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In six tries over the space of 23 years, the Best Actor Oscar consistently evaded Paul Newman's deserving grasp. When he finally obtained the accolade on his seventh try, it seemed fitting that it should come for The Color of Money (1986), his sunset-years reprise of the role that landed him his second nomination twenty-five years earlier, that of pool shark "Fast Eddie" Felson in The Hustler (1961).
Newman had been long intrigued with the notion of picking up with Felson's seedy odyssey, but the screen adaptation of novelist Walter Tevis' follow-up to The Hustler ultimately retained little more than the book's title. Unsatisfied with the script he had in development, the actor made overtures to director Martin Scorsese, whose effort with Raging Bull (1980) convinced Newman that he could capture the requisite urban feel.
For Scorsese, the project was a first in many ways, being a big-budget vehicle for an old-guard star in which he had no hand in the initial development. The Hustler had been a lifelong favorite of the director's, however, and he happily accepted the unusually commercial assignment. "A movie star is a person I saw when I was ten or eleven on a big screen," Scorsese recounted to Mary Pat Kelly in Martin Scorsese: A Journey (Thunder's Mouth Press). "With De Niro and the other guys it was a different thing. We were friends. We kind of grew together creatively...But with Paul, I would go in and I'd see a thousand different movies in his face, images I had seen on that big screen when I was twelve years old. It makes an impression."
To help develop a script with the proper street nuance, Scorsese recruited Richard Price, the novelist responsible for The Wanderers and Bloodbrothers. "Our concept was that 'Fast Eddie' Felson was not the kind of fellow who, after losing out at the end of the first film, just folded up and did nothing for the next twenty-five years," the director recounted in Scorsese On Scorsese (Faber and Faber). "He's a big hustler, and if Bert Gordon (George C. Scott's sleazy backer from the original film) was tough and mean, the only way I know that 'Fast Eddie' could survive was if he was tougher, meaner and more corrupt than Bert."
The Color of Money picks up several years later after the events of The Hustler, with Eddie retired from the game but still aware of how to work the angles. Having found relative prosperity as a salesman of off-label liquor, he also enjoys a side income from staking young nine-ballers in their hustles. While marking time with Chicago barkeep Helen Shaver, a regular account and sporadic lover, he can't help but notice the raw shooting ability displayed by Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise), a cocky kid who playfully demolishes Felson's current protege (John Turturro).
Felson subsequently propositions Vince and his much cannier girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) to a six-week road trip of pool halls, during which he'll teach the young natural how to turn his skill into big money via the hustle. Felson's ambition is to have the kid trained in time for a major tournament in Atlantic City, and he's willing to take the chance that Vince's flakiness will cause marks and bookmakers to underestimate him.
The lessons that Felson wants to impart, however, don't come easy. Vince, who flamboyantly revels in his dominant gamesmanship like he's trying to get on SportCenter, can't seem to wrap his head around the concept of throwing an early game to jack the stakes up for a later one, or doing anything to decoy an opponent. In one of the film's best set pieces, Cruise takes apart a local ace for the sheer joy of it, brandishing his cue like a martial artist to Warren Zevon's Werewolves of London. The entire ritual is witnessed by a disgusted Eddie, who realizes that every potential sucker in five counties will now be alerted.
Vexed by his charge's stubbornness, and perhaps slightly jealous of his skill, Eddie begins to play again for distraction. This leads to a bottoming-out when he scrapes up a game with a hulking, portly kid who rambles on about his shock therapy. As the night winds on, the supposed mark (Forest Whitaker, who nearly walks off with the picture in this early role) winds up taking Felson for a small fortune, as a bemused Vince and Carmen look on. The humiliated Felson pulls the plug on the entire venture, leaving the kids to make their way to AC on their own, as he attempts to find some measure of redemption for himself.
In The Color of Money, Scorsese's marvelous visual sense gives the game of pool a vibrancy unmatched by any film on the subject before or since. "The pool room atmosphere and the dynamics of the game of pool didn't lend itself to experimentation," assistant director Joe Reidy recalled for Kelly. "However, Marty invented some really interesting angles that showed off the game well... It was not just a dramatic thing but a physical thing; it gave the camera a different kind of energy, following a ball, following a cue stick. The pool table became a stage."
Buoyed in no small part by the surge in Cruise's star power in the wake of Top Gun (1986), The Color of Money wound up making a tidy $52 million at the box office, the best return that any of Scorsese's features had to that point. In addition to Newman's Best Actor Oscar, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also gave well-earned nominations to Mastrantonio (Best Supporting Actress), Price (Best Screenplay - Based on Material from Another Medium), and art director Boris Leven, who died not long after the film's release.
Producer: Irving Axelrod, Barbara De Fina
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Richard Priced, based on the novel by Walter Tevis
Art Direction: Boris LevenCinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker
Music: Robbie Robertson
Cast: Paul Newman (Eddie Felson), Tom Cruise (Vincent Lauria), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Carmen), Helen Shaver (Janelle), John Turturro (Julian).
C-120m. Closed captioning. Letterboxed.
by Jay Steinberg