Pretty Boys & Pathos: The Unmaking of Paul Newman

part of Pretty Boys & Pathos, an ongoing column exploring the men of classic Hollywood

In a July 1953 letter to writer Budd Schulberg about casting On the Waterfront, famed director Elia Kazan wrote:

“If we don’t get Brando, I’m for Paul Newman. This boy will definitely be a film star. I have absolutely no doubt. He’s just as good looking as Brando, and his masculinity, which is strong, is also more actual. He’s not as good an actor as Brando yet, and probably will never be. But he’s a darn good actor with plenty of power, plenty of insides, plenty of sex.”

If you can whittle down the emotional landscape of arguably Paul Newman’s best film as an actor, the 1963 Martin Ritt directed Hud, it would be in a single line of dialogue from aging ranch owner Homer (Melvyn Douglas),  “Little by little the look of the country changes by the men we admire.”

The line, spoken after an emotional wrecking ball of an argument with his titular son, played by Newman, is also an interesting line to keep in mind when looking at the landscape of actors whose profiles rose just as the sun was setting on the glamor and glory of the studio system.

Newman isn’t religiously worshipped by fellow actors like Marlon Brando. He isn’t positioned as an emblem of tenderhearted vulnerability crushed by a studio system and a society unaccepting of gay men into experiencing, what has been dubbed the longest suicide, a la Montgomery Clift. He didn’t have the cold-blooded machismo of Steve McQueen. He isn’t lovingly framed on the walls of young men and women like James Dean. We’re not so much obsessed with the decent men like Newman who are more acting stylists than garishly method (despite his noted acting education) and whose true nature becomes more difficult to pin down the closer you get to them.

Yet Newman isn’t bound to be forgotten anytime soon. He was too beautiful. His philanthropy, which you can be reminded of whenever you walk into a grocery store seeing his smiling face on bottles of salad dressing, too undeniable. His career was too consistent and long running to fade completely from the public consciousness. Unfortunately, Newman’s “plenty of power, plenty of insides, plenty of sex” seems obscured by his image as a decent, even uncomplicated man.

“The Newman mid-career canon was filled with strong, steady, and somewhat predictable films — and his personal life matched it perfectly,” writes Anne Helen Petersen in her Hairpin column about Old Hollywood. “Sometime in the 1970s, it became clear that Newman was still with Woodward — no scandals, no affairs, just New England living, many children, and turquoise velour zip-up cardigans.”

In Petersen’s mind, the majority of his work is only memorable for his presence as a star instead of his skill as an actor. Maybe it’s the idea of skill that trips up our understanding of Newman. He always has an effortlessness to him. His acting looks less like work and more like just being.

It is the metatextual lives of stars like Newman that keep them buzzing around the cultural landscape long after their deaths. When we think of Lauren Bacall it isn’t her transfixing performance in To Have and Have Not that comes to mind first, but the relationship with Humphrey Bogart that it spawned. While it is their lives outside of films (and the way their films reflect it), which often keep stars within the public imagination, this same quality can warp their work — just ask Joan Crawford. For Newman it is his enviable, storied marriage to actress Joanne Woodward, his work as a philanthropist, and his staggering beauty that keep him familiar to younger audiences. But, this image of Newman as uncomplicated is not entirely accurate.

In a Vanity Fair interview a close family friend noted, “Like all great heroes, Paul was flawed. Some of those flaws have been appearing in the lives of people who were left behind in the swirl of his going. He would share everything and absolutely nothing, and it was the nothing part that was so very, very, very confusing, even to his best of friends…. He was enigmatic to a degree that I have never experienced with anybody else…” [Emphasis added.]

This enigmatic quality is at its most fascinating when Newman plays the titular character in Hud. The theatrical release poster is surprisingly accurate in selling the soul of the film. In bold typeface next the swaggering image of Newman is the line, “The man with the barbed wire soul!”

At its center is Hud Bannon (Paul Newman), a selfish, mercurial man ambitious in appetite whose startling beauty obscures his untrustworthiness. He is the photographic negative to his deeply principled rancher father, Homer (Melvyn Douglas), whose health is waning. The others living on the Bannon ranch are Hud’s teenaged nephew, Lonnie (Brandon deWilde) and Alma (Patricia Neal), the housekeeper. The film pivots around the complicated relationships of these four people. Both Lonnie and Hud love Alma in dramatically different ways. Lonnie looks up to both his grandfather and uncle but it is Newman’s Hud he is most impressed by.

Hud doesn’t capitalize on Newman’s blue eyes. Legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe shoots the film in black and white. It doesn’t have the slick, noir stylizations of his work on Sweet Smell of Success (1957) or the dazed melodramatic colorings of Bell, Book, and Candle (1958). Despite what Newman said during the course of his career, we don’t need to see the color of his eyes to recognize just how gorgeous he was and the way his looks create more complications (not less) with how we read this character.

The film begins with Lonnie searching for Hud to inform him of the mysterious death of one of their cattle, that may spell disease that could likely wreck their livelihood. Lonnie weaves his way through town first stopping in an empty diner. On the sidewalk, he comes across a bar manager who sweeps up broken glass caused by Hud the previous night. He picks up information about Hud and we, in turn, learn he’s a man both bruised and bruising.

Lonnie finds Hud’s Cadillac parked in front of a modest home, a woman’s heel splayed against the concrete leading up to the porch. Lonnie picks up the heel and considers it, deciding against knocking on the door. Instead he blows the Cadillac’s horn several times. Hud slinks out, shirt unbuttoned with an air of supreme annoyance around him. “I hope for your sake this house is on fire,” he spits at his nephew. Hud gets his cowboy boots and hat from inside and returns the heel to the unseen woman.

A moment later, the woman’s husband parks in front of his home and Hud greets him with a cheery, “Hi Joe.” The husband Hud and Lonnie asking which one was coming out of his home so damn early in the morning. Hud puts the blame on Lonnie, defends him from Joe, and drives off. When Lonnie calls him out, a smirk spreads wide across Hud’s face, “ain’t it lucky you were handy?”

Hud may be what draws our eyes but it is ultimately Lonnie’s arc from fawning over his uncle to coming into an awareness of the man’s grotesque nature that creates the film’s backbone. Hud’s untenable darkness wrapped in a down home, dick swinging sort of swagger is an attractive model of manhood for the teenaged Lonnie but it’s also rather dangerous. Newman is as beautiful as he ever was in Hud yet the images of him from the film that stick with me are those that contradict his metatextual life of a decent man. In essence, Newman finds a way to be unrecognizable without the dramatic weight loss or odd prosthetics or uglifying himself that far too many actors rely upon for transformation. His eyes lack the twinkle we’ve grown to expect from films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. His gaze is cold, knowing, intrusive. His grin switches from wry to menacing at a clip. He’s the nightmare of unchecked male ego.

We learn Hud’s well of anger and self-hatred can be, at least partially, attributed to the death of his older brother/Lonnie’s father, Norman, who died in a car accident while Hud escaped without a scratch. This wound is reopened after Lonnie and Hud “kick up some dust” at an in-town bar. They return to the Bannon ranch lost in the sweet buzz of liquor singing a jaunty tune, their voices drowning out the creaks of wood under their cowboy boots and the steady hum of insects. They’re wet from washing their faces and jostling around in well water. But Homer ruins the good mood as he stands at the top of the stairs surveying the damage.

Hud yells, “Something seems to be eating away at your liver.” “You, Hud. Like always,” the patriarch responds. Lonnie tries to defend Hud. Homer can see the way Hud is seducing Lonnie onto the wrong path, “You think he’s a real man.” “You can talk a man into trusting you and a woman into wanting you,” Homer describes his wayward son. Shadows black out Hud’s face, turned away from his father knowing all his words are true. Years of animosity unfurl at their feet with Lonnie futilely trying to calm wounds that were carved into these men far before his birth.

Alma provides a good foil for Hud. Actress Patricia Neal has a voice like whiskey and honey which seems to compliment the rough hewn nature of the film. She is beautiful in the way women are when they know themselves and their worth. She is self-aware and her knowledge is hard won. Like the other characters in the film she handles her body in a way that speaks to how physical labor is irrevocably tied to financial well-being.  It is interesting to watch her body grow rigid or smaller in the frame when Hud is present. It is their relationship that I keep coming back to when I think of the film: the knowing, vaguely lonely woman and the devil with the handsome facade. But it isn’t until we near the end where it becomes clear how dark the film is willing to get with the dynamic between Hud and Alma.

After a fight over inheritance a drunk, angry Hud breaks into Alma’s separate living quarters. Alma falls onto the bed. Hud turns off the overhead light with a brutish bang of his fist, plunging them into darkness. The only light comes from the left of the frame. It is just enough to see the configuration of their bodies — him staggering toward her powered by lust and vengeance, her crouching in fear. Alma lunges toward the door, but Hud catches her. She’s tangled in his grasp. He throws her against the wall, the light from the bathroom illuminates his forceful kisses, roving hands, the white of her nightgown. Her eyes search the room for an answer, an exit. She slaps him as he forces her to the floor. The scene is wordless, unflinching.

Lonnie rushes inside and turns on the lights. He pulls Hud off of Alma. Hud easily wrestles control of the situation. Fist raised high. Hand on Lonnie’s throat, pinning him to the floor. He’s about to strike. Stops. The energy and impulse escapes him. Hud warbles to his feet. His shadow passes over Alma still in a state of shock, pain. Hud looks at Lonnie and Alma realizing the gravity of the situation. He stumbles into the unforgiving night leaving them to deal with the emotional wreckage.

Cinematographer Howe makes great use of shadows carving the usually inviting Newman into something frightening. Director Martin Ritt smartly doesn’t turn the camera away from Hud’s ferocity. He lets Newman and Neal wordlessly inhabit this painful scene, their bodies a canvas for the ways the male ego quickly turns to violence when unsatisfied or threatened. The film constantly explores the contradiction between Newman’s  good looks and the gravitational pull of his charisma with the dangerous, vile behavior of his character. But it’s this scene in Hud that highlights how irredeemable his character truly is.

The film ends with Hud alone, trapped by his own hate. After Homer’s death and the sexual assault of Alma, Lonnie decides to leave the Bannon ranch and divorces himself from Hud’s toxic masculinity suggesting, while there may be no hope for Hud, maybe Lonnie can find his way from under the painful inheritance of his older relatives.

Elia Kazan was right: Newman has “plenty of power, plenty of insides, plenty of sex,” but he was wrong to doubt his skill even against Brando. Newman’s masculinity wasn’t just more real compared to his contemporary; the actor was willing and able to explore it on screen with honesty (or at least a darker version of it).

Hud portrays masculinity at its most venal, vulnerable, and needy. Newman, in perhaps his career best role, travels into this darkness and reminds us why we shouldn’t take him for granted. The image that stays in my mind from Hud is Paul Newman’s face cut across by shadows, staring down Homer like a man with a death wish would the barrel of a gun. The cold resentment in Newman’s eyes, the set of his jaw is a universe away from the warmth we usually expect from him. “Little by little the look of the country changes by the men we admire,” Homer says to Lonnie about his blind admiration for Hud. We don’t get much of a response to this incisive line. We don’t have to. Looking at Newman and his legacy is all the response we need.

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Angelica Jade Bastién is a writer and Southern dame currently living in Chicago. She has written for The Atlantic and Bright Wall/Dark Room and currently writes for Vulture. You can find more of her work at Madwomen & Muses.
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