There’s a long and unspoken acknowledgment that the archetypal “sports movie,” has almost nothing to do with sport in favor of a life lesson. The fact that the plot, milieu, characters and themes revolve around the sport is secondary to the nested life lessons. In 1961’s The Hustler, “Fast Eddie” Felson is the best pool player around. He knows it, his loyal manager knows it and, in turn, everyone else knows it. He (we) learn(s) that it’s hard at the top; to be the best means to be lonely and satiated. The Hustler is a sports movie, but like all sports movies and like all sports, a higher meaning adds purpose to the simplicity of competition.
We meet “Fast Eddie,” as he’s known, waiting to challenge the best pool player he can find, with the goal of taking him down. We meet “Minnesota Fats,” as he’s known, a humble and talented pool player, who no one’s beaten in almost two decades. Surely an exaggeration, it sets the scene for an epic performance from both Paul Newman (as Eddie) and the incomparable Jackie Gleason (as Fats). Director Robert Rossen, intriguingly also the writer, demonstrates Eddie’s fast up-and-down character as he wins, wins, wins against Fats, only to completely fall apart and lose, lose, lose all but his original vig. About twenty minutes in, the real story starts. The man “Fast Eddie” is moving slow, having lost his confidence, his support system and his home. We meet his love interest, Piper Laurie (as Sarah), and out comes the struggle, both internal and external. Both are equally interesting.
Meanwhile, Fast Eddie navigates relationships, both with the people in and out of his life and the one between his conscience and his personality. The external conflict is among Eddie and his former manager, Myron McCormick (as Charlie), who’s content with what he has, and Eddie and his new manager George C. Scott (as Bert), who’s content with what he wants. Both play foil to the man Eddie, and act according to the particular persuasion of Eddie’s character. To round out this horrific foursome, Sarah is a woman beside herself, neither content to lie or to see the truth, nor to sin or to virtue; her attitude is a manifestation of Eddie’s psyche, which is part of the reason they never seem to mesh well as a couple. Rossen writes/directs quite subtly – as the relationship is neither forced nor abandoned – but to watch the woman disintegrate is heartbreaking, albeit necessary for Eddie to resolve his internal struggle.
Eddie asks himself, “should I be great?” several times throughout the film. He never says it out loud; Bert says it for him. Minnesota Fats says it for him, too, but his way comes through patiently waiting for Eddie to return from the depths of his own personal hell. He’s perceptive enough to know that the only reason he beat Eddie was because Eddie beat Eddie, but he still takes on a newly awakened Eddie as the film resolved in the last 15 minutes. He helps answer Eddie’s questions – through the medium of sport.
The Hustler is neither the first nor the last nor the best nor the worst “sports” movie made, but its performances helped to craft the archetype that we see in the current sports movies archive – Jerry Maguire, Rocky, Raging Bull, Hoosiers, Any Given Sunday, Rudy all boast central characters who exist within their sports universe but insist on challenging the audience with manic performance or underdog syndrome. On the surface of the film, the “point” is to win the game, match or conflict, but we can watch that on ESPN. Dig a little deeper, we focus on the man or the woman or the conflict, but we can watch that in a documentary. What makes sports films truly interesting is the dazzling universal reflection and introspection that inspiration can come from anywhere, specifically something as simple as sports. It’s often unexpected and understated, which makes the life lessons all the more powerful.
Yeah, so West Side Story won Best Picture in 1961, which is unfortunate for the other excellent films released, including The Hustler and Judgement at Nuremberg, an annoying film (I’m looking at you, The Guns of Navarone) and some films that will most certainly annoy me (Fanny – I’ll of course give it a chance). West Side Story has had the most lasting effort, though slightly less so in recent years as the camp-concept has dated and aged poorly. Everyone will remember The Sharks and The Jets, though, but might just forget the troubled and redeemed soul that’s Fast Eddie. Hey – we can watch pool on ESPN, right?