“Money won is twice as sweet as money earned.” – Fast Eddie Felson, The Color of Money.
When I first heard about this blogathon, I have to admit I wasn’t that excited about the topic. Sports on film are never as exciting to me as watching an actual sporting event. Stories about athletes tend to be awfully rote. There are exceptions, of course, but I had pretty much decided to skip this event.
Then I thought of one of my very favorite movie characters: Fast Eddie Felson, played by Paul Newman in the 1961 film The Hustler and in the sequel 25 years later, The Color of Money.
After being assured by blogathon co-host Aurora that The Color of Money was a good fit with the blogathon’s theme, I was excited to see the film again after many, many years.
Why pick The Color of Money, directed by Martin Scorsese, over The Hustler, one of the great films of the 1960s? Mainly because I think The Color of Money is a VASTLY underrated film. It’s considered one of Scorsese’s lesser films. (It’s the only Scorsese film given two thumbs down by Siskel and Ebert.) Paul Newman, who was nominated for the movie but lost the Best Actor Oscar to Maximillian Schell, went on to win for The Color of Money—which most people consider a “consolation” Oscar.
Wrong. They are all just plain wrong.
In The Hustler, Fast Eddie is an arrogant and talented pool player who is adept at hustling to make money at the game. Managed by an amoral man who eventually squeezes him out of the game, Eddie is forced to retool his life. As The Color of Money opens, he is a successful liquor salesman who has mostly left his pool playing days behind him. One night while chatting up his customer/sometimes girlfriend, Janelle (Helen Shaver), he notices a young man named Vincent (Tom Cruise) playing pool. He immediately recognizes him as a rare talent.
Eddie proposes to Vince and his girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) that he stake them during a road trip that will eventually end in Atlantic City, where there is an important 9-ball tournament. On the way they will hit many pool halls where Eddie will teach Vince the fine art of pool hustling.
There’s only one problem: not only does Vince hate losing, he seems utterly incapable of learning the subtle subterfuge necessary to become adept at hustling. Time and again, Vince ruins his chances of making real money by showing off his exceptional skill at 9-ball, instead of deliberately losing to lull his opponents into ever-increasing bets.
Street-savvy Carmen picks up Eddie’s lessons far more quickly, but she and Eddie have their hands full trying to control Vince. Continually frustrated by his inability to teach Vince the hustling game, Eddie slowly finds himself longing to play pool seriously again.
The movie is nominally based on the novel The Color of Money, written by Walter Tevis, who also wrote The Hustler. Tevis wrote a screenplay that stuck close to the novel’s storyline (which included Minnesota Fats, who was featured prominently in The Hustler, as a major character). Scorsese and new screenwriter Richard Price eventually decided to go a different route. They did invite Jackie Gleason to reprise the role in a vastly diminished capacity, but he declined. After that, Minnesota Fats was entirely excised from the movie’s script.
While The Hustler is a modern version of a Greek tragedy (a talented person is undone by hubris) The Color of Money also has roots in classic storytelling. Eddie becomes the Mentor archetype, trying to teach someone who reflects back to him his younger self how to avoid the same mistakes he once made. While it hits some expected notes, there are also a few ways that the story deviates from the classic model of the Mentor/Student dynamic. In a way, Eddie is reliving his past mistakes and the question is, will him make them all over again?
The genius part of this, in my opinion, is how different Vince and Carmen are from Eddie and his tragic girlfriend Sarah of the original movie. Vince is one of the most spectacularly clueless characters in film. He’s as talented as Eddie—but the resemblance between the characters begins and ends there. (Watching the movie again reminded me why people used to love Tom Cruise, because he’s really good here.) Carmen is a tough cookie who wants what she wants and has every intention of getting it. She’s not tough on the outside, fragile on the inside like Sarah.
The other main differences between the two movies are simply the eras and the styles of filmmaking. This is very much an 80s film, with the focus (supposedly) on the grasping of money at all costs. Although he is famous for being influenced by classic films, Scorsese is a much more flamboyant director than Richard Rossen, who directed The Hustler.
Pool is a highly cinematic sport—it’s always engrossing to watch onscreen. The scenes of playing the game are among the best in both films. One of my favorites in The Color of Money is when Vince sneaks off to play the pool hall’s best player and shoots pool to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.” Whirling around the pool table to the music, it’s not just a game to him, it becomes a performance. The joy he feels from showing off his talent and winning is almost palpable.
(Seriously, I really like Tom Cruise in this role.)
Unlike most 80s films, I think the “money is everything” theme is a ringer. The movie is actually about the joy of winning. Playing the game for the sake of the game. Not for money, not for acclaim, but for the indescribable high you get from winning and knowing you’re among the best.
In that way, Eddie learns something from Vince.
I don’t care what anyone says, Newman totally earned his Oscar for this movie. There are times when it’s difficult to tell when he is hustling and when he isn’t, and when he is BEING hustled and when he isn’t. Both he and Scorsese did not make the mistake of lingering over and emphasizing the backstory (I hate that). It’s there but it’s not THERE.
Nowadays we do see actors play the same character over decades in franchises, and we get a chance to revisit them at different stages of their lives. I think this is one of the best examples. Eddie is carrying a lot more baggage, groping his way through a changed world, vicariously reliving the fire he had as a young man—and realizing it still burns brightly inside him.