Monday, March 1, 2021

"THE HUSTLER" Winning and Losing: On and Off the Pool Table

by George Haloulakos

This year marks the 60th anniversary of The Hustler, a modern classic film featuring Paul Newman as "Fast" Eddie Felson, a pool hustler who seeks fame and fortune by staking his talent and ambition against the formidable odds associated with this high-stakes / high-rolling indoor sport.  The Hustler was both a financial and critical success for its exploration of winning and losing through the prism of Eddie as he strives to break into the "major league" of professional pool hustling while ultimately paying an enormous personal price.

Featured with Mr Newman is fellow Academy Award winner George C. Scott as Eddie's unscrupulous manager Bert Gordon.  Jackie Gleason delivers a tour de force performance as the legendary Minnesota Fats, the best pool player of them all.  Piper Laurie plays Sarah, the love interest of Eddie.  Along with these wonderful actors, the viewer will see famed boxer Jake LaMotta (known to sports and movie aficionados as "Raging Bull") portraying a bartender where the high-stakes pool games are played.  Also seen in a cameo is 15-time World Pool Champion Willie Mosconi as the character Willie who holds the stakes for Eddie and Fats's games.  Throughout the film, the various pool games provide the venue to witness the strengthening or rather hardening of Eddie's character while also exploring his dynamic relationships with Bert, Sarah and Fats.   Filmed in Black & White, The Hustler has a rather harsh and brutal edge, reflecting the enormous personal cost Eddie endures to fulfill his ambition.  In the interest of eliciting interest rather than being a spoiler, let us simply observe that the grand finale in which Eddie and Fats face off is a reminder that the very best rivalries in life as well as sports are when both rivals are made better through their competition while having mutual respect.  

While Eddie and Fats demonstrate great sportsmanship by genuinely complimenting each other as players, the viewer feels great sadness having witnessed the enormous price that both men must pay in order to be the best at what they do.

In the years that followed, a nationwide resurgence in the popularity of pool unfolded as championship billiards games were seen on ABC's Wide World of Sports and later on ESPN.  Yours truly recalls that Time Magazine featured a major story on the 1972 World Pool Championship between Irving "The Deacon" Crane and Lou "Machine Gun" Butera. During the 1990s on ESPN, Jeanette "The Black Widow" Lee earned accolades as the world's number one female pool player.

While Baby Boomers associate Newman's portrayal of "Fast" Eddie with The Hustler, Generations X and Y are more likely to associate Mr Newman with this very same lead character in the 1986 sequel The Color of Money.  There are many film critics and cinema buffs who believe that Mr Newman won the Academy Award for Best Actor in The Color of Money as much belated recognition for his performance in The Hustler.  What do you think?  Let's have a conversation on this and any recollections you have about the wonderful game of pool!

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