Sunday, October 15, 2006

Picked Flicks #37: Hud & Cool Hand Luke

Exactly five minutes and thirty seconds of Hud transpire before Paul Newman enters. The time is hardly wasted, resplendent as it is with James Wong Howe's widescreen black-and-white photography, marrying pristine formal composition and sublime light and contrast to the parched desolation of a fossilized Texas; shimmering as it also is with a quiet Elmer Bernstein score that both shares and fosters the brimming-heart melancholy of the images. Long, flattened horizons; long, flattened cars; grass and scrub flattened by wind; long, wide roads; wide brims on tall hats atop tall men and boys with long gazes and flat voices; longing; ways of life, long but now flat. Hud evokes all of these things, quickly and fully, and if the tone and camerawork sometimes tilt into self-mythologizing, the myth exerts a strong claim, a persuasive allure. And then, speaking of allure, Brandon de Wilde's awkward, proud, lonely, and sentimental adolescent Lonnie Bannon goes looking for his roustabout uncle Hud, tracking his pink Cadillac (inevitably) to the curbside of some under-attended housewife, pipping and then blaring the horn on Hud's own steering wheel to call his uncle forth from some lithe, clammy iniquity. The screen door pops open: Hud. "Honcho," he calls to his nephew, leaning against a porch railing, insolent, the cock of every walk, "I just hope for your sake that this house is on fire."

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 decency—with bounteous charity, compassionate politics, a legendary marriage, faultless generosity toward his co-stars—Newman'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 compared—Brando, Clift, and Dean—Newman 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 Newman—tactfully and artfully, but also because this is the sort of actor he is—creates 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 size—adding 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)

Labels: , , , , ,

Links to this post:

Create a Link

6 Comments:

Blogger J.J. said...

Thanks for this little bit of rapture. I adore Newman, but it is as much for his offscreen persona as his on. I don't think he truly settled into a role until 1982, when Frank Galvin showed him what movie characters were capable of.

10:49 AM, October 16, 2006  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

Newman is indeed superb in The Verdict. If I ever watch it for a second time, I suspect Nobody's Fool might also make a serious run for this favorites list. My memories of the movie, the photography and temperature, and of every single performance are extremely fond, and Newman is perfection in it.

1:06 PM, October 16, 2006  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

I love Newman too. Though I came to him quite late. I didn't ever realize how good he was and have still not seen that much of his filmography but I'm enjoying backtracking.

1:44 PM, October 19, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry for the late reply Nick. I have loved Newman since for quite a few years. He is my favourite actor. Your blog on Hud was brilliant. I loved it. Hud is in my top ten, and his scene when attacking Patricia Neal still sends shivers down my spine.

If you haven't already, see Harper and The Prize, two of my absolute favourite Newman movies.

Jacqui

8:00 AM, December 23, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm awfully late to this thread, but I just wanted to add my appreciation for this appreciation of Newman. You've hit the nail on the head -- his virtues as a man dovetailed with his limitations as an actor, making him fascinating to watch. I loved him in The Hustler when I first saw it 20+ years ago, but when I re-watched it, although I still loved the movie, his acting in the movie was at times painful to watch -- not because the acting wasn't good (it was pretty good) but because it fell far short of my memory of, and estimation for, him. He just wasn't in the acting class of the truly great actors, like Brando, though he certainly seemed superior to most of them as human beings. It's exceedingly rare to find someone who seems both a great actor and a good man -- Duvall comes to mind.

3:24 PM, August 24, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Thanks, Anon! I really appreciate these comments - not just the very nice compliments, but also your own thoughts.

Agreed that we could use more actors who combine talent and decency to such a remarkable degree. Jeff Bridges seems to belong to this class. Sean Penn is a tough case, because he's so damn ornery and doesn't always pick the right battles - but compared to what he's doing in Haiti right now, and what he previously did in New Orleans, a lot of socially conscious actors and frankly a lot of large-scale relief efforts look pretty pale. I think Newman must have admired him. (Or am I projecting, even more than usual?)

Meanwhile, Hud with Sean Penn would be a revisit I'd be very eager to see, especially since it seems like you could take very different stylistic roads into this territory than Ritt & Co. took. I'd be curious to see what a dirtier, grittier Hud might look like.

3:52 PM, August 24, 2010  

Post a Comment

<< Home