiful man with a conflicted mix of admiration and trepidation. Not coincidentally, the homoerotic sensibility of Hud found its way into 1969’s classic Midnight Cowboy. On his bedroom wall, Joe Buck, the beautiful young would-be gigolo buckaroo played by Jon Voight, keeps a poster from the movie featuring Paul Newman in a magnificently arousing pose.

Paul Newman and Patricia Neal — a Tragic Pairing

Paul Newman and Patricia Neal in Hud
Image via Paramount Pictures

Hud knows the power of his attraction, and he uses it most completely – and brutally – on the family’s housekeeper Alma, played with heartbreaking artistry by Patricia Neal, who brought home the Best Actress Oscar for her astonishing performance. Alma is a woman who has experienced her share of trauma and despair, and though a lifetime of disappointment has embittered her, like Hud, she exudes her own slow-burning sensuality. Neal’s scenes with Newman are wrought with sexual tension and longing, as well as a sense of foreboding. Alma is drawn to Hud’s bad-boy carnality but is world-weary enough to avoid the danger. Hud recognizes Alma’s desire for him, and he uses the murkiness of his inner spirit to manipulate her emotionally.

Hud comes to Alma’s one-room cottage, gray Stetson tilted back on his head, holding a freshly picked sunflower beneath his nose. He reclines on her daybed and begins his seduction. Smiling slyly at his intended prey, he teases her. « You’re a good housekeeper, you’re a good cook, you’re a good laundress…what else you good at? » The heat Hud uses to cajole the steel-nerved woman is enough to make the rose-patterned wallpaper in Alma’s room buckle. The ethereal tango performed by the two makes viewers hold their breath, wondering if Alma will give in to the lothario’s overwhelming desirability, knowing she shouldn’t, but secretly hoping she will. « Still got that itch? » Hud teases Alma. « Off and on, » she tells him. « Well, let me know when it gets to botherin’ ya, » he responds as the smile on his face grows like the Cheshire cat’s and as he places the petals of the sunflower against his lips. Newman’s effortlessness in masking Hud’s darkness with his physical charm and presence in this scene is both electrifying and terrifying.

A Brutal Attack Destroys Hud’s Facade

Paul Newman as Hud in Hud
Image via Paramount Pictures

Alma is likely the first woman in Hud’s life to keep him at bay. She realizes his ability to provoke feelings she’s long since suppressed, but she continues to rebuff his licentious invitations. When Hud, in an angry drunken tirade, attempts to sexually assault Alma, it’s the first time the true ugliness of Hud’s soul is exposed, violently jarring viewers from the « lavender haze » that up until this point has cloaked the character. This is a pivotal moment in the film, where Hud’s bare hedonism fails him, and the realization that he is as dead as the world he inhabits comes into full focus. Hud is suddenly vulnerable, no longer able to trade on his physical essence alone. As Lonnie, perhaps the only person who ever idolized Hud, finally abandons his uncle, so does the audience, and there’s an uneasy feeling of collective guilt, of being taken in by the physical allure of a man who is really nothing more than a vile villain.

Fleeing from yet another failure to start life anew, Alma waits at the bus stop to escape the town in which she has once more become a victim. She’s visited by Hud, a man whose wretched behavior has cost him everything. As he attempts to repent for his actions, Alma cuts his apology off with her own truth. « It would’ve happened eventually without the roughhouse, » she bluntly tells him. « You look pretty good without your shirt on, ya know. The sight o’ that through the kitchen window made me put my dish towel down more than once. » But it’s too late for Hud. He’s lost everything that he once could piece together to make him feel worthy, necessary, and significant. With Alma and Lonnie gone, and with the death of his father (Melvyn Douglas), Hud is alone, with little more than a tattered ego to grasp onto for life. In the film’s final scene, Hud looks out the sand-blasted screen of his back porch door into the distance and smiles one last time with that familiar look of bravado over broken. There is no redemption for this lost being, no lessons learned, no new direction. But Hud continues to be able to fool himself with nothing more than a glance, a grin, and a confident strut.

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‘Hud’s Appeal Was Perplexing

Paul Newman as Hud in Hud
Image via Paramount Pictures

In a Vanity Fair article, writer Patricia Bosworth noted that Newman himself was puzzled by the way moviegoers reacted to his deplorable character as some kind of folk hero. « Hud was an enormous hit, but Newman seemed surprised at the public for liking and seeming to approve of Hud’s unsavory character. ‘I think (Hud) was misunderstood, especially by the kids…’ he would argue. » Film critic Pauline Kael, in her review of the film, noted how Newman’s mesmerizing presence presented difficulties for audiences who still found it difficult to not be drawn to his character, despite his evil behavior. « It didn’t help that Newman was almost supernaturally good-looking…no matter how callous or cruel his character, it seemed, (Hud’s) sins would all be washed away in the pool of Newman’s big baby-blues. » Hud Bannon was a broken man with so little to offer, and Newman was so effective at using his own presence to disguise his character’s instability and volatility, that to this day, Hud remains Newman’s most compelling – and most conflicted – performance. Hud is Newman at his most nuanced; a multilayered study of a man crumbling underneath a seemingly perfect exterior, unwilling and unable to repair himself.

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