Picked Flicks #37: Hud & Cool Hand Luke
Child, the house is definitely on fire. In a crossword puzzle, Hud, in or out of italics, would serve well as a three-letter synonym for sex. And yet, for an actor so universally and deservedly associated with the quality of decencywith bounteous charity, compassionate politics, a legendary marriage, faultless generosity toward his co-starsNewman's haughty indecency in Hud is a perennial shock, feeding risk and danger into the movie but also into Newman's own performance, because it doesn't come naturally. Newman shapes Hud's libido into something elemental to the character and the story but also, from an actorly standpoint, far from effortless. Where Brando's Stanley Kowalski melds virility with vulgarity at the character's core and mantle, Newman's prowess but also his limits as an actor open up an interesting chasm between his essential, irrefragable manliness, inhabited as casually as a flannel shirt through a five-decade career, and his technical, occasionally studious projection of sexuality. Among the actors to whom he was initially most comparedBrando, Clift, and DeanNewman is simultaneously, for me, the least gifted and the most interesting. Brando's acting, practiced and deliberate though it is, feels buried down in his marrow, Clift's and Dean's wound and tangled around their nerve endings. Newman's the only one whom one can imagine spending his life another way (in business, in public service, in friendship, in good health), and though the urge to act seems to run deep, allowing him a physical spontaneity and a palpable conviction on screen, what he delivers as acting comes across as a very conscious, careful process, self-reflective and scrupulous. His casting in Hud is therefore even more inspired than it looks. Everyone on screen, especially Melvyn Douglas' humiliated patriarch and Patricia Neal's tart housekeeper (disillusioned and saddened by her own self-protective wisdom), wrestle with those id-level responses to Hud that are a grounding conceit of the script, but they also, because of Newman, engage mentally with Hud. Their questions hum in the air: how could a son so insistently disappoint and rebuke a father? How could a man so degrade himself before a woman, seizing what he might have gotten by asking? How could Hud be so careless with a brother's memory, so inadequate to his shadow? These questions are richer than they might have been in Hud because Newmantactfully and artfully, but also because this is the sort of actor he iscreates Hud as a sum of conscious choices, not an animal or an icon. His vicissitudes, shames, affronts, and inadequacies are the evolving products of a human life, not the contours of an allegorical figure. He seems like he could change, but he doesn't, or won't. He retains a core of decency which he rarely allows to breathe, for reasons which are his own, though Newman invites us to guess at them.
Four years later, in Cool Hand Luke, Newman stepped into another leading role that the screenwriters and the director can't help but position in the realm of the parable. They haven't fully agreed, with each other or with themselves, about what kind of parable, so Christic imagery dukes it out with midcentury rebel chic and also, amid the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, with a vision of lean, able masculinity Taylorized beyond belief and slung between the alternatives of compliance and execution. Conrad Hall, as gifted a cinematographer as Howe but temperamentally dissimilar, dapples the cast in natural light and allows the camera to draw energy from their exertions, their impudence, their bonhomie. Interior scenes are less visually interesting, though one of Luke's best scenes is one of its quietest and most static: the hero's covert interview with his dying mother, Arletta (the incomparable Jo Van Fleet). Through it all, Stuart Rosenberg's movie toggles back and forth between a portrait of community and an ode to the individual, but somewhere along the way, its thematic ambivalence and episodic structure start to feel like major virtues: Cool Hand Luke is one of our most lived-in and pleasurably paced odes to nonconformity, magnifying the athletic, good-natured gratuitousness of the hog-wrestling scene in Hud to full feature length. Newman looks and acts much more at home in Lucas Jackson's skin than in Hud Bannon's eroticized armor, basing this performance not on productive paradox but on flexibility, charisma, alertness in the moment. He trims the more florid gestures and supporting performances to human sizeadding a further dimension to Luke's eventual plea that his comrades start living for and through themselves, not vicariously through him. Those interesting moments of crisis notwithstanding, Newman's utter confidence as an actor steadies the movie through its shakier passages, and he thus lifts the curtain on the second, long stage of his career. By this bifurcating arithmetic, Hud is the best example of Newman as Student, adapting himself to a difficult movie, deepening the film through his own hard work and contradictory traits; Cool Hand Luke is the best example of Newman as Teacher, of a movie adapting itself to Newman, surviving its most dated effects and questionable story choices by dint of the actor's contagious aura of integrity, versatility, credibility, and good sense. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)
(Images © 1963 Paramount Pictures and © 1967 Warner Bros. Pictures)