Wednesday, October 01, 2008

"Fat man, you shoot a great game of pool."

Been wanting to write a Paul Newman memorial post. So much to say about him as an actor, an activist, an icon.

I've always loved grifter films and Newman was in two of the best. The Sting was a master film, but one you could only see once because the viewer is as much the mark as Doyle Lonnegan. But The Hustler, that is a film I could watch a hundred times.

It is the story of Fast Eddie Felson, a California pool shark who comes to Ames, Iowa to challenge Minnesota Fats on his home turf and show that he is the best there is. He beats Fats at first, but his drinking, attitude, and immaturity ultimately undermine his talent and Fats waits him out and beats him. Fats, of course, was played by Jackie Gleason, who in addition to being a master comedian and a band leader, was himself, a great pool shooter.

At a bus station, he finds love in the person of Sarah Packard, someone as smart and dysfunctional as he is and they become each others' crutches and the love begins to transform Eddie far enough to leave him entirely conflicted, being pulled up by his new-found ability to think beyond himself, but Sarah's alcoholism and neediness feeding his own pulling him back down.

Bert Gordon, the money man behind Fats (played by George C. Scott) saw Fast Eddie's talent and he begins playing for him. When the power struggle between Burt and Sarah over ownership of Eddie gets tough, Burt murders Sarah and when Eddie leaves, he has his hands broken. Eddie ultimately returns to beat Fats, to claim the glory he initially sought, but now it is to take the money from Burt -- the only thing Burt is capable of caring about -- to avenge the murder rather than for his own ego.

It is a magnificent film but leaves us with the sad question, do we really have to lose something to understand how much it means to us? In this case, we can point to people with problems, we can blame it on their dysfunctional, maladjusted lives, but isn't it more universal? Can we really appreciate something fully when we have it?