Oscar Vault Monday – The Hustler, 1961 (dir. Robert Rossen)
This is one of those films that sucks you into its world and doesn’t let up for a moment until it’s over. Then afterwards you realize you’ve forgotten to breathe for two and a half hours. This is definitely one of Paul Newman’s best performances, though pretty much all of Paul Newman’s performances are his best because, like Jack Lemmon, Newman is always good. The Hustler was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning two: Best B&W Art Direction (won), Best B&W Cinematography (won), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor Jackie Gleason, Best Supporting Actor George C. Scott, Best Actress Piper Laurie, Best Actor Paul Newman, Best Director and Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were Fanny, The Guns of Navarone, Judgement at Nuremberg and winner West Side Story.
Robert Rossen was nominated for five Academy Awards during his career – three for The Hustler (writing, directing, producing) and two for All The King’s Men (writing, directing). Although he never won an Oscar, All The King’s Men did win Best Picture for 1949. Rossen also directed the 1947 film Body and Soul starring John Garfield, a film I highly recommend.
Paul Newman is so fantastic as “Fast” Eddie Felton, a character that has often been cited as one of the most “real” characters ever brought to life on the silver screen. Newman goes through a veritable roller coaster of emotional states in this film, which I think is less about pool and more about compulsion. I don’t want to spoil it, so I won’t elaborate what I mean by that, but if/when you see it, you’ll know what I mean. Newman lost Best Actor to Maximilian Schell in Judgement At Nuremberg, but I can’t exactly say I’d’ve had it any other way because Schell DOMINATES that film. This would have been a hard year for me to choose between those two. Newman was nominated for ten Academy Awards throughout his career, winning once: Best Actor Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Best Actor The Hustler, Best Actor Hud, Best Actor Cool Hand Luke, Best Picture Rachel, Rachel (he produced/directed the film, which starred his wife Joanne Woodward), Best Actor Absence of Malice, Best Actor The Verdict, Best Actor The Color of Money (won; he wasn’t at the ceremony and Robert Wise accepted it on his behalf), Best Actor Nobody’s Fool, Best Supporting Actor Road To Perdition. Newman also received an Honorary Academy Award in 1986 (the year before he won Best Actor). It is often said of his win for The Color of Money, in which he also plays “Fast” Eddie Felton, that the Academy was making up for his loss in 1961. I’m not sure I agree with that assessment, though I do agree that The Color of Money is not Newman’s greatest performance.
Piper Laurie is magnificent as fellow wayward soul Sarah, who walks with a limp, drinks like a fish and has massive daddy issues, all of which lead to her tumultuous emotional state. The two broken people are equally perfect for each other and, ultimately, dangerously disastrous. Laurie was nominated for three Academy Awards during her career, which also included a great run on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, though she never won: Best Actress The Hustler, Best Supporting Actress for Carrie and Children of a Lesser God.
I love me some George C. Scott. On a purely physical level, I find myself insanely attracted to him. On an artistic level, I think Scott is one of the greatest actors of his generation. Like Newman, he’s always got a slightly dangerous edge to his work, dramatic or otherwise. Scott also infuses most of his performances with just the right amount of humor to make him always feel like a real person. Just fantastic. Scott was up for Best Supporting Actor for his work in this film, but the actor refused his nomination. He was nominated for a total of four Academy Awards during his career, winning once: Best Supporting Actor Anatomy of a Murder, Best Supporting Actor The Hustler, Best Actor Patton (won) and Best Actor The Hospital.
Best known as Ralph Kramden on the 50s television show The Honeymooners, Jackie Gleason gives probably the most subtle performance in this film as legendary pool player Minnesota Fats. Unlike Fast Eddie, Minnesota Fats is able to concentrate on his game when the game is at hand. Minnesota Fats understands Fast Eddie better than Fast Eddie understands himself and when Fast Eddie has his revelation at the end of the film, their mutual admiration and understanding is palpable. This was Gleason’s only Oscar nomination.