Wednesday, October 17, 2012
(September 1961, U.S.)
What WAS Paul Newman's greatest role? That, I suppose, is a matter of personal opinion and debate. Some would say HUD (1963) or COOL HAND LUKE (1967). Others might say it was his latter performance in THE VERDICT (1982). For me, and for many others, I'm sure, nothing ever has and never will beat the character of "Fast Eddie" Felson in THE HUSTLER. It's just a damn shame that the poor man had to wait twenty-five years before he'd win the Oscar for best actor of 1986 in Martin Scorsese's sequel, THE COLOR OF MONEY, a movie I actually saw before its classic predecessor.
This is a film that glorifies the game of pool, of course, but it's fundamentally a story of what it means to be a human being, set within the context of winning and losing. "Fast Eddie" wants to become a great pool player, possibly the best in the entire country, but he encounters obstacles in attempting to fulfill himself as a human being along the way. He attains self-awareness only after a terrible personal tragedy which he was responsible for. And despite winning the big climactic pool game at the end against Minnesota Fats (played by the legendary Jackie Gleason), it comes with a human price that Eddie decides is just too high.
Now fear not, fans of Jackie Gleason! I'm not about to simply mention his great name in just a simple pair of parentheses. This is a man whom, sadly, I only discovered for the first time when I was a kid and saw SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (that's just WRONG in so many ways!). Since then, however, I'm proud to admit that I'm a HONEYMOONERS junkie. But to watch Gleason as Minnesota Fats is a performance that is hell-and-gone from anything you've ever seen come from the likes of Ralph Kramden. Fats is well-dressed, quiet, smooth, graceful and deadly serious about his pool playing. It's those simple characteristics that actually make him incredibly intimidating to someone like "Fast Eddie" who knows that this man (Fats) is a force he'll need to take seriously (and take down) in order to acheive his dream. He makes it clear early in the film that "I came after him!" It's characters and performances like these that make this film one of the few American movies in which the hero actually wins in the end by surrendering and finally accepting reality instead of his glorious dreams. The possibility of these dreams don't surface again for another two and a half decades when "Fast Eddie" meets Tom Cruise!
I'd like to conclude with attempting to verbally describe a specific shot that captures a look on "Fast Eddie's" face, and one I've never been able to forget. It's at the very end of the film when he stares at Minnesota Fats before speaking to him for the last time. You'd need to actually see this to know what I'm talking about, but it's a deadly serious look that says many things, in my opinion. It's says 'I love you', it says 'I hate you', it says 'I'm glad I met you', it says 'I despise your existence'. But above all else, it says what I would consider to be the most important human feeling that can take place between these two great men of pool; it ultimately says, 'I respect you'. And that being the case, that look is followed by what I consider my the most perfect lines that can be spoken between "Fast Eddie" Felson and the great Minnesota Fats...
"Fast Eddie" Felson: "Fat man, you shoot a great game of pool."
Minnesota Fats: "So do you, Fast Eddie."