About 10 years ago, I read an article about the 35th anniversary of The Graduate making the case that the film’s legendary one-word warning against conformity—“plastics”—had not only lost its revolutionary resonance over the ensuing four decades, it had been turned entirely on its head. To twenty-something moviegoers in the early aughts, the author argued, “plastics” was no longer the embodiment of everything soulless and wrong about the square adult world, but rather a symbol of the joyfully ironic cultural co-option they’d been raised in, with its neo-lounge music, its retro fashions, its appropriation of any era, icon or movement, regardless of cultural context or political meaning.
Plastics, the writer wrote, had won.
I thought of that article recently while watching the Paul Newman western, Hud, another brilliant film from the 1960s that, like The Graduate, has seen its message twisted all out of shape by time.
This is something of a summer of Hud in Texas: Alamo Drafthouse screened the film as part of its Texas Monthly Rolling Roadshow back in June, and Texas Public Radio screened it Aug. 16 at the Santikos Bijou theater in San Antonio as part of its Cinema Tuesdays series. Hud, based on a novel by Larry McMurtry, is a true Texas movie, huge in scope but stark in its depiction of life in a dying ranch town, a tale of familial conflict and a metaphor for a country rapidly losing its soul.
That soul is embodied by Homer Bannon, an aging ranch owner whose belief in the fundamental decency of people and the land they work makes him a relic in mid-20th century America. Like the Okies in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Homer simply can’t see the point of progress that comes at the expense of people.
On the other end of the spectrum is Homer’s self-obsessed, unprincipled, cruel son Hud—“The man with the barbed wire soul!” as the film’s posters called him—who will sacrifice anything for his own pleasure and monetary success. His life is focused on self-fulfillment, and his long-simmering personal resentment toward his father manifests itself as a hatred for all things moral.
Hud is a classic movie character of the period, a fighter in a generational battle that raged in cineplexes nationwide. Think of James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause and East of Eden, or Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (or, later, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate). Driving his pink Cadillac through the barren black-and-white landscape of the Texas Panhandle, rolling from one bar and illicit affair to the next, Hud represents sex and life and abandon and freedom and desire to stretch the boundaries of acceptable behavior. He represents the new America.
McMurtry and the film’s director, Martin Ritt, created Hud’s character not just to thrill but to warn. To them he was the embodiment of a growing malignant spirit in the country, a spirit interested only in greed and money and what can be taken. They were hoping to create a late-capitalist American devil.
Take the famous scene where Homer’s cattle herd comes down with foot and mouth disease. Hud implores his father to sell the cows before anyone knows they’re sick. When his father refuses, pointing to the very real chance of a national epidemic, Hud explodes in disbelief: “This whole country is run on epidemics,” he shouts. “Epidemics of big-business price fixin’, crooked TV shows, income tax finagling, souped-up expense accounts. … I say let’s us put our bread in some of that gravy while it is still hot.”
McMurtry and Ritt probably figured that viewers would be appalled by such thinking and by the character behind it. But somewhere along the way, it seems the cautionary element of their movie got lost. In the decades following the movie’s release, Hud became a role model. His rapacious lust, his desire for money and success, his indifference to the lives of other people, his cruelty toward women, his sociopathic need to take, take, take regardless of consequence somehow became traits to be admired rather than abhorred. Look around Texas today and you’ll see far too many Huds, men who see making money as not just the ultimate goal but the only goal, who see women as things to be used and then tossed aside, who look at consumption as the point of life. Homer’s Texas has become Hud’s, a land where capital and commodification trump all.
Watching Hud now, I can’t help the feeling that somewhere along the way we missed the point—that plastics, or something far worse, has won again.