Ah, the never-ending debate…leading or supporting? Even I have had various discussions about this topic on this blog already but the simple truth is that there is no truth. Everybody will see the input and influence of a performance differently, everybody has different criteria for the definition of ‘leading’ and ‘supporting’ and everybody has quite simply a different opinion overall. So, my opinions on Patricia Neal’s Oscar-winning turn as Alma Brown, the lonely and earthy housekeeper in Hud: slight borderline case with a strong tendency for supporting. I used to call this a clear supporting performance in the past – and for good reasons. I still insist that, if the film makers had wanted to, the part of Alma Brown could have been left on the cutting room floor without affecting the overall plot of the movie. The whole story of Hud circles around Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas and Brandon De Wilde with Patricia Neal providing some more emotional moments from time to time but she never does either become a part of the main storyline nor does she ever get her own. She is Paul Newman’s object of affection and as such written surprisingly thin. But somehow, Patricia Neal’s screen presence and her unique take on this character help her to achieve a level of visibility in Hud that other actresses might have missed and her status as the only female presence in this modern Western somehow makes her classification as Leading Actress more understandable. In the end, it’s all relative – the Golden Globes nominated her as Supporting Actress (but the winner was Margaret Rutherford for The V.I.P.s which has to make Patricia Neal’s win truly unique – has there ever been another Best Actress winner at the Oscars who lost the Golden Globe as Supporting Actress for the same performance?) while the critics in New York, the National Board of Review and the BAFTAs awarded her in the leading category. So, even though I would probably still put her in the supporting category if I could decide the category placement myself, her entry as leading actress does make enough sense. But: what about the performance? I often complained that if an actress is not given enough material to build on, material that presents her with a developed character and allows her to find additional depth and aspects herself, it is very hard for her to compete with other, more fully realized performances in this category. After all, Vivien Leigh had probably over three hours of screen time in Gone with the Wind, plus a demanding character that goes through various transformations while Patricia Neal has maybe 20 minutes of screen time and is given a character that only exists to reject Hud’s sexual advances. How can they compare? Well, to sum it up: Patricia Neal does suffer from the thin writing and the fact that Hud creates its own world that Alma Brown is barely touching at all – but it’s also the truth that it’s all about quality and not quantity and one critic was certainly right when he stated that Patricia Neal fully realized all of the part’s potentials, no matter how small or scattered they may be.
As Alma Brown, Patricia Neal had to fight hard to make her presence noteworthy and to let her character truly become a part of Hud instead of an occasional addition. And for this fight, Patricia Neal chose a very intriguing approach that does not include any scene-stealing, overacting or exaggerating – instead, her performance is one of the most straight-forward, subtle and low-key pieces of work this category has ever seen. There are no big break-downs, no big scenes, no big emotions. Alma Brown is one of the most calm, relaxed, wise and unflashy creations in movie history, a woman who breathes and lives but does not overwhelm the audience. It’s an extremely interesting and unique approach to a part that could have been played in a thousand different ways and that could have invited countless actresses to try to leave a big impression as desperately as possible – but by not trying to make any big impression at all, Patricia Neal found a way to create Alma as a woman who escapes the usual logic of characters like these and she underlined the script’s writing by showing Alma as an outsider by choice but making her a part of Hud by her behavior and interactions with the other cast-members. Her Alma is fascinatingly mysterious and yet very familiar, she is neither a very deep nor a very complex character but she benefits a great deal from Patricia Neal’s interpretation which is able to suggest a whole life beyond Hud, a journey that Alma has gone through and that will continue long after the movie has ended. Because of a lack of an own plotline by the script, Patricia Neal had only herself to rely on and her acting choices, even though not always able to truly overcome the limits of her character, made it possible for her to leave a distinct mark on her role and the movie and she was able to add various layers beyond the surface of Alma, added only by her own interpretation. Patricia Neal showed that she did not truly need a script to help her – because while her work with her dialogue is very intriguing, it’s mostly her unspoken scenes that truly turn Alma into a the memorable character she turned out to be: little looks at Paul Newman, short moments of doubt or regret, decisions of strength played with a certain vulnerability or little gestures of joy that make her interactions with Paul Newman so tense and yet so relaxed.
In her first moment on the screen, Patricia Neal already demonstrated how unexpected her interpretation of Alma Brown is – her delivery of the line ‘He parked right on my flower bed’ after the arrival of Hud lacks all the emotions that usually would accompany a line like this: hidden pain or suffering, regret, a secret longing, everything that could help an actress to tell all the untold secrets of Alma Brown in one second. Patricia Neal instead delivered the line without any of these emotions and stated it in a very matter-of-fact way, with maybe a slight annoyance but still a tone that expressed even an acceptance of his behavior since she already knows what to expect of him. And when she later asks him why he chose to park exactly on her flowers, her voice again speaks with clear composure that is not trying to hide any deeper feelings but again shows how well she knows Hud and men like him. In her first interactions with Paul Newman, Patricia Neal also lays the foundation of their relationship – her Alma Brown is a woman who clearly enjoys all his stories about the countless women he goes to bed with, who likes his behavior and apparently never thinks of herself as an object of affection but rather someone who prefers to meet Hud on the same level when it comes to their private lives. This way, Patricia Neal also underlined that Alma knows her position as housekeeper in the Bannon household but neither in this position nor as a woman she is willing to put herself under Hud’s influence and charm. During her later scenes, Patricia Neal slowly shows how much Alma has been shaped by the life she led so far – the dialogue about her past is only minimal but her facial acting and the way she speaks her lines make it clear that Alma is a woman who experienced a great deal during her life so far, good and bad. The way Alma behaves around the household, as the only woman in a world of men, demonstrates that she is already used to this life kind of life. Patricia Neal crafted Alma as a woman who has her own philosophy, her own wisdom and the strength to live her life accordingly to it. She is not a saint nor a mysterious creature that came out of nowhere – instead, she is very much a part of her environment, earthy and real, transcendent and not at once. Patricia Neal turned Alma into a real three-dimensional human being, a woman who possesses the toughness she needs in a world like this, the no-nonsense attitude that helps her to keep her strength and her dignity but also the joyful spirit that allows her to always enjoy life, no matter how little it may offer to her.
Since Alma is mostly written as a female counterpart for Hud, Patricia Neal’s scenes opposite Paul Newman (which are most of them) are the most important factor in her work. She could have easily suffered the same fate Eleanor Parker in Detective Story or Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun did 12 years earlier – playing characters that are only seen as important as long as they provide a storyline for the central male character. But Patricia Neal did not fall under this pressure but instead was able to craft Alma Brown as a woman who clearly exists independently from Hud and this way prevented her from turning into a plot device that only exists to give Paul Newman more screen time. Her chemistry with Paul Newman is the most deciding aspect of her work and both actors did their best to combine a certain level of mutual indifference, respect, friendship and clear sexual interest to achieve a wonderful and captivating chemistry. In various little moments, Patricia Neal shows that Alma is a woman who cares more about Hud than she should and who sometimes thinks about him in a way that is different from their moments of relaxed honesty as she sometimes seems to enjoy the idea of being an object of affection to him. But she can also suffers from his constant insults, disinterest and behavior like everybody else. The look on her face as she is doing the dishes, a look completely rid of any emotions which again underlines Patricia Neal’s straight-forwardness in the part, tells how easily Hud can hurt her, despite Alma’s own protectiveness. And so, despite her longing for him she keeps her distance. Or better: she keeps him at distance. Her slight annoyance after one of Hud’s rather unsubtle advances on the porch or her delivery of the line ‘Way over’ when Hud, obviously drunk, again tries to make a pass at her in the kitchen, show that there are no illusions in Alma’s life and that her own experience and her own wisdom prevent her from surrendering to her physical desires. And the scene when she talks to him in her little house, after having quickly removed her underwear that was hanging outside to dry, shows an almost burning passion between these two without ever losing the subtlety of the character – her smiles, her eyes all tell of a certain longing while her words are trying to keep Hud at a distance. It’s mostly this relaxed, open but sexually filled atmosphere between Patricia Neal and Paul Newman that is one of the most fascinating aspects of Hud.
Patricia Neal’s performance is a beautiful example of a dedicated realism on the screen but also of an actress taking an underwritten and thin part and filling it with life thanks to her own acting, her own personality and her ability to use her material to craft the idea of a whole world beyond the written word. Of course, this beautiful portrayal still exists inside the possibilities of Patricia Neal’s work – it’s easy to praise an actress for doing so much with so little but it does not change the fact that this ‘little’ is still holding her back in a certain way. She certainly succeeded in the role but this success is just as limited as the role itself. Still, Patricia Neal used her limited screen time and material very wisely and was able to create a memorable, three-dimensional character by completely focusing on the realism of Alma Brown’s life, her present and her past, a woman who does not spend her life thinking about what could be but only about what is. She brought a wonderfully sad, longing quality to her part and that way took it much further than the screenplay allowed. In her final scenes, her sudden tears are such a start contrast to her earlier characterization that the effect is overwhelming for a short moment until Alma again turns into the woman she used to be. Her husky voice and her body language all show a certain sexuality behind her tough façade, but also a lot loneliness and the trace of a hard life, a relaxed and self-assured but still doubting woman who more than once suffers from her own wisdom, her own choices to remain at a distance to her environment and protect herself against being hurt again. And even during her final talk with Hud, in which she again shows that she knows men like him and that the only thing she can do now is leave, Patricia Neal delivers her lines in which Alma finally tells Hud that she did have some sexual interests in him, again so completely straight-forward and without trying to turn them into anything noteworthy that Alma leaves the movie just as quietly and incidentally as she entered it. So, for her unique and captivating approach to this part, she receives