The Hudsucker Proxy is a 1994 screwball comedy film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, telling a fictitious story about the rise and fall of a naive executive and the invention of the hula hoop. It stars Tim Robbins, Paul Newman, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. One of the film's narrative devices is repeated reference to the Wheel of Fortune.
It is New Years Eve, 1958. Everyone all over New York City is out celebrating except Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), the president of Hudsucker Industries, who is standing outside his window at the top of the building, ready to jump.
One month earlier, Norville is a college graduate who arrives in New York City looking for a job in business. The only problem is he can not find one because he has no experience. The only job he can take is as a mailroom clerk at Hudsucker Industries.
Meanwhile, the company founder and president of Hudsucker Industries, Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), commits suicide by jumping through a window on the forty-fourth floor during a board meeting. It is after this that Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman), a ruthless member of the board of directors, mounts a scheme to buy up the controlling interest in the company's stock before Hudsucker's shares are made available to buy for the public. Hoping to temporarily depress the stock price, Mussburger wants to install "some jerk" as a proxy for the deceased president.
Later, Norville is picked to be sent up stairs to deliver a Blue Letter, an intra-company communication of the highest urgency, to Mussburger, but Norville decides to first show Mussburger a drawing of an invention he has been working on—which is a drawing of a circle. At first, Mussburger takes Norville for an idiot and tries to interview him about his intelligence, but after Norville tells Mussburger that he made the Dean's List in college, Mussburger fires him. As Norville is leaving, a cigar Norville was smoking catches fire on Mussburger's desk and burns the first page of the important Bumstead contract. Norville quickly places the paper in the garbage can and disposes of it by throwing it out the window. This causes a breeze to blow away the rest of the documents on Mussburger's desk out the window. Mussburger attempts to jump out the window after the papers, but Norville catches him. After the incident, Norville becomes president of the company.
Across town, Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a reporter for the Manhattan Argus, is assigned to write a story about the previously-unknown newcomer. She disguises herself as a girl from Muncie, Indiana looking for a job. Norville, who went to college in Muncie, sings the school song to her and hires her as his secretary. One night, Amy lurks around the building to find clues and meets Moses (Bill Cobbs), a man who runs the building's giant clock. Moses, who knows "just about anything if it concerns Hudsucker", tells Amy the board's plot for Norville. Amy takes the story back to her Chief, but he does not believe it.
At the Hudsucker ball, Norville accidentally insults some stockholders. Amy later feels bad for Norville and tries to admit to him who she really is, but doesn't. The next day, Norville meets with the board to show them his new invention which turns out to become the hula-hoop. His new toy brings the company greater success, but later, Norville has no more ideas and slowly begins to become a greedy president. This makes Amy mad at him and she leaves him. Buzz, the elevator operator who always calls Norville "Buddy," then visits Norville to show him his new invention: the bendy straw, for which Norville fires Buzz. Meanwhile, Aloysius, the man who scrapes and paints the names on the doors, discovers Amy's true identity and informs Mussburger. Later, Mussburger informs Norville of this and tells him that he will be fired from his position as president after New Years. Mussburger then gets the board to believe that Norville is "nuts" and to have him sent to the sanitarium.
On New Year's Eve, Amy finds a drunk Norville trying to buy a martini at a "juice and coffee bar." She apologizes to him, but he storms out of the place mad at her. Outside, Norville is chased down the street by an angry mob led by Buzz, who was told by Mussburger to believe that Norville stole the hula-hoop idea from himself, to the Hudsucker building. Norville esacapes the mob only to give up hope. He goes up stairs to his office and changes back into his mailroom apron and then opens his window to stand on the ledge ready to jump as seen at the beginning of the movie. Aloysius locks Norville out, which makes Norville change his mind; he attempts to walk back inside, but slips and falls off the building at the stroke of midnight. Suddenly, Moses stops the clock and time freezes. Hudsucker's angel then comes to visit Norville and tells him that he forgot to deliver the Blue Letter to Mussburger and that it is still in his pocket. Norville reads the letter and learns that because he is the president he gets all of Hudsucker's shares. Meanwhile, Moses fights and defeats Aloysius inside the clock tower and has Norville fall safely to the ground. Norville returns to the coffee bar and finds Amy and kisses her.
The movie ends with the beginning of the new year, 1959. After Mussburger learns that Norville owns the company he attempts to jump off the building, but is arrested and sent to the sanitarium. Norville goes on to "rule with wisdom" and comes up with a new invention: the Frisbee.
While trying to sell their feature film debut Blood Simple, the Coen brothers shared a house with filmmaker Sam Raimi and ended up writing The Hudsucker Proxy together. They were reportedly inspired by the films of Preston Sturges, such as Christmas in July (1940) and the Hollywood satire, Sullivan's Travels. The sometimes sentimental tone and decent, ordinary men as heroes was influenced by films of Frank Capra, like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1940), Meet John Doe (1941), It's a Wonderful Life (1946) with the fast and furious dialogue in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940). Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance as the fast-talking reporter Amy is reminiscent of Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn, in both the physical and vocal mannerisms. Ethan said in an interview, "The script, which contains a lot of traditional genre elements, was marked by a kind of heartwarming fantasy element out of Frank Capra. It also had a lot of verbal comedy, the kind you see in films by Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks, with dialogue delivered in a rapid-fire, machine-gun style. But it was bigger and broader, with physical comedy sequences and a lot of oddball action." One film critic described the numerous influences this way: "From his infelicitous name to his physical clumsiness, Norville Barnes is a Preston Sturges hero trapped in a Frank Capra story, and never should that twain meet, especially not in a world that seems to have been created by Fritz Lang—the mechanistic monstrousness of the mailroom contrasted with the Bauhaus gigantism of the corporate offices perfectly matches the boss-labour split in Metropolis."
It took the Coens and Raimi two to three months to write the screenplay. As early as 1985, the Coens were quoted as saying that an upcoming project "takes place in the late Fifties in a skyscraper and is about big business. The characters talk fast and wear sharp clothes."
The first image the Coens conceived of for the film was of the hero, Norville Barnes, about to jump from the window of a skyscraper and then they had to figure out how he got there and how to save him. The Coens liked the script but knew it needed a big budget in order to be made. Joel commented in an interview: "The script was written with Raimi before most of the technology that we used existed. We don't really think of how we're going to do it in a technical sense when we're writing. We were lucky that we couldn't get the money to do it at the time because the sequences would have been a lot cruder if we had shot it then eight or nine years before."
They approached Hollywood producer Joel Silver, who had made several successful big budget action films and was interested in working with them. The Coens wanted to make a movie that would get seen by a lot of people. Silver's only input was that he convinced the Coens not to shoot the film in black and white. Silver then pitched the film to Warner Brothers by saying that they would get a film that the critics would like and that everybody would want to see. The studio agreed but only if the Coens cast big stars in the main roles. However, Silver had promised to protect the Coens from the studio and convinced the studio to give them final cut.
The filmmakers wanted to build large sets and use elaborate special effects. They had screened Blade Runner (1982) before making The Hudsucker Proxy, which also used elaborate sets and a large, detailed cityscape. Twenty-seven craftsmen spent three months building a '50s New York skyline, constructing fourteen skyscrapers. The movie's skyline was based on photographs from a book that the film's production designer, Dennis Gassner, found called New York in the Forties and the scale after Citizen Kane (1941).
The inclusion of the hula hoop was as a result of a plot device. Joel remembers, "We had to come up with something that this guy was going to invent that on the face of it was ridiculous. Something that would seem, by any sort of rational measure, to be doomed to failure, but something that on the other hand the audience already knew was going to be a phenomenal success." Ethan said, "The whole circle motif was built into the design of the movie, and that just made it seem more appropriate." Joel: "What grew out of that was the design element which drives the movie. The tension between vertical lines and circles; you have these tall buildings, then these circles everywhere which are echoed in the plot...in the structure of the movie itself. It starts with the end and circles back to the beginning, with a big flashback."
The film was shot on soundstages at Carolco Studios in Wilmington, North Carolina beginning in December of 1992 with Raimi as second unit director. He shot the hula hoop sequence and the scene where Waring Hudsucker crashes through a window. The budget was officially reported to be $25 million (USD), although some trade papers erroneously reported that it increased to $40 million. This was the largest budget of any Coen brothers film until Intolerable Cruelty, but it was a box-office flop, grossing less than $3,000,000 in the US.
The studio held test screenings for the movie. Audience comments were varied. The studio suggested re-shoots. The Coens obliged because they were very nervous working with their biggest budget to date and were eager for mainstream success. They added some footage that had been cut, shot some additional footage and added to the ending. Variety magazine claimed that the re-shoots were done to try and save the film because it was going to be a flop. Joel addressed the issue in an interview: "First of all, they weren't reshoots. They were a little bit of additional footage. We wanted to shoot a fight scene at the end of the movie. It was the product of something we discovered editing the movie, not previewing it."
Roger Ebert, a film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote that the Coens "obviously think their plot is unimportant except as a clothesline for the visuals. And wasn't there something dead at the heart of all of this? A kind of chill in the air? A feeling that the movie was more thought than art, more calculated than inspired? Doesn't the viewer spend more time admiring the sights on the screen than caring about them?" Todd McCarthy's review in Variety criticized the film as merely "rehashes of old movies, no matter how inspired, are almost by definition synthetic, and the fact is that nearly all the characters are constructs rather than human beings with whom the viewer can connect." Desson Howe in The Washington Post felt that "missing in this film's performances is a sense of humanity—the crucial ingredient in the movies Hudsucker is clearly trying to evoke. Hudsucker isn't the real thing at all. It's just a proxy." However, The Hudsucker Proxy has received some positive response in later years and has become a favorite to many Coen brothers fans.
The Hudsucker Proxy was released by Warner Bros. on DVD in 1999 on a single double-sided disc with the fullscreen version on side A and widescreen (1.85:1 ratio) on side B. No other special features were included.
The score to The Hudsucker Proxy is written by Carter Burwell, the fourth of his collaborations with the Coen brothers.
Some the source material for the score comes from the "Adagio" and "Phrygia" movements of the ballet Spartacus by Aram Khachaturian. The same source music is used in Ice Age: The Meltdown and Caligula. Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" is also used, when the boy is the first to try the hula hoop.
- "Prologue" (Khachaturian) – 03:20
- "Norville Suite" – 03:53
- "Waring's Descent" – 0:27
- "The Hud Sleeps" – 2:13
- "Light Lunch" (Khachaturian) – 1:38
- "The Wheel Turns" – 0:52
- "The Hula Hoop" (Khachaturian) – 4:10
- "Useful" – 0:40
- "Walk Of Shame" – 1:22
- "Blue Letter" – 0:43
- "A Long Way Down" – 1:46
- "The Chase" – 1:02
- "Norville's End" – 3:52
- "Epilogue" (Khachaturian) – 2:08
- "Norville's Reprise" – 1:22
Other songs in the film
Other songs used in the film but not on the soundtrack album include:
- "Memories Are Made of This", performed by Peter Gallagher as Vic Tenetta, the party singer
- "In a Sentimental Mood", performed by Duke Ellington
- "Flying Home", performed by Duke Ellington
- "Minuet" (3rd movement) from "String Quintet in E, Op. 13 No. 5", composed by Luigi Boccherini; used in the scene where Norville Barnes is getting a head massage. The piece is also used in the 1955 film The Ladykillers and the Coens' 2004 remake.
- "Carmen", performed by Grace Bumbry; used in dream dance sequence.
- Levine, Josh. The Coen Brothers: The Story of Two American Filmmakers. ECW Press, 2000.
- Harkness, John and Paul A. Woods. "The Sphinx Without A Riddle." Joel and Ethan Coen: Blood Siblings. Plexus, 2000.
- Naughton, John and Paul A. Woods. "Double Vision." Joel and Ethan Coen: Blood Siblings. Plexus, 2000.
- Bergan, Ronald. The Coen Brothers. Thunder's Mouth Press, 2000.
- Ciment, Michel and Hubert Niogret. "A Rock on the Beach." Joel and Ethan Coen: Blood Siblings. Plexus, 2000.
- Ebert, Roger. "The Hudsucker Proxy." Chicago Sun-Times, March 25, 1994. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19940325/REVIEWS/403250301/1023
- McCarthy, Todd. "The Hudsucker Proxy." Variety, January 31, 1994. http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117902311.html?categoryid=31&cs=1&p=0
- Howe, Devon. "The Hudsucker Proxy." The Washington Post, March 25, 1994. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/movies/videos/thehudsuckerproxypghowe_a0b041.htm