Early in The Woman Chaser, Richard Hudson is listening to his stepfather Leo’s money problems and his eye falls on a painting of a sad clown—to highlight the point that the Hollywood system has broken Leo’s dreams to such an extent that he is a purposeless shell of a man, while his stepson can provide the finest of everything. The narrative lingers on this reprehensible painting for so long, I wrote in the margins of my copy, “He’s messing with us!” How to take an author seriously who uses such a maudlin, easy hit on a character who needs no help being such a sad-sack? But when you expect Richard to tear into Leo for being a pathetic loser, he eases up on him.
The Woman Chaser oscillates between these poles of pulp and meta-pulp with a whiplash-inducing frenzy. No dark-office detective would bother to describe actor Chet Wilson by “the thin wings of his preposterous nose,” classify a drawing as “either a Matisse or a James Thurber,” or get so much comic length out of Hudson’s exhortations on “creativeness.” Yet the first 40-some pages are mostly business: the purchase of the new location of Honest Hal’s, the accounting for the family home, the securing of Santa suits. At one point, Hudson floats the idea that a perfect movie would have no dialogue at all, a nod to the taciturn heroes who shoot first and ask questions later. He goes ahead and writes a full script for “The Man Who Got Away” anyway. The pleasure of reading this book for me emanated from its zagging when I wanted it to zig; the actual woman-chasing was off-puttingly predictable.
Hudson’s mother fixation falls on the sad-clown-painting side of the equation: We can accept his aphoristic “She is beautiful for what she has done to him” as being a slightly unsettling tribute, then he surprises her in bed and she believes him to be her husband—not to mention their cringe-inducing pas de deux, with (just in case we didn’t catch it the first time!) Leo on the sidelines. So emphatic is Willeford on describing that relationship between “Angel Pants” and his mommy dearest that I wondered if that subplot hadn’t been hurridly added in as a character motivation for Hudson’s womanizing. That it flares up so suddenly and then disappears without any ill effect on the relationship between Hudson and Leo suggests that at some point, Willeford or a higher-up decided that Hudson’s sociopathic nature hadn’t been established firmly enough. Given that instruction, Willeford let his poison pen outline a scenario so cartoonish that no one would ever mistake it for a realistic obstacle to Hudson’s triumph. Contrast his mother-lovin’ with the development of the attraction between Becky and himself, which follows a more measured (though still creepy!) arc.
Like Scott, I found myself rooting for Hudson, sucked into his delusion that the movie would be great and believing it’s THE MAN whose short-sighted dismissal stands in the way of that greatness. (In my mind, the movie looks a lot like Duel.) He’s quite convincing for a sociopath! To pick up on Keith’s suggestion that the question may not even matter, though, I think it does, because the depths of Hudson’s delusion don’t extend to an uncritical eye of his work. It definitely matters to Hudson that it’s good, that he have jeopardized his job, torn apart his family, and spent all his money for a glorious product. During filming, he owns up to his faults and defers to the people around him, like Tommy Allison and Flaps the guitarist, who know better than he does. It’s because he knows it’s good that he can destroy it with such conviction. Imagine an alternate ending in which he watches the movie and realizes he’s just sunk his employer’s money into unwatchable trash. His behavior in King Of The Mountain wouldn’t have changed, but I picture him throwing up his hands like Sterling Hayden at the end of The Killing. Instead, in one fell swoop he destroys three of his creations: the used-car lot, Laura’s supposed unborn child, and his movie. (Okay, he also takes out the clown painting, but wouldn’t you?)
The monomaniacal energy Hudson later redirects toward moviemaking shows itself right in the beginning as he counts the traffic on Crenshaw Boulevard, an insignificant part of the studied purchase he’s about to make on behalf of his employer. There’s a lot to relish in his meticulous approach to making the movie and the way he contrasts his actions with the Feebs around him, from his ex-military underling at Honest Hal’s to Mr. and Mrs. Frank Shantz of Van Nuys. (The passage about the magazine ad featuring three generations of assembly-line workers in Detroit is more poignant now than Willeford ever would have intended.)
But even in the entertainment business as Willeford describes it, there’s a point beyond which pursuing a passion project is no longer seen as healthy and productive. (Maybe that’s just the risk one runs by becoming the world’s first Method director.) Leo can get out clean because his only stake in The Man Who Got Away is money, which having secured, he walks away satisfied. Hudson, having planned out his movie down to squeezing another nickel out of the rights to “Lumpy Grits,” loses his grip and executes his revenge in a way that ensures he will be caught where he might have planned a far more subtle exacting. More cars are heading toward Hollywood than away from it; Hudson doesn’t come to L.A. to become a moviemaker, but the movies get him anyway, as they will continue to take in all manner of suckers as he heads to the hoosegow. Still, in the end, he got his “one creative accomplishment.”