Coen Bros: The Hudsucker Proxy

THE LITTLE GUY: No Coen Bros movie illustrates their interest in social mobility more graphically than The Hudsucker Proxy. Norville Barnes is a hick from Muncie, Indiana who rises up, up, up in the sophisticated New York corporate world, then falls down, down, down and then, miraculously (the word is not too strong) rises back up to the top.

“Up” and “Down” are not mere words in The Hudsucker Proxy — they are story elements,almost characters. The action takes place in New York City, certainly the most vertical place in America, and largely within the Hudsucker headquarters, a 45-story skyscraper (44, not counting the mezzanine). Great emphasis is placed on the verticality of the building and what it means to its inhabitants. Norville begins his work at Hudsucker in the basement mailroom, a seething, windowless dungeon filled with oppressed humanity, and ends his work at the top, where the offices are huge, unpopulated rooms with vast floor space and high windows. Waring Hudsucker (the outgoing president) starts out at the top, both metaphorically and physically, but finds the top wanting, and so jumps out the 44th-floor window (45th, not counting the mezzanine) and plunges to his death. But we see by the end of the movie that Waring Hudsucker has risen again, this time into Heaven, before descending, yet again, to help Norville out of his problem.

So “up” is good and “down” is bad. Everyone wants to be “up,” no one wants to be “down.” Except for the beatniks, of course, who live “downtown” and whose oddball coffee bar is located in a basement. That’s just like those beatniks, turning the status quo on its head and drinking carrot juice on New Year’s Eve. Buzz the Elevator Gnat gets a great thrill from taking people up to the top or sending them down to the bottom. Norville Barnes must take a dozen different rides in that elevator in his journey from the bottom to the top to the bottom and back up to the top.

“Up and down,” it seems, in the world of The Hudsucker Proxy, are heavily loaded terms, full of danger and stress and sorrow. Fortunately, there is a solution: a thing that goes round and round, specifically the hula hoop, the blockbuster idea that Norville carries around in his head and The Hudsucker Proxy‘s narrative secret weapon. His blueprint for the hoop, a simple circle drawn on a piece of scrap paper, baffles and confounds all the Hudsucker employees who behold it. No wonder: they live in New York City (the most grid-like major city on Earth), and work in a building that’s all about rising up and falling down. There’s nothing “round and round” about their lives, and Norville seems either quite stupid or stunningly insane to them for thinking of a circle (the hoop prototype is even made crimson red, to better set it off from all the squares and rectangles in the board room).

The hula hoop, like the baby in Raising Arizona, is nothing less than a holy ideal, one the “squares” (another beatnik term!) in Hudsucker Industries aren’t quite ready for. In a world of up and down, Norville thinks in terms of round and round, and that makes him inscrutable, unpredictable and dangerous. And so much of the dialog around Hudsucker Industries concerns things going up and down and round and round. The business stock falls, then rises, then falls again, then rises again, four different characters are compelled to jump out the 44th floor (45th, not counting the mezzanine), while divine, ineffable notions are expressed in terms like “the great wheel of life” or “what goes around comes around” or “the music plays and the wheel turns.”

What besides divinity could explain the actions of the lone hula hoop, the one that escapes its death in the alley of the toy store to roll purposefully out into the street, through the grid of the small town streets, to circle a child and land at his feet (upon the firmly-stated grid of the sidewalk)?

(A scientist shows up in a newsreel to tell us that the hula hoop operates on “the same principles that keep the earth spinning around and around,” and keep you from flying off into space — an instance of science vainly trying to explain the divine, as though there were a quantifiable “reason” why the Earth spins.)

(We know that the hula hoop is a divinely inspired creation because Waring Hudsucker’s halo, at the end of the movie, is also a hula hoop. He even makes a comment about how halos on angels won’t last, are simply “a fad.”)

(The hula hoop is not the only “holy spinning thing” that shows up in Coen Bros movies. There is also the hubcap/lampshade/flying-saucer in The Man Who Knew Too Much and the bowling balls in The Big Lebowski.)

In between the square and the round, quite literally, is the big clock at the top of the Hudsucker building. The clock symbolizes Time, which, it has been noted, moves on (“Tempus Fugit” is the slogan of the newsreel shown halfway through, Tidbits of Time). Yes, time does move on, as we are reminded whenever we see the enormous clock hand sweep through the office of Sidney J. Mussberger. The narrator (another Coen mainstay), Mose the Clockkeeper, does not identify himself as God but that’s the role he plays in Hudsucker. Time is money, says Mose, and money is what makes the world go around, and that, I suppose, is why the round clock is fixed in its square hole on the side of the rectangular Hudsucker building. Because Time may be round, and so is the world (at least the globe in Mussberger’s office is) but Money is square in both shape and temperament, and I guess that means Mose’s job is to square the circle and keep everything in balance, which I suppose is why the clock in The Hudsucker Proxy is so influential. When the Hudsucker clock stops, everything stops (except the snow, oddly).

(That clock wasn’t chosen at random — it bears a startling resemblance to the clock in Metropolis — another movie where down is bad and crowded, up is good and roomy, and a clock rules the world.)

(Waring Hudsucker, when he appears as an angel at the end of the movie, sings “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” as he descends from the heavens — a small point perhaps, but he’s not singing about going up a mountain or coming down a mountain, which one would think would be the natural order of things in songs about mountains.)

(Mussberger, it should be said, has his own influence over time — he makes his clacking pendulum balls [five round objects in a rectangular framework] stop on command, something Mose also accomplishes when he stops the world in Act III.)

Mose explains in the opening narration that everyone on New Year’s Eve wants to be able to grab hold of a moment and keep it, but only Norville manages to actually do such a thing, because he is, alone among characters in Hudsucker, divinely inspired. (Well, except for Buzz, who turns out, incongruously, to have his own round idea.)

IS NORVILLE A MORON? This is the question that haunts The Hudsucker Proxy and which, I submit, accounts for its lack of popularity. For the plot of Hudsucker to have maximum impact, the audience must believe, as Mussberger and streetwise reporter Amy Archer do, that Norville is a blithering idiot. Then, when it turns out he is divinely inspired, we are to look at Norville in a new light. The trouble is, the Coens have cast Tim Robbins, an actor who oozes intelligence, to play Norville. To compensate for his innate intelligence, Robbins plays the part as though wearing a neon “DOOFUS” sign on his head. When I read the script, the story of Norville amazed me and made me weep. I could see what the Coens (and Sam Raimi) were after — a comedy along the lines of Mr. Deeds Goes To Town or It’s a Wonderful Life, with a helping of His Girl Friday thrown in for good measure. Trouble is, Gary Cooper and James Stewart and Cary Grant are all long dead, and Tim Robbins, although an excellent actor, is not a Gary Cooper or a James Stewart or a Cary Grant. When I read the script I imagined Tom Hanks in the part of Norville (Hanks would, of course, catch up with the Coens in The Ladykillers) — I’m convinced the star of Big would have knocked Norville out of the park. The result of Robbins’s casting is that Norville’s actions are all in big quotation marks — we don’t see a simple guy trying to front, we see an intelligent actor trying to convince us he’s a country-born rube. The actor holds the character at arm’s length, showing him to us, commenting on him, not quite able to inhabit him.

(I should note that Robbins’s performance is a symptom of a larger problem in The Hudsucker Proxy — the Coens have lured a huge raft of talented actors and instructed them to act in the style of 30s screwball comedies — a task they all pull off with great skill [I am particularly astonished of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s jaw-dropping rendition of Rosalind Russell]. The trouble is that that style of acting was a natural outgrowth of its time, not an homage to an earlier style of acting. Watch The Lady Eve [which Hudsucker explicitly quotes a couple of times] back to back with The Hudsucker Proxy and you’ll see exactly what I mean.)

(And while I’m here, I should note that the Coens, in their script for Hudsucker, have crafted an incredible simulation of a Preston Sturges 30s screwball comedy, but then, oddly, have set the story in a Billy Wilder sort of world of 1950s business comedies. That right there, I think, accounts for people not quite being able to get a handle on Hudsucker, despite its towering achievements. And I do mean towering — this movie, with one of the greatest scripts I’ve ever read, is a bursting cornucopia of invention, wit and bravura moviemaking.)

(And while I’m at it, I should not that I am not immune from this temptation. I once wrote a romantic comedy with roles for Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Imagine my chagrin when I learned they were, in a big way, not available.)

A SECOND CHANCE: Norville fails, and falls, but rises again. Waring Hudsucker falls and rises, then descends and rises again. Waring Hudsucker could not give himself a second chance, but he posthumously grants one to Norville. It seems everything in The Hudsucker Proxy happens more than once — Norville comes into Mussberger’s office to show him his idea, only to get fired and collapse on the floor. Later, Buzz comes into Norville’s office to show him his idea, only to get fired and collapse on the floor. The music plays and the wheel goes round, humanity keeps repeating the same scenes over and over. And this might be coincidence, if not for Norville discussing reincarnation with Amy — in a way, Norville is both a reincarnation of Waring Hudsucker and his second chance. He arrives at the building the instant Waring hits the street in front of it, is instantly made president, and is ultimately granted all of Hudsucker’s stock — precisely so that he need not make the same mistakes that Hudsucker did. Norville believes in reincarnation and roundness, while Mussberger can only think of up and down, squares and “when you’re dead, you stay dead.”

Failure, Waring Hudsucker notes, whether in business or in love, looks only to the past, and the future, as it says on his big clock, is now. This is The Hudsucker Proxy‘s notion of Zen — there is no future, it insists, there is only the moment, grabbing it, holding it, and living in it. Ironically, it was the Coen’s first real commercial disaster, showing them how the real world reacts to the real Norvilles who come along with their divinely inspired inventions.

(Full disclosure: this writer has a tiny role in The Hudsucker Proxy — I would call it a one-line role, but since they messed with my voice, I’m not even sure if I have the one line any more.  It was a lot of fun shooting it and maybe I’ll write a piece about that some day.  But not today.)
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Comments

27 Responses to “Coen Bros: The Hudsucker Proxy”
  1. craigjclark says:

    You know, for kids!

    This was the first Coen Brothers film I got to see on the big screen and it made a huge impact on me. Until The Big Lebowski came along, it was easily their most quotable script (“Here comes the light lunch.”) and I’ve delighted in introducing it to a number of people over the years.

  2. jbacardi says:

    When I first saw this, I thought the actors were trying a little too hard to act in that 30’s screwball style. But against all odds, it’s become a film that I never seem to get tired of watching (for many of the reasons you list, although I could buy Robbins in the role more than you, it seems) and may just be my favorite of all their films. Right now.

    The whole thing with the BLUE LETTER! cracks me up…

    • Todd says:

      When I first saw it, it left me completely cold. I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to do — and I was in it, f’r Chrissakes!

      I’ve watched it many times over the years (because there’s always something to watch for) and now twice in the past month and, now that I’ve gotten used to the acting style, Jumping Jesus it’s an unstoppable fountain of brilliance.

      • jbacardi says:

        Yes it is. What can you say about a film that boasts not only Paul Newman, but also Anna Nicole Smith!

        So many memorable lines, many of them tossed off a la Newman’s “Sure-sure”s, and of course “You know, for kids”. The brilliant silhouetted scene in which the Hud ad agency people try to come up with a name for “the dingus”.

        One thing that I notice every time I watch (and I lack the vocabulary here, so please bear with) is the composition of so many of the scenes- many of them are set up with figures in the foreground, centered (“up”?) and everything else receding/telescoping into a center point directly in the middle of the frame. Obviously, this isn’t every scene, but it jumps out at me. Maybe I’m crazy…

  3. rjwhite says:

    From a site that has a very fine collection of stills from Coen films- The clock.

  4. teamwak says:

    I do love this one!

    And has one of my personal favourite actors in it, Sir Bruce of Campbell.

    And I think the suicide scene at the beginning as he runs across the table is so memorable (and funny lol)

    • photocindy23 says:

      I love this movie. It was not my first theatrical Coen Brothers movie (that was “Miller’s Crossing”), but it was the one I dragged all my friends to, much like “Barton Fink.” But “Hudsucker” was so rewarding to me and my friends–all actors, at the time–it was like a big, giant candygram from Preston Sturges, and I had so much fun I think I saw it twice the first week. Even when it came out on video, I tried in vain to push it on my customers at the store where I worked as a movie nerd all day. You’ve reminded me of how wonderful it was. Flawed, perhaps, because of Tim Robbins’ arms-length attitude, but, to me, returned to the surface by its own buoyancy.

  5. zodmicrobe says:

    Fantastic post, and one of my favorite Coen Bros movies. Thanks.

    You touched on this, but I find it very interesting to note how this was a watershed movie for them. They’d just come off BARTON FINK and winning at Cannes (it was Cannes, right?) and for the first time were working with a huge budget. The cinematography, music and especially production design (ESPECIALLY that) are super-duper top notch big budget level stuff. I’m not really sure what would have happened with their career(s) had this been a hit– it only was released very limited I remember, with decent but not great reviews, and it died extremely quickly. But because of the amount of money that was lost on it, they went back to doing “smaller” films, and had wild success with FARGO.

    Would they have done a LIEBOWSKI had they been tempted with I AM LEGEND or SUPERMAN RETURNS or any of those mythic big budget projects that were flying around at that time?

    • Todd says:

      Two things to keep in mind:

      1. While Fargo was a success, it was not a huge success — it actually grossed only a little more than Raising Arizona. It was seen as an enormous success because Hudsucker had put them in a “make or break” place, at least in the minds of Hollywood people (I doubt they were ever in that place themselves, as I will demonstrate in my forthcoming analysis of Fargo). Their largest “success” in gross-dollar terms is Intolerable Cruelty, and even that was a colossal bomb by Hollywood standards (cost – $60 million, domestic gross – $35 million).

      2. The Temptation of the Coens started as far back as the late ’80s, when WB asked them to direct Batman. If they weren’t going to direct Batman in 1989, I doubt they would ever be interested in I Am Legend or Superman Returns. And we’ve seen what happens to their movies when they work too closely with a major studio. I think the Coens, like my other favorite artists (Robert Fripp, Elvis Costello, Woody Allen, Neil Young, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Rodriguez, etc) made up their minds long ago that they would do the kind of art they like, regardless of its popularity or lack thereof, and avoid excessive entanglement with Capital-based middlemen.

      In the case of Hudsucker, producer Joel Silver had the muscle to get the project done and the wisdom to stay out of the Coens’ way. The project was expensive but not hugely so (compare the $25 million budget of Hudsucker with the far-more typical $70 million budget of The Ladykillers). The movie came out and bombed, but no one blamed Joel Silver for his decision (it helped that he has produced dozens of wildly lucrative movies for WB).

      • curt_holman says:

        Hud$ucker

        I was wondering if ‘Hudsucker’ was a financial failure not because it made so much less than the Coens’ other movies, but because it COST more than them. I haven’t checked the numbers, though.

        ‘Ladykillers’ cost $70 million? But… how?

        It just now occurred to me that Paul Newman was in both ‘Hud’ and ‘Hudsucker Proxy.’ I’m sure someone has cracked a great joke about that.

        • Todd says:

          Re: Hud$ucker

          Hudsucker grossed less than $3 million. That would make it a failure even if it had had the same budget as Raising Arizona.

          (fyi: the budget quoted at Box Office Mojo is incorrect. $40 million is a number that a reporter pulled out of his metaphorical ass in 1993 and it has been repeated as gospel ever since.)

          • craigjclark says:

            Re: Hud$ucker

            I remember being highly amused when H&R Block hired the Coen Brothers to do a commercial (which, as far as I can tell, only aired once during the Super Bowl) since the film the company wanted them to emulate was Hudsucker.

  6. jtron says:

    Great review. As a film fan, an editor, and a film teacher, I must call attention to the wonderful sequence in the middle of the film showing the roll-out (no pun intended) of the Dingus. About 10 minutes long, no dialogue to speak of, and every time I watch it, it leaves me with the same expression as the kids have watching the young boy go nuts with the hoop.

  7. greyaenigma says:

    I have always depended on the kindess of tailors.

    This is one of my favorite Coen movies — all of which I’m getting a much greater aprpeciation of with these reviews. (And the Norville Problem puts the finger on one of the problems with the film I didn’t even consciously realize.)

    I’m surprised you didn’t discuss The Scraper. I’d wondered at first if he was the Devil (since he seems nearly on par with Mose), but it looks like he’s actually Death.

    I somehow thought that the “time is money” line was ironic (since it’s uncomfortable to think of the Coens endorsing the idea of deified Capitalism), but it makes sense to think of moments of time as the currency of the world and our lives. But bless the Coens for being able to dig up enough unfettered money to do the art they choose. The world needs more Genius Grants being handed out to people like the Coens and Sayles.

    as though there were a quantifiable “reason” why the Earth spins

    I gotcher quantifiable reason right here, pal.

    • Todd says:

      Re: I have always depended on the kindess of tailors.

      But that’s not a reason, that’s an explanation. The Earth spins either through a scientific principle or divine design, but there is no “reason” for either of them — it’s just something we have to accept for what it is.

      I discuss the Paint Scraper a little here. If Mose is God, it makes sense that he’s the Devil, but I’m not sure if it’s that clear-cut. Both characters know everything, but the paint-scraper, if he’s the devil, doesn’t seem to have a very clear motive for his actions besides working for Mussberger.

      • greyaenigma says:

        An Inconvenient Reason

        But… but… “reason” means explanation… If Reason requires conscious intent, then the divine explanation (true or not) should suffice for that. Unless, of course, I’m being too literal and you’re using the world turning to refer to the Meaning of Life, which would actually seem to be reasonless and ineffable. Because science can’t tell us what it all means, and God won’t. (Unless you buy that’s He’s entirely self-serving and egotistical.)

        I’m liking the Death Scraper theory more and more. I wouldn’t think God vs. Death would really be a struggle, but I’m probably thinking of it too literally again.

      • Anonymous says:

        The Scraper

        He may be Death. Or he may be Darth Vader — his fight scene with Mose on the bridge behind the clock looks awfully familiar.
        –Ed.

    • craigjclark says:

      Re: I have always depended on the kindess of tailors.

      Our man Todd discussed the scraper the last time he wrote about this film. (He’s also covered Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn’t There before, but he’s attacking the films from a different vantage point this time around.)

  8. curt_holman says:

    “File a faulty complaint… and they dock ya!”

    You know, I can go with things like the seemingly-magical hula hoop rolling down streets of its own volition, and the fateful classified ad floating until it catches up to Norville, but I just can’t accept the whole time-stopping moment of divine intervention. It simply strikes me as a massive cheat.

  9. Circular things rolling along in a tracking shot are definitely a staple of Coen Brothers films.

    Miller’s Crossing: the hat (if I’m remembering the right film)
    Big Lebowski: bowling balls (obviously) but also the tumbleweed at the beginning, in the familiar horizontal track.
    Man Who Wasn’t There: the hubcap.
    Hudsucker Proxy: the hula-hoop.

    And, um, I can’t remember any others right now. But it’s definitely something I look out for. I don’t think Intolerable Cruelty had one, which might be why it seemed so unCoenish.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Sturges, etc.

    The Coen Bros. quote from more than The Lady Eve in this movie. There are several tropes out of The Palm Beach Story and Christmas in July (nitwit becomes a business success thanks to a practical joke involving the phrase “the bunk,” which Amy Archer repeatedly calls Norville) . In fact, they’ve got Sturges references all over their comedies, from the multiple babies of Raising Arizona and The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek to the title and prison-movie scene of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, both from Sullivan’s Travels.

    About the acting style in Hudsucker, I think it’s sometimes too slow, which is where it falls flat — a faster pace might have solved some of the problems. But the style feels too imitative and inorganic.

    One big reason I think they cast Tim Robbins: He looks like Joel McCrae, the star of The Palm Beach Story and Sullivan’s Travels. But McCrae played the doofus in these as if he were smart — only his words make you realize he’s a dingaling. Robbins keeps making doofy faces, unfortunately.

    Jennifer Jason Leigh is a marvel, though I wish she hadn’t worked so hard at imitating Katherine Hepburn’s accent. The thing is that under all of her mannerisms as an actor, JJL always finds the humanity of the character — she makes you feel what she’s feeling.
    –Ed.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Sturges, etc.

      The Coen Bros. quote from more than The Lady Eve in this movie.

      Lest my readers think me dolt, I’m aware that Sturges looms large in the Coen mind (along with Chandler, Hammett and Cain). I mentioned only The Lady Eve because I had recently seen it and Hudsucker back to back.

      About the acting style in Hudsucker, I think it’s sometimes too slow

      I’m not sure that’s the problem exactly. A lot of the scenes go by at a breathless clip, enough so that I’m guessing the slower scenes are meant to be a respite. No, I think the problem may be cinematic. Sturges or Hawks would point the camera at the actors and let ’em rip, but the Coens sensibility is too cinematic — they cut too often, changing the visual stream with too sophisticated a shooting and editing style — it makes the comedy seem arch and mannered. In a Sturges movie, the camera is mostly witness to the performances, but the Coens cannot keep their camera from commenting on the performances.

      McCrae played the doofus in these as if he were smart

      That, to me, sounds like a typical Coen inversion — “Hey! I know, instead of having a dumb guy pretend to be smart, let’s have a smart guy pretend to be dumb! They’ll never see it coming!”

      Jennifer Jason Leigh is a marvel, though I wish she hadn’t worked so hard at imitating Katherine Hepburn’s accent.

      That’s funny, I only hear Katharine Hepburn in her performance occasionally, mostly it sounds like Russell to me.

      The thing is that under all of her mannerisms as an actor, JJL always finds the humanity of the character — she makes you feel what she’s feeling.

      You say “mannerisms” but I call it “technique” — JJL is, hands down, the greatest technician of her generation (a generation that falls in between Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett). In Hudsucker, the technical aspects of her performance are so thoroughly nailed down that she’s able to allow us to see through her technique to the “Amy Archer” underneath it all, and I swear to God I find her quite moving in this picture, and in the midst of some of the most absurd situations. “Something that would bring everyone together! Even as it kept them apart, spatially” is how she describes the hula hoop, and there’s something there in that line that is both funny and sad and, in a weird way, kind of defines the problem audiences have with Hudsucker. It’s such an undeniably well-crafted movie, full of such love and warmth and passion, but also curiously cold, artsy and remote. Until one gets past its mannerisms (which a hardy few apparently have little problem doing) it seems, in the words of one reviewer, “the most expensive art movie ever made.”

  11. Anonymous says:

    Other random details

    Two other small observations:

    1) The Help Wanted ad in the newspaper that blows down the street and grabs Norville’s leg is circled by a stain from his coffee cup.

    2) The newsreel announcer is played by one Karl Mundt.

    — Ed.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Other random details

      The newsreel announcer is indeed Karl Mundt himself, Mr. John Goodman doing some anonymous work for the Coens.

      Circles, spinning circles no less, show up one more time in the narrative — during the movie that Dr. Bronfenbrenner shows to the Hudsucker board. To show that Norville is, indeed, insane, he superimposes a whirling vortex animation over his face — making explicit the equation of “circular” with “insane” (at least in the minds of the Hud board).