The Hustler (1961) *****
Directed by Robert Rossen
The Color of Money (1986) ***
Directed by Martin Scorsese
As I continue to watch Paul Newman act in film after film, I’m more and more becoming a huge fan. In both The Hustler and The Color of Money, Newman is so damn good, and he’s got unrivaled presence on screen. The Hustler is brilliant; The Color of Money isn’t. Yet, Newman is equally good in both films. Most view his only Oscar win as Best Actor in The Color of Money as a lifetime achievement award. General consensus is that his performance in The Color of Money isn’t among his best. I disagree—I think it’s right up there with his best work in films like Hud, Cool Hand Luke and The Hustler. By far, Newman’s performance is the best aspect of The Color of Money. The Academy got this one right, though this shouldn’t have been his first acting Oscar. I think everyone agrees with that.
In both films, Newman plays pool hustler Eddie Felson. In The Hustler, he starts out young and cocky. Sure, he’s got more talent than anyone else who plays the game, but he doesn’t know the code that goes along with being a champ. The opening scene involves Eddie conning some small town players out of their money on his way to play Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), who is considered the greatest. At first, Eddie wins big against Minnesota Fats, but as night turns into day and back into night again, Eddie doesn’t know when to quit and loses all of his winnings and then some. By the end of this brilliantly tense matchup, Eddie is nothing but a stumbling drunken fool and he knows it.
He is now forced to live out of a locker at a train station where one night, he meets a lonely alcoholic named Sarah Packard, played wonderfully by Piper Laurie. The two fall in love and move in together, though each’s profound issues make their relationship quite difficult. Things go okay since they’ve got each other, and pretty much nothing else. Eventually, Eddie is given the opportunity to reestablish himself as a great pool player with the help of a heartless manager named Bert Gordon, played menacingly by George C. Scott. As Eddie gains success, Sarah begins to lose the one thing important to her. The film’s ending is profoundly tragic.
I certaintly can’t call myself an expert on its history, but I wouldn’t be surprised if The Hustler can be credited with beginning the genre of the modern biopic which includes films like Raging Bull and Ghandhi. Granted, Eddie Felson is a fictional character, but it shares quite a bit with these two great films. There’s no single narrative story which forwards the film’s plot. Instead, a person’s life is shown chronologically, advancing from conflict to conflict and ending with an ultimate judgement regarding everything that preceeds.
First, we have this great twenty-four hour pool match, and then we witness the sad relationship between Eddie and Sarah. Next, Eddie journeys back to success, and finally, the film ends with profound tragedy. Screenplay writers Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen aren’t afraid to force the viewer to adapt to shifts in tone and momentum with each new conflict.
Rossen’s direction must be applauded for many reasons. Most of all, I thought it was smart that he didn’t spend too much time focusing on the billiards games themselves. Clearly, Eddie and
The Color of Money has been described as a sequel to The Hustler. That’s not really accurate. Eddie’s an old man now who hasn’t played pool in a long time, so it’s not like the story continues anywhere near when the last one ended. In this film, Eddie takes on the role of coaching an exceptionally talented young pool player named Vincent Lauria, played by Tom Cruise. Vincent is talented, that’s for sure, but he’s extremely arrogant as well, not knowing the code that comes along with being a champ. Sound familiar? Anyway, it’s now Eddie’s turn to impart the wisdom he received from his own tragic life experiences.
Herein lies the best aspect of The Color of Money. Without explicitly referring to events in The Hustler, there’s a richness to Eddie’s character and Newman’s performance because we know the baggage Eddie carries around with him. Richard Price’s screenplay strikes the perfect balance in this regard.
After learning everything he needs to from Eddie, Vincent goes out on his own which leaves Eddie to fend for himself. Eddie is once again forced to play pool in a tournament, and the person he’s required to beat in the film’s final challenge is none other than Vincent himself. The ending goes in an unexpected direction, which overall works quite well.
That being said, The Color of Money is a good film at best, and compared to The Hustler, it’s extremely disappointing. The first problem lies with Tom Cruise’s performance--he’s simply trying too hard. Cruise certaintly has charisma which I suppose makes him the right choice for the part; however, in trying to match Newman’s talent which I believe was Cruise’s motivation, he falls flat. Cruise’s idea of great acting involves pumping up the adrenaline and accentuating his mannerisms. Sadly, it all comes off as bad acting precisely because it is bad acting. Not once did Cruise make an acting choice in The Color of Money which surprised me, and a few times, he made what I believe to be the wrong choice. For example, he stops smiling during a scene when Eddie non-chalantly points out the fact that Victor has some vulnerabilities as a pool player. Real life would have demanded that Victor laugh this off. Sure, he can be offended, but it wouldn’t have been as dramatic or obvious as Cruise made it out to be.
The other huge weakness in The Color of Money lies in Scorsese’s direction. He overdirects from beginning to end, with too many frenetic sequences of pool shots which come off false, manufactured, staged and arrogant. These sequences don’t show true billiard playing; instead, they're simply pretentious trick shots. Scorsese turns a competitive sport into amusement part entertainment. Maybe the idea is that rapid editing makes a sport that much more exciting. Unfortunately, with pool, rapid editing betrays the fact that these are actors who can’t play this sport at the level their characters need to, which I mentioned above. I understand that it’s impossible to shoot long sequences with unbroken takes. Instead, stand-ins are necessary, and Scorsese unwisely tries to compensate for this with quick editing tricks.
The Color of Money isn’t a bad film. It simply doesn’t work when viewed next to Newman’s greatest films, Scorsese’s greatest films and especially The Hustler, which is an absolute triumph. Final word, though, is that Newman is truly spectacular in both.
(Label Notes: The Hustler was nominated for Best Picture and is one of Roger Ebert's Great Movies)