This is not a story about pool or billiards. It’s a tremendous story about character. Fast Eddie Felson, just happens to be a pool-hustler…
Walter S. Tevis wrote The Hustler in 1959. The movie, one of Paul Newman‘s first big roles, came in 1961. Both expertly tell Fast Eddie Felson’s story: He’s a pool-hustler who’s convinced himself that he needs to prove to everyone (and himself) that he’s the best pool player in the country so he can gain the respect and riches he so desperately craves. Eddie tells himself he can beat anyone, Including Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), who is the actual best pool player in the country. We recognize early that maybe Eddie could do it, if he just had the character he doesn’t know he needs to accomplish it. Talent isn’t everything like Eddie thinks it is. He believes beating Minnesota Fats would prove everything. Like the poster says, it’s a hunger that lies within him, and it drives every decision he makes.
“You just want the money. Sure. And the aristocratic pleasure of seeing him fall apart.” – Bert Gordon, calling Eddie out on his lack of character it takes to win.
I don’t like Eddie in the book or the movie. I’m not supposed to. He has little integrity and no character. He’s a mouthy, arrogant, obnoxious brat – one that Paul Newman brings to life brilliantly. The “aw shucks” smiles he invokes to show the emotions Eddie struggles with, and tries to cover up, are perfect. I DO admire, respect and like his adversary, Minnesota Fats (Gleason). It’s evident in HIS manner, language…even the clothes he wears…that this is where the man with real character is. And success. He’s the one that deserves the respect Eddie can’t seem to achieve. The same thing happens In The Cincinnati Kid, 1965, a remake of The Hustler (in a poker environment instead of a pool hall one), I don’t like the The Cincinnati Kid (Steve McQueen) either, for the same reasons I don’t like Eddie. But I DO admire, respect and like HIS adversary, Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson) for the same reasons I like and respect Minnesota Fats in this movie. In The Color of Money, the Martin Scorcese-directed 1986 sequel (not remake) to The Hustler, I don’t like Vincent (Tom Cruise) at all either for, you guessed it, the same reasons. But, I finally DO get a chance to admire, respect and like Eddie Felson (Paul Newman revisits this role) for a little while.
By the way, there was no real Minnesota Fats at that time. The nickname came about after the 1961 movie when a plump pool shark named Rudolf Walter Wanderone, Jr. adapted the nickname for himself from the Jackie Gleason character in the movie.
In the book, Walter S. Tevis gives us vivid descriptions of dark, gritty, urban (and not-so-urban) pool halls that give it a distinct noir feeling. The opening scene of the book takes place at Bennington’s Pool Hall in Chicago and I swear, I could smell the smoke in the air just reading Tevis’s words. Excellent writing like this continues throughout the book and, thankfully, the visuals in the movie live up to every word Tevis writes in the book. Every character is properly placed in the exact atmosphere they should be in both the book and movie. The reader…and viewer…are too. We never feel ourselves cringing at any misplaced dialogue or setting in either one. I always felt like I was there. Listening, watching and very interested in a man that comes full circle in his quest for respect.
The Hustler was directed by Robert Rossen for 20th Century Fox and in addition to Paul Newman, it also starred Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie and George C. Scott. Newman, Rossen, Gleason and Laurie were all nominated for Academy Awards for their roles. The movie was nominated for 11 Oscars total and won two; one for Best Cinematography and another for Best Art Direction. Director Robert Rossen communicated Tevis’s atmosphere perfectly. The movie follows the book closely, up until the billiards game between Eddie and James Findley (Murray Hamilton) with a few minor exceptions. It’s then that the book and movie diverge. Bert Gordon’s (George C. Scott) entrance into the story changes things for Eddie. In one way for the book, in another for the movie. The endings are completely different but the same overall message is the same: Character matters.