There’s just something about a glamour girl of a certain age. Ava Gardner had it in “The Night of the Iguana,” where she’s so much sexier and more interesting than in her Technicolor goddess days. And Patricia Neal had it in 1963’s “Hud,” giving what might be one of the finest film performances ever as slatternly, barefoot housekeeper Alma, winning the best actress Oscar for maybe 20 minutes of screen time.
Never, not once, does Neal give the impression of acting. With her deep-timbred Southern drawl and a lazy sideways smile, she already possessed Alma’s external attributes—and with three children by the time she made “Hud,” she was an old hand at the housework we see Alma doing.
But she imbues even the picking up of dirty clothes with a hard-won sexiness. Her Alma teases the three men for whom she works and saunters in and out of rooms with a knowing air, offering cryptic observations and keeping everyone at arm’s length until she’s no longer given the option. With one drawled sentence, she can cut anyone in her path down to size—most famously when a drunk Hud (Paul Newman, of course) offers her a roll in the sack. “I already had one cold-blooded bastard,” she says while straining cheese curds. “I’m not looking for another.”
There’s no squeamishness to Neal’s Alma, no sense of outraged womanhood. She’s old enough to know the facts of life, and one gets the impression that she was a model student. The spine of her story is a rough, dark, will-they-or-won’t-they plot, but her face is constantly flickering with self-mockery as she both acknowledges and dismisses her attraction to bad boy Hud.
That self-awareness is most notable in an earlier scene between the two in Hud’s convertible. She’s just come from the grocery store with an armful of bags, and he’s just come from sleeping with another man’s wife. He picks her up on the side of the road, barely letting her sit down before flooring the accelerator. Alma remains unruffled.
“Someone in this car smells like Chanel No. 5,” she says, “and it ain’t me. I can’t afford it.” The split-second pause between those two sentences serves to make fun of both of them simultaneously. Then she smirks. “I wish I knew where some girls get the time. By the time I finish scrubbing the floor, cleaning the bathtub, hanging clothes…”
“They just drop everything, honey,” Hud says.
“I suppose it does beat housework.”
And it’s the way Neal delivers that last line with a kind of flinty world-weary flirtatiousness and a fast cut of her eyes to Hud that sticks in your mind and gives the impression that she considers extremely unlikely the chances of finding a man worth dropping housework for. And Hud does nothing to contradict that viewpoint.
Eventually, Hud plays too rough for Alma, attacking her in her bedroom one night, and Alma quits. In the original script, Hud follows her to the bus station, and they share a passionate kiss before she leaves. Watch the finished product, in which Hud keeps making a play for her as she boards the bus—“You’re the one that got away”—and she doesn’t even turn around. That change is the difference between condoning Hud’s behavior and highlighting Alma’s survival instinct. If they’d kissed, we’d wonder about her future. But when she calmly walks away, we wonder about Hud’s future.
The flap copy of Patricia Neal’s memoir, “As I Am,” claims that she tells her story with a “bad girl’s bravado and an earth mother’s compassion.” That’s not a bad description of her Alma either.
Mark Peikert is senior editor of Backstage.