The ultimate film hug: The Long Hot Summer (1958)

The Long Hot Summer 1958 movie poster

Screen kisses often get talked about. The most passionate, the most romantic, the sexiest, the best, the worst, the longest. But film hugs are rarely mentioned. Which is a shame, because they have the ability to encompass a wider range of human emotion than a kiss.

I first saw The Long Hot Summer in 1995. Appropriately enough, it was during a long hot summer, while we were in school holidays. The nights were so thick with heat it was impossible to sleep, even after the sheets had been sprayed with cold water. Luckily, however, the ABC in their wisdom had been putting on a series of late night classic films. So after tossing and turning for a while, I’d peel myself from my unbearably warm mattress and escape to the living room. Mum would already be lying on a sofa with the windows wide open to catch any breeze that was going, with the sound of cicadas outside ringing in the darkness. We’d each sprawl on a sofa, and after two hours of watching an old film the temperature would have dropped just enough that we could retreat to bed and attempt some form of sleep.

It was in this setting that I saw Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward fall in love in The Long Hot Summer – not just on film, but outside it too. This was the movie where they met each other, from where they eventually became coupled in one of Hollywood’s most enduring marriages. I might just be a romantic, but to me, you can see it cut right through the screen.

The movie instantly became one of my all time favourites. It has an incredible cast (Joanne, Paul, Orson Welles, Lee Remick, Angela Lansbury), strong characters, a dynamic of crackling tenseness underneath ostensible lassitude, and a thick atmosphere of heat, dust, cotton dresses, sex, repression, anger and hope. A special mention should of course go to Paul Newman’s eyes (and arms, swoon!). And Joanne Woodward appeals all the more for not being a typical 50s beauty – she isn’t soft or curvy or sweet or sexy. She is… real. Human.

Paul Newman’s Ben and Joanne Woodward’s Clara are both hard and hostile on the outside – Ben insolent, Clara brittle. They clash repeatedly. They like each other, you can see the magnetic attraction in every interaction, but they are so reliant on their armour neither can be the first to let it down and show their genuine self.

Until the hug. Yes, a kiss too, but more important than that is the hug. Instead of giving the audience what they expect (a passionate, lip-smashing kiss), Clara turns and desperately clutches Ben in an almost childish round-the-waist bear hug. It says so much more than a kiss could have – how sad she is, how lonely, how vulnerable, how hopeful she is underneath that tough exterior. In giving a hug like that, she exposes herself more than any kind of mere physical nakedness could do. And in tenderly stroking her back, Ben shows how much more is in him too. You can see each of their individual hurts and loneliness and wanting to be loved mirrored in that short embrace.

As someone who at the time was doing my best to build my own tough exterior to cover my own loneliness and vulnerability, it struck me. It made me feel uncomfortable. I could handle a kiss, but not that desperate hug. Every weakness is exposed, she is ripe for the wounding. How could someone let down their carefully built barriers so dangerously? Scarlett O’Hara would never give a hug like that.

It is one of the most genuine and emotional moments I’ve seen in a movie, and has stayed with me ever since. Now that has got to be worth more than a kiss.

The Long Hot Summer hug