Viewer Guide: The Hudsucker Proxy and Bless Me, Ultima

June 26, 2020 | Richard Peña

REEL 13 CLASSIC | THE HUDSUCKER PROXY

This week’s classic is The Hudsucker Proxy, a comedy-drama  from 1994 produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Co-written by the Coen brothers with writer-director Sam Raimi, The Hudsucker Proxy is a cinematic fan letter to the fast-talking romantic comedies and melodramas of Frank Capra, Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, simultaneously a loving recreation, and, this being the Coen brothers, also something of a knowing parody. Set in 1958, Hudsucker opens in a flashback structure reminiscent of Capra’s Meet John Doe. When we first encounter Tim Robbins as Norville Barnes, he’s out on a ledge—literally—just a half step from plunging to his death from the top of a New York City skyscraper. What brought Norville to this desperate moment is a tangled tale of corporate greed gone wrong, with Norville in the place of the “aw shucks” guy that would have been written for Jimmy Stewart.

Fresh off the bus from Muncie, Indiana, Norville quickly discovers his business degree has actually prepared him for nothing. Swallowing his pride, Norville takes a mail room job at Hudsucker Industries. But with the unexpected suicide of the company’s founder and president, Waring Hudsucker, played by Charles Durning, a corporate power play ensues. Enter Sidney J. Mussburger, a power-hungry Hudsucker board member played by Paul Newman, who immediately begins scheming on how to take over the company. Norville becomes Mussburger’s unwitting pawn, an instant success who’s purposely doomed to fail: his only surefire “big idea” being a hand-drawn design…of an empty circle. Something, you know, “for kids.”

Soon arriving on the scene, looking and sounding like a cross between Barbara Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn is Jennifer Jason Leigh as Amy Archer, a hard-boiled Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who’s determined to expose Norville as a phony—until she starts to realize he just might not be. And in cameo roles, be on the lookout for Coen Brothers alumni John Mahoney, Steve Buscemi and John Goodman.

REEL 13 CLASSIC | BLESS ME, ULTIMA

Bless Me, Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima (2013)

This week’s indie is Bless Me, Ultima, a 2013 drama directed by Carl Franklin.

Adapted from Rudolfo Anaya’s acclaimed autobiographical coming-of-age novel, Bless Me, Ultima has become one of the most beloved and best-selling books of Chicano literature since its publication in 1972. Using an episodic style, the film adaptation recounts the early life of Antonio Marez, played by Luke Ganalon, a questioning seven year-old who finds himself pondering the religious and moral contradictions of life that begin to trouble him growing up in 1944 New Mexico. Narrated by Alfred Molina as the adult Antonio reflecting back on his childhood, the story opens with the arrival of Ultima, an elderly woman without family who is taken in by Antonio’s parents. As portrayed by the magnificent Míriam Colón, Ultima is a curandera—a healer-shaman in Chicano culture who also served as midwife at Antonio’s birth. While his sisters whisper their fearful suspicions that Ultima is really a bruja or witch, Antonio immediately feels a mystical bond with her—and the mysterious, watchful owl that accompanies her. Often on his own while his older brothers are away fighting in World War 2, Antonio joins Ultima in finding the herbs and plants that she uses in her healing remedies, and listens to her spiritual philosophies. But while they are on a mission to treat an uncle allegedly under a witch’s spell, Ultima and Antonio cross paths with a vengeful saloon owner named Tenorio who proves to be a nemesis to them both. As the threats from Tenorio steadily escalate, Antonio copes as best he can with the confusing and sometimes conflicting realities of family, school and church.

The first book in a trilogy by author Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima is largely a directly autobiographical account of Anaya’s young life growing up in rural New Mexico. Despite earning graduate degrees in English and literature from the University of New Mexico, it took time for Anaya to find his writer’s voice, with very little in the way of Chicano literature in existence at the time he was writing to offer him inspiration and guidance. In the spirit of his novel’s mystical dimensions, Anaya reported that late one night as he was grappling with his manuscript he experienced a vision of an old woman dressed in black who asked him what he was doing. When he explained his difficulty in getting a handle on his novel, she replied, “Well, you will never get it right until you put me in it.” And thus Ultima entered the narrative, with Anaya regarding her as the subconscious inspiration he needed to unlock his way into his Chicano life experience. Among the novel’s legion of fans was Walmart heiress Christy Walton, who teamed up with producer Sarah DiLeo to finally secure the rights to adapt the 1972 book for the movies. Finding the right actress to embody the critical title role of Ultima was essential, but groundbreaking Puerto Rican star Míriam Colón offered the perfect fit. In addition to her various pioneering film and television roles in pre-diversity era Hollywood, Colón was co-founder of the trailblazing Puerto Rican Traveling Theater in New York City.

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