I was excited when Drive came out: finally, I thought, a new Bourne. An action flick with intelligence and fine acting, starring a man who had bypassed romantic leads after The Notebook to refine his skills in indies. And the promo! It looked exciting and moody, with the kind of premise that meant my car enthusiast husband and I would be carrying the popcorn to our seats with equal enthusiasm.
Of course I had neglected to consider the amazing skills of this woman, who would later manage to portray one of the most self-centered characters in American fiction as a victim:
So instead of racing cars, instead of truly exploring the depths of his character’s moral confusion and darkness, Ryan Gosling gets to spend most of the film destroying his life for a mother (Carey Mulligan) who is (a) hopelessly fragile (b) already married and (c) unutterably dull.
I wouldn’t say that The Hustler (1961) was ruined as completely as Drive was by a bad romance, but I was more appalled by its mistakes. Because this is a film I’d thought to be a classic, with George C. Scott as the money man and the brilliant Jackie Gleason playing Minnesota Fats, the reigning master of pool.
The master’s challenger is cocky young upstart Fast Eddie (Paul Newman), who struggles with confidence in spite of his successes hustling on the road. (Yes, the same character from The Color of Money).
Imagine my surprise then to find that after the wonderful battle between Fats and Eddie ends with the latter deflated and broke, pool disappears for a long stretch of the film, to be replaced by a romance as inadvisable as it is boring to watch.
Sarah (Piper Laurie) is a more interesting character than Mulligan’s Irene. She is depressed, moody, and drunk most of the time, but she is also compassionate and prickly with pride, and though I might have asked for more range and nuance from Laurie, others disagreed; she received an Oscar nomination for the role.
But whatever you think of Laurie’s performance, the romance itself is based on co-dependence. The two drink and have sex, and that’s about it; she even starts to write a story about their supposed depravity. When money-man Bert (Scott) accuses Newman of being a talented loser, the audience has to agree. It’s understandable that Eddie would align himself with Bert to lift up his career, even that he’d bring Sarah with him on the road since she can’t handle being left alone for a week (or more likely, doesn’t trust him to return). Sure, we know Bert is a bad guy, but Eddie isn’t exactly full of either options or patience.
But to link Newman’s increased character and confidence to his remorse at his treatment of Sarah? Really? Eddie didn’t seem to mind leaving his long-time buddy and manager, Charlie (Myron McCormick), in the lurch.
His treatment of Charlie is far worse than his neglect of Sarah. The problem isn’t what Eddie did during his travels with Sarah and Bert; the problem is whom he chose to do it to: you don’t get involved with someone this fragile unless you’re in it for good, especially with a predator like Bert in your company. What Eddie should have done is drive the poor woman straight to rehab, not to the Derby.
Are you bored yet? Yeah, me too. I didn’t sign up for a movie about a doomed love affair—and if I had, I could have found a far better one than this. Here’s what I wanted to see, and finally did at the end of the film:
And most of all, witness the beautiful pool shots throughout–while you can get them. For a film called The Hustler, I didn’t get to see much hustling. Luckily, I did get to see this: Fats dressing up to rejuvenate himself during a losing streak:
Why do Hollywood films always use romance as a replacement for self-struggle? I haven’t read Walter Tevis’s novel, which may have managed the matter better, but the best films I know about competition don’t rely on gimmicky stand-ins as substitutes for the practice scenes (with pool!) they should have included. Even if a love affair is involved, it’s one that forces the hero/heroine to confront weaknesses. And it’s Bert—not Sarah—who tells Eddie the truth in The Hustler. If anything, I would think remorse would lead Eddie right back to the aimless life he and Sarah had been leading.
Did I enjoy the film? Yes. Would I fast forward through the Laurie-Newman scenes next time? Oh yes. Do I think at the end of the day The Cutting Edge was more convincing? Absolutely.