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  • Andres Benatar

The Hustler (1961)

What It Means To Have Character

As many times as Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) wins a round of pool against the more calm and self-assured Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), the sheer lack of love he holds for himself whenever anyone refers to him as a loser, or whenever he is denied another round is made clear every time the stakes are raised, or a desperate plea for one more game following an easy win is made. In most sports films, and yes pool is a sport, the main character often puts up a good fight before experiencing that very brutal loss that sets him on a whirlwind of self-discovery throughout the whole of the narrative. In the case of a character study like Robert Rossen’s The Hustler, Fast Eddie Felson suffers multiple brutal losses at the hands of Minnesota Fats. But the bizarre thing about a film like The Hustler is that before this brutal defeat occurs, Eddie scores plenty of wins against the stoic Fats. Now, in this case, some could argue that Fats let him have those wins just to throw him off guard. But the calm and relaxed composure Jackie Gleason’s performance contrasts against Paul Newman’s more uncontrollably enthusiastic physicality shows that isn’t the case. If anything, Fats has the character to face failure. He has the self-assurance of accepting a victory when it’s a victory and a loss when it’s a loss. Eddie on the other hand can’t, and the reason for that is made abundantly clear from the very beginning by George C Scotts’ professional gambler Bert Gordon when he mutters “Eddie, you're a born loser.”

What Makes The Hustler Special

Very few films can make a sport as classy but rather tame as pool as romanticized as The Hustlermanages to do. It’s just as much of a stretch to think that a film as focused and as precise on the human element could be made today. As much as pool is a central element of The Hustler, the human element structured around the characters and their own humanity or lack thereof is what really grants this film something so special. Just the sheer enthusiasm of a young Paul Newman’s smile is enough to make a corner pocket call as authentic as the focus given to some of the more depression and existentially contemplative moments that film makes sure stays with the audience.

Who Is Fast Eddie Felson?

That’s an interesting question, and although brimming with plenty of confidence, it doesn’t seem like Eddie would have an inkling of an answer, even if someone told him how he nothing but a talented born loser who lacked character. Strangely enough, the film’s main antagonist Bert (George C Scott) tells Eddie that the reason he lost to Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) wasn’t that he got drunk, which he uses as the best excuse for any sensible person to naturally accept. Instead, it was “Character” that defeated him.

As clear and soul-wrenching as it may seem to be told by someone with more money and more presentable self-assurance that you lack character, the fact of the matter is, Bert doesn’t understand any sense of character outside of what his money can do or the people it can purchase. For a time, and despite plenty of rebellion from Eddie, Bert’s money gets whatever is Eddie is worth, and in that time, The Hustler works well in taking its time with exploring the mindset of Eddie and his love interest Sarah, an equally if not more tortured soul who recognizes that despite her self-destructive alcoholism, she understands the humanity needed to truly have a sense of character not even Bert can provide when all he sees is a price tag on the people working for him.

Eddie’s character or the longing for it are shown throughout many instances of this film. Most of the time, they come out whenever he is either drunk, playing one game of pool after another where despite beating fats, it isn’t enough. Even when he ups it to a thousand dollars a game following a recent win shows that it’s neither about the money or the score. If anything, it’s about Eddie’s need to feel he’s received the satisfaction the recent victory or loss failed to fill the void that essentially defines him.

Minnesota Fats: What Eddie Longs For

“You look beautiful, Fats. Just like a baby ...all pink, and powdered up.” Although that remark is made by a fully intoxicated Eddie Felson, it sums up his ultimate desire for a complete self-assurance Fats has over himself from the beginning. On a character level, Minnesota Fats doesn’t serve as a three-dimensional character or even that of an antagonist within The Hustler. That role belongs to Bert Gordon who operates from a realm of financial practicality. Minnesota Fats works more like a fully formed character made to help show what Eddie’s delusion is and his ultimate need regarding his desire for one more game beyond his physical and mental limits. Unlike Eddie, Fats can deal with an early brutal defeat, he can hold his liquor, and he can hold himself perfectly enough to put on his trench coat and hat back on without so much as an exhaustion-drenched stumble, even after playing for over twenty-five hours straight. It’s a unique gem of a character that manages to inspire so much change from the protagonist Eddie Felson, even with barely any visible dimension or decent screen time in relation to The Hustler’s two-hour and fourteen-minute run time.

Sarah Packard: The Tragic Trigger For The Birth Of Eddie’s Character

In addition to Fats, Eddie’s love interest Sarah (Piper Laurie) is more than simply a love interest. She even works more than just as a cautionary tale her more self-destructive habits would be used in another form as simply a warning for the protagonist. Much like Eddie, Sarah too has her vices. Eddie and Sarah both drink. But, Sarah needs alcohol to block out the pain of her own self-hate, while Eddie drinks just as an added bonus to the rush he finds greater pleasure in with every victory he scores in pool. The difference between Sarah and Eddie lies in the fact that it is through the tragedy of her suicide that Eddie is able to recognize what it really means to be loved and to love oneself, which was something he outright avoided earlier on in one of the film’s more tranquil silent moments where Sarah told him “I love you.” In those cases, any person would often respond with a minor pause and then a smile that led to an “I love you of their own.” But with Eddie, there is a mild pause, but then a look away as he then tells Sarah “You know, someday Sarah, you're gonna settle down. You're gonna marry a college professor. You're gonna write a great book - may be about me, huh? Fast Eddie Felson, Hustler.” Sarah’s response once more is another “I love you,” and nothing more. Before Eddie asked if she needed the words, she already knew the right person was always Eddie. The tragedy behind that tranquil moment wasn’t that Eddie didn’t realize she was thinking he was the right person she’d want to settle down with, it was that he never believed he could be the right person.

The Hustler is anything but a pool movie. Sure it has enough well-crafted and well-shot scenes featuring pool to such an impeccably fashioned model that even someone who isn’t a player or a fan overall can still watch with a sense of passionate excitement. It’s a movie about character and having the humanity to truly achieve it in one’s capacity to know their own value on their own standards. Having others do that for you even when they are able to point out your own flaws isn’t a good recipe for the kind of self-actualization needed to truly understand and potentially love the better part of yourself kinder and more humane people like Sarah can recognize and wish for you to do the same. In order to truly love yourself, you must learn to do it on your terms. Having a bit of help isn’t bad. But being ordered around like some prized horse or race dog the way Bert orders Fats and his new pet project Eddie isn’t a recipe for understanding and truly loving oneself. It was the American psychologist Abraham Maslov who was best known for creating the Hierarchy of needs who said “If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.”

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Andres Benatar is resident film expert. You can hear him on the 'Cinema 237' podcast - A podcast for cinephiles.

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