Eight Reasons to Watch 'The Hustler'

And after a brief intermission, "KCET Presents" is back, bringing you a handpicked collection of Sunday night movies. We may live in an age where Netflix and Redbox allow a seemingly limitless array of home video options, but there's something about the shared experience of a broadcast movie that can unify, even when the viewers are spread across all of Southern California, watching from the comfort of their living rooms. In short, we hope you're glad "KCET Presents" is back. We are too.

If we're kicking off our run of great movies, the 1961 Paul Newman film "The Hustler" is a great place to start. It's a classic, but it's not some glitzy Hollywood spectacle. It's a quiet, thinker of a film that coaxes you to realize that it's not just about pool. (Spoiler: It's really not.) But if the reputation of "The Hustler" isn't motivation enough to tune in -- 9 p.m. on Sunday! -- then here are eight more reasons.

It's one of the best sports movies ever. And this may seem a little surprising, since all the athletic feats in "The Hustler" take place in pool halls. But that's maybe a testament to the quality of the film: Despite being about a non-traditional sport, it ranks between "Bull Durham" and "Caddyshack" in the no. 6 spot on the American Film Institute's list of the top sports movies. (In the no. 1 spot, in case you're wondering, is "Raging Bull.")

It's based on a true story. But it also isn't. It's... complicated. Whether you prefer fact or fiction, there's something in the backstory to "The Hustler" that will appeal to you. It's unclear what, if any, pool hustler might have been the inspiration for Paul Newman's character. According to Wikipedia, at least four men have claimed to be the "real" Fast Eddie Felson. And that's not the half of it. Pool champ Willie Mosconi (who appears in the film as a character named Willie) has said that Jackie Gleason's character, Minnesota Fats, was based on real hustler Rudolph Wanderone. And subsequent to the success of the film, Wanderone started going by the name Minnesota Fats. And he even appeared in the 1971 film "The Player" -- billed as Minnesota Fats. However, the author of the book on which "The Hustler" was based has always insisted that Wanderone wasn't the inspiration. And furthermore, anything that Mosconi might have said about Waderone is queered by the fact that they apparently detested each other. In short, all these years after the fact, it's anybody's guess.

It was "practice" for Paul Newman. While Newman's performance in "The Hustler" got him an Oscar nomination, he lost to Maximillian Schell for "Judgment at Nuremberg." However, when Newman reprised the role of Fast Eddie in the 1986 sequel, "The Color of Money," he won the Best Actor award. You could say it was a victory 25 years in the making.

Piper Laurie. If you're only familiar with Laurie from her work in "Carrie" (which won her an Academy Award for acting ka-ray-zee) or "Twin Peaks" (where she scored an Emmy for vamping it up), you may be shocked by the presence she had during her years as an ingénue. She's gorgeous, but her character's pain radiates even more strongly than her beauty. This scene sums it up nicely:

Even more shocking? "The Hustler," which earned Laurie an Oscar nomination, was her last movie for 15 years. She quit to raise her family. Her comeback role, fittingly, was as an unhinged mom in "Carrie."

Jackie Gleason. Again, if you're someone who tends toward classic TV reruns, you may forget that Gleason played roles aside from Ralph Kramden. He handles a non-sitcom role ably, you'll be happy to know, and he picked up an Oscar nom for his efforts. Watch Gleason go toe-to-toe, cue-to-cue with Newman, a "serious" leading man actor:

You'll maybe learn a new word. And that word is carombole. What's it mean? Glad you asked. It's pool played on a table without pockets. Instead, you're meant to knock your cue ball against the others. If you're not familiar, no worries. Neither is Paul Newman's character until we realizes that he's wagered money on a game that isn't the one he knows how to play.

Well, it won me over. May I talk in the first person for a moment and confess something? I don't think pool is interesting. To me, it's a game you play when you're talking and drinking, but I've never once wanted to watch anyone else play. Sure, there's colorful balls moving around a table, and that's something to watch in the same sense that a screensaver is, but the mechanics of the game boil down to angles geometry and physics equations that don't grab me. All that said, my aversion to pool as a sport didn't deter me from enjoying this film in the least.

Paul Newman's eyes. Don't worry about the movie being black and white. Even in monochrome, Newman's eyes sparkle.

Remember, "The Hustler" airs Sunday, July 1, at 9 p.m.


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