Thursday, August 20, 2015

1963: Patricia Neal for Hud

Patricia Neal plays Alma, the housekeeper on a cattle ranch owned by an old man, his ne'er-do-well son, and his grandson (the son of his other son). She kind of has a thing for the son, who kind of has a thing for her, except he doesn't really care about anybody but himself.

This is very difficult to evaluate. I mean, yes, Neal gives a wonderful performance. She has some great one-liners that she delivers perfectly, and she provides the perfect balance between the overly-righteous old man and the overly-indulgent younger man. I also really like the way she resists Hud's attentions because he's so awful, despite the fact that she's sort of attracted to him, and the way she lets the audience see this internal struggle without overdoing it. I think she probably deserved an Oscar, but I also think she definitely did not deserve this Oscar. I find it difficult to fathom how anyone ever considered the part of Alma to be a "leading role." I wasn't timing her, but according to IMDb, she's only onscreen for 21 minutes and 51 seconds, which is not only the shortest Best Actress winning performance, but also shorter than any of the Best Actor winning performances.

I realize that the length of a performance doesn't always necessarily dictate whether it's a supporting or a leading role; for example, Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor for The Silence of the Lambs, which he was in for only 3 minutes longer than Patricia Neal was in this movie, but his character's presence is felt throughout the whole film. In Hud, at least for me, it was pretty easy to forget about Alma when she wasn't on-screen. While all 21 minutes and 51 seconds are well-acted, in the grand scheme of the movie her character isn't really that important. The story's not about her; it's about the relationship between the three men and some drama with their cattle, which may or may not have foot-and-mouth disease. It kind of feels like Alma's main purpose is to emphasize how much of a jerk Hud is. To some extent, I suppose she's also there to provide a third example for the youngest guy of the type of person he can grow up to be. In that capacity, Neal does a great job of making Alma a lot more likable than either Hud or his father, which I think helps the young man ultimately choose to become like neither of them. So she steals a few scenes and has a profound impact on the main characters, but fades to the background for most of the film. To me, this screams Best Supporting Actress. I have no idea why she was even nominated for this category, let alone won. Melvyn Douglas won Best Supporting Actor for this movie, and his is way more of a leading role than hers.

I haven't seen any of the other performances that were nominated for Best Actress that year. Maybe they were all terrible, in which case Patricia Neal deserved to win. Also, three of the five Best Supporting Actress nomination spots were taken by actresses in Best Picture Winner Tom Jones, so maybe somebody thought that since there was no room for her in that category they had to stick her somewhere. I don't know. Like I said, she deserved an Oscar, but not this Oscar. Oh, well.

Patricia Neal had a very complicated life, involving an affair with Gary Cooper; a 30-year-long, tumultuous marriage to Roald Dahl that resulted in five children, one of whom had suddenly died at the age of 7 just prior to the filming of Hud, and another of whom she was 8 months pregnant with when she won the award; and a series of major strokes in 1965 that she just barely survived. Fortunately, she recovered and was able to return to work, picking up a second Best Actress Oscar nomination for 1968's The Subject was Roses. She lived to be 84, which is kind of amazing considering that she almost died at 39.

Coming up next: Julie Andrews, the fourth Best Actress winner who's still alive, and the only one that I've actually had a face-to-face conversation with

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