Hud (1963) and The Bling Ring (2013)

Dir. Martin Ritt. Starring Paul Newman, Brandon deWilde, Melvyn Douglas

Dir. Sofia Coppola. Starring Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Emma Watson

All these years I’ve been down on Paul Newman, and I don’t regret it. All the same, it’s not entirely his fault. He was so gorgeous, and had such easy body language, that it must have been tempting to cast him over and over again as the coolest customer on the block. If that’s something one responds to, then watching him eat all those eggs in Cool Hand Luke is catnip in the same way that watching the kids from The Breakfast Club stick it to Vernon is a pleasure. (Suffice it to say that it’s not something I respond to.) But even when Newman knows it’s a pose, it still feels like a pose while watching, and I know when I start getting double vision I try to rub it out of my eyes. Watching Hud after rewatching Matt Damon in The Departed was instructive; like Damon, Newman is at his best when he’s an asshole. That’s what makes him so exciting in The Hustler, after all, the absolute arrogance which makes you want to strangle him. In Hud, what’s driving Newman’s character is sanded away entirely halfway through the film. Without a parent who loves him, Hud has fallen into that cycle that is impossible to pull out of. Too resentful of his father, Homer (Douglas), to do the right things and try to earn his love over time, Hud would rather rule in Hell. Of course, he’s still dying to get some proof of the unconditional paternal love that we’re supposed to believe rests in our parents, and so he keeps doing things which will prove his thesis: it’s also his father’s fault for not loving him enough to forgive him for his misdeeds.

It’s refreshing and unusual to see this neediness in a man, and to see it directed inward at his family instead of outward at, like, conquering Europe. The Bannons are landed cowboys, or at least think of themselves that way It’s why dragging his nephew Lonnie (deWilde) into his capers, to get him to whoop it up with him, is so important. If other people can be drawn in to his bad behavior, then how bad could it really be? This is the mark not of Joe Cool; Joe Cool does what he wants and ropes up others in the venture because he’s above it. Hud is an asshole because he is quite emphatically beneath it, and that’s where Newman’s charisma finally gets a chance to shine. When he does the big brother bit with Lonnie, the reason it works so well on Lonnie (and is so tempting for us!) is because he knows the line is between withholding and giving just a smidgen. When he tells Lonnie that he reminds him of his brother, Lonnie is hooked, and Hud is saying it not because of some deep affection for his brother or his brother’s son, but because he’s dying for an acolyte who might side with him against Homer in the house. The wickedness of the character is also more easily accessed from that starting point of jerk rather than the starting point of BMOC: when Hud tries to claim Alma (Patricia Neal), who he’s been flirting with, via sexual assault. It is an ugly scene, and to Alma’s credit she does not stick around after the fact. She hops a bus and gets out of town.

There’s a bus at the end of The Bling Ring too, although Marc (Broussard) doesn’t have so much choice about whether or not he gets on. Wearing his prison jumpsuit, Marc’s off to jail for his starring role in “the Bling Ring,” a group of young people who rob celebrities’ homes while they’re out of town at Fashion Week or in Vegas or Miami. If Hud is the reason Alma got on the bus, then Rebecca (Chang) is the reason Marc is there. It was never his idea to rob anyone’s house for their money or watches, shoes or dresses, perfume or Polaroids, but he is unable to wrench himself away from Katie’s form of charisma, a much drier one than Hud’s but as irresistible for him as Hud’s is for Lonnie. She suggests, or demands, or weakly soothes. Over and over again, he’ll say that they need to leave the house they’re breaking into, and over and over again she’ll reply, “It’s fine,” without any actual proof that things are fine. Only once does he manage to get her to change her mind about something, and that’s when he reasons with her about stealing Paris Hilton’s dog. (His first line of attack, which is that one probably shouldn’t steal a dog, is parried; he gets through when he mentions that the dog would be missed and obviously recognizable.) Otherwise she scolds or shames or succors him in one way or another, and after a while it’s clear that the rush he’s into is significantly different than the rush she gets.

Rebecca, like future burglars Nicki (Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga), is searching for a thrill. It’s a dead-eyed thrill for Rebecca, to be sure; like Marc, she seems more tickled by opening up cars and seeing if people have left their wallets inside than she does by getting into Paris Hilton’s or Rachel Bilson’s. The thought of getting those “Victoria’s Secret clothes” from the Orlando Bloom-Miranda Kerr household, or just generally “going shopping,” excites her more than the actual raids do. Nicki and Sam, the Leopold and Loeb of thrill-robbing rich people’s mansions, buzz like bees among flowers, but Rebecca seems largely absent from the exclamations and interjections. The most notable moment she has is when, finally inside Lindsay Lohan’s house, she puts on one of Lohan’s dresses and slowly sprays herself with perfume. This is the hero worship of old, the copying of Norma Shearer’s laugh or Bette Davis’ affectations taken to its furthest extent, for Rebecca has managed to get inside Lohan in a way that the dizziest fan of Joan Crawford could never imagine. Try as she might, Rebecca of 1935 could not have gotten into Joan’s house and popped on the Letty Lynton dress. But wearing designer clothes that the stars have sweated in is a mostly anticlimactic activity in the movie, and it’s one that the teens largely treat as anticlimactic themselves. Nicki takes a ride on the pole in Paris Hilton’s nightclub room; Marc, in the closest he comes to levity during one of these nights, throws on a pair of Hilton’s heels. That’s about as wild as it gets for them. The bacchanalia is a mental one, amplified with cocaine or loud music or booze or endless pictures for Facebook, and although Marc is drinking and clubbing and snorting plenty, the rush is in the intimacy of the time with Rebecca. Hud is worn down because of his father’s constant presence, the nearness that he cannot live up to. In the absence of parents, Rebecca is the store of his attention and reassurance: “It’s fine.” Looking up the houses and going with her while she coolly puts her prints on everything there and he rapidly loses his composure is the cycle he’s drawn to. She lives for anticipation, and his adrenaline can only spike when he can imagine himself getting cuffed in the next ten minutes.

There’s an interpretation for both of these movies that basically posits that everyone in them would have done better if their parents had spanked them, and that’s not not compelling. Somewhere along the line Homer has failed Hud, although the movie is graceful enough not to include a flashback or something similarly sordid. There are literally parents in The Bling Ring, though the one we see most often is Nicki and Sam’s mom, Laurie (Leslie Mann). Laurie is the Marianne of vapid Southern California, praying aimless prayers to the universe, smiling broadly, and incapable of finding a woman more worthy of a vision board than Angelina Jolie. All of Nicki’s empty phrases when she’s interviewed, Instagram poetry before Instagram, can be found originally in lessons from Laurie that Nicki rolled her eyes through early on. Likewise the case to be made that the movies are both about people trying to fill the holes within themselves with massive consumption. (Somewhere a Lacanian cries out that those are not dissimilar ideas.) I like that one more, down to the kinds of people the movies are presenting. Hud is barely alive when he’s kept out of his favorite activities: driving, taking slugs (at offenders and of booze), and riding (horses and women). These are deeply sensual pursuits, the classic five-card hand in a certain species of American male. What the primarily female bling ring is up to is sensual in its own way, as it requires the touching of many dresses and the toting of many handbags. Yet where Hud is deadening his imagination, the girls are sharpening theirs, cosplaying for whoever the Mr. DeMille of The Hills is.

What interests me most about the two movies is their depiction what the future will be when we hand it over to the soulless young folks. Hud is more elegiac about this possibility than The Bling Ring, as the latter has the good sense to know that there was no golden generation. The elders of The Bling Ring are a parade of starlets with DUIs so careless that they can’t even be bothered to lock the door when they leave the state, where in Hud the adults in the room either ride the range or cook on it all the time while dispensing folksy wisdom.

The event in Hud that has everyone knotted up inside is not Hud’s freewheeling lifestyle, which has the specter of habit hanging about it, but the possibility that foot and mouth disease has infected Homer’s cattle and that all of them will be exterminated. Hud has two solutions to the problem. The first, before the government really gets involved—and tellingly, Hud is one of those fellows who would have been horrified by “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”—is to sell the cattle before they’re diagnosed. They’re diagnosed anyway. The cattle are driven into a pit and shot to pieces by the Bannons, the farmhands, and the g-men. (There’s a good case that no review of Hud should do anything besides sing the praises of James Wong Howe, who finds angles among the cattle looking up at their executioners and looking down upon all of them, the ones with guns and the ones without, and watching the ones without try to scatter without anywhere to go. It is as awful as it sounds, and it is shot to perfection.) It is around this time that Hud suggests that losing the cattle is not the worst that could befall the family; perhaps this is opportunity, a chance to drop the cows for oil. Homer rejects this out of hand as well, although that decision is driven by his romantic sense of what a man’s work ought to be as opposed to practicality. (A man should see the results of his work, Homer opines. In cattle you are involved in every step, and in oil you are practically a spectator.) There is a great practicality in Hud, the same element that drives his ruthlessness about other human beings, but there’s also no surprise that he wants to drop husbandry for pumping away. Released in 1963, when Kennedy and his bright young things seemed like the way of the future, there’s something of spreadsheet braintrust inside Hud’s process, the need to make efficient decisions in business and never mind what the human beings might make of it. That other people might inhibit his chance to do what he wants when he is so sure of what the right thing to do is an impossibility for him. It’s what gives Lonnie walking away from him at the end the power it has. When Hud goes back into the house and closes the door behind him, he may well be shutting the door on everyone else and consigning himself to the loneliness he deserves. It’s a gesture that doubtless has meaning for him, but for us it’s a gesture that’s basically meaningless with having been acted out so many times. Lonnie abandons him, and the subjectivity of Hud’s presumed inferiors is proven. No doubt the teeming lake of oil beneath his feet will provide him the solace that human relations cannot, and no doubt that there is a straight line between himself and Gordon Gekko.

If anything, The Bling Ring predicts an even bleaker future than Hud. Lonnie recants for any of his ill deeds when he walks out on Hud, but the penitent of The Bling Ring are as totally depraved as they were when they were sinners. I think I felt bad about myself because I wasn’t “A-list” handsome, Marc says. Somewhere along the line he’s learned that this sort of self-deprecation gets sympathy, as surely as Nicki learned along the line that referring to something as a “learning lesson” is the kind of apology that makes people believe that she’s turned the corner, or that talking about a charity foundation makes people think you do something worthwhile. Somewhere along the line, these people learned how not to feel shame. When the cops come to Las Vegas to track down Rebecca, she very naturally tells them that she’s never stolen anything, that she’s not at all involved in these crimes. When they find Lindsay Lohan’s clothes and Paris Hilton’s topless photos in her possession, she says, in much the same tone of voice but much more quickly, that if, “hypothetically,” she could help them recover the items, would they let her go? And at the end of the movie, while she’s being interviewed by someone who wants to know about how Lindsay Lohan acted in the county clink, Nicki has the guts to look right in the camera and, presidential candidate style, suggest people go to her website. The kids plead not guilty to the charges, even though there’s plenty of security footage and, of course, the goodies in their closets. When one’s id is the sole governor of morality, then it’s no surprise that these people cannot look at themselves rationally enough to even understand their own culpability.

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