I am unfortunate enough to have been born after Paul Newman’s prime, so I’ve had to go back to understand just how wonderful he is, along with relying on the ringing endorsements of those lucky enough to have witnessed his greatness on the big screens. Nominated for ten acting Oscars in his awe-inspiring career, Newman somehow only took one home. Nevertheless, he maintains a solid perch atop my Favorite Actors Ever list, one that will surely be presented on this site at one time or another. Just about every scene he’s ever been in is worth watching, and his roles in Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and many other films helped make the projects iconic. BUT, before I get too verklempt, I suppose I should talk about the two movies referenced in the title of this post.
The Hustler and The Color of Money came out 25 years apart, meaning they present two very different Newmans, but he still manages to make both forever rewatchable. The latter brought him that lone Oscar victory, one of those wins that perhaps reflected not the role itself but instead the body of work of a legend who had long since been deserving. Money also includes a heavy dose of Tom Cruise — in his energetic glory — railing against the advice of Newman’s “Fast” Eddie Felson. Let’s be real: Newman or Cruise? Who would you trust? I’m actually a far bigger Cruise supporter than certain other GWW co-founders, but he should really know to follow the lead of a legend. If only he knew what Eddie went through in the first film.
The Hustler, though filled with fun moments and Newman’s charm, is actually a rather dark examination of competition, ambition, and their effects on the character of a man. Newman’s Eddie immediately takes on pool-hall king Minnesota Fats (played wonderfully by Jackie Gleason), amassing a small fortune in winnings before losing it all out of a misguided set of principles, insisting that he can’t stop until Fats submits. Throughout the film, Eddie battles his own relentless pursuit of achieving artistic perfection in his play, as he describes around 1:40 of this clip. Eventually, he realizes that “a 25% slice of something big is better than a 100% slice of nothing,” but first he must suffer. Plus, some part of us sort of wants him to out and win on his own, but as it turns human beings seem to need the love and support of other people. Or something. Nevertheless, we are blessed to have heavy doses of Newman in his ridiculously handsome prime shooting pool and talking shit. It’s truly a sight to see, and director Robert Rossen utilizes black and white film and seedy pool halls to create addicting atmospheres.
The Color of Money (one of Martin Scorsese’s lesser works) brings Tom Cruise’s Vincent Lauria to the forefront, but we stay for the Fast Eddie, if we’re being honest with ourselves. We also get some John Turturro and Forest Whitaker, so Cruise is really a placeholder. Sorry, Tom. As it turns out, I was happy to see Eddie change over the course of The Hustler, but I was happier to see him return for a sequel, spitting out gems like “Money won is twice as sweet as money earned” and “You gotta have two things to win. You gotta have brains and you gotta have balls. Now, you got too much of one and not enough of the other.” While it was nice to know that Eddie learned how to live a little more practically at the end of the first film, you can’t help but smile as he shows that some things never change, still unwilling to stop until games and debts — especially of honor, rather than money — are settled. Eddie’s labeled a “born loser” as he scuffles and loses in The Hustler, but with 25 years to rest and think on his past, his second chapter leaves us on a happier note. In that clip linked to above, Newman knows exactly what he’s doing, as he always does. He smiles his perfect smile, already envisioning the Oscar that lies ahead. He probably should have found more of those trophies, but I guess he did alright for himself. If only someone like him could live forever. At least Fast Eddie will.