Lisa Watches an Oscar Nominee: The Hustler (dir by Robert Rossen)

Hustler_1961_original_release_movie_posterFor my final Oscar-nominated film of the night, I watched the 1961 film The Hustler.

Filmed in harsh black-and-white and featuring characters who live on the fringes of conventional society, The Hustler is one of those films that’s so unremittingly bleak that it would probably be so depressing as to be unwatchable if not for the talented cast.  Paul Newman plays “Fast Eddie” Felson, a pool hustler who is talented but cocky, a guy who has the talent of a winner and the self-centered, self-pitying personality of a loser.  When we first meet Eddie, he and his manager, Charlie (Myron McCormick) have traveled all the way from Oakland to New York, all so Eddie can challenge and hopefully beat the legendary pool player Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason).  Eddie does get his chance to challenge Minnesota (or perhaps I should call him Mr. Fats?) and comes close to winning.  However, in the end, Eddie is too arrogant and impulsive and he ends up losing to Mr. Fats.

Defeated and humiliated, Eddie is hiding his meager possessions in a storage locker at the local bus station when he first meets Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie).  Sarah is an alcoholic and an aspiring writer.  She claims to be a part-time student but we never actually see her in class.  She walks with a pronounced limp and she has a habit of declaring the world to be “perverted, twisted, and crippled.”  Soon, she and Eddie are living together, two lost souls who support and destroy each other at the same time.  When Sarah attempts to write a short story about Eddie, Eddie responds by destroying the page and ordering her to never write about him again.  Charlie views Sarah as a destructive influence and decides that he doesn’t want to have anything else to do with Eddie.

However, Eddie soon finds a new manager.  Bert Gordon (a demonic George C. Scott) is a gambler who says that if Eddie sticks with him, Eddie will not only get rich but he’ll defeat Minnesota Fats as well.  At first, Eddie wants nothing to do with Bert but, when his own attempts at hustling lead to him getting his thumbs broken, Eddie has a change of heart.  Under Bert’s guidance, Eddie find success but he does so at the expense of what little decency that he had to begin with…

Eddie is an interesting character, one who most viewers will probably have mixed feelings about.  On the one hand, he’s a jerk.  He’s an arrogant, cocky jerk who thinks that he’s the best and who either uses or allows himself to be used by almost everyone that he meets.  Though he definitely ends up being exploited by Bert, Eddie knew what he was getting into when he made his deal with the devil.  Though he loves Sarah and she loves him, Eddie still treats her poorly.  There are just so many reasons to dislike Eddie Felson.

Except, of course, Eddie Felson is played by Paul Newman.

Seriously, it is possible to dislike a character played by Paul Newman?  As an actor, Newman was so charismatic and projected an innate goodness that came through even when he was playing a character who didn’t always do nice things.  As written, the character of Eddie spends the majority of the movie acting like a louse.  But, as played by Newman, Eddie becomes a wounded anti-hero, the bad boy that every girl dreams of somehow redeeming.

Ultimately, there are many reasons to see The Hustler.  Gleason and Laurie both give good performances.  George C. Scott, meanwhile, is like a force of nature.  Just listen to him as he shouts, “You owe me money!”  Director Robert Rossen finds an odd beauty in some of the sleaziest parts of New York City.  But, in the end, the main reason to see The Hustler is for Paul Newman’s amazing performance in the title role.  It’s a great performance that elevates the entire film.

I have to admit that I don’t know much about pool.  During my first college semester, I lived in a dorm that had a pool table in the front lobby.  There was always a large group of people gathered around that table, playing pool and generally looking like a bunch of hipster douchebags.  Sitting in the lobby meant having to listen to a constant soundtrack of balls clacking against each other, followed by people saying, “Such-and-such in the corner pocket” or whatever the Hell it is people say when they’re playing pool.  (To be honest, though I could hear the voices, I rarely listened to what they were actually saying.)  I don’t know if the people playing pool in the lobby were any good.  But, after seeing The Hustler, I can say that Eddie Felson would have beaten all of them.


Lisa Watches The Oscar Winners: The Apartment (dir by Billy Wilder)


After the Nun’s StoryI continued to experience TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar by watching the 1960 best picture winner, The Apartment.  The Apartment is unique among Oscar winners in that it’s one of the few comedies to win best picture.  (Though, in all honesty, it would probably be more appropriate to call The Apartment a dramedy.)  It was also, until the victory of The Artist, the last completely black-and-white film to win best picture.

(And, as long as we’re sharing trivia, it was also the first best picture winner to feature a character watching a previous best picture winner.  At the start of the film, Jack Lemmon deals with insomnia by watching Grand Hotel.)

The Apartment tells the story of C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon), an anonymous officer worker who is determined to climb the corporate ladder despite not being very good at his job.  However, Baxter does have one advantage over his co-workers.  He’s single and therefore, his apartment has become the place to go for corporate executives who need a place where they can safely cheat on their wives.  Bud spends his day trying to coordinate who is going to be in his apartment and when.  Meanwhile, he spends his nights exiled from his own home and wandering around New York.  In fact, the only beneficial thing about this arrangement is that all of Bud’s supervisors have been giving him good evaluations in return for using his apartment.  (Well, that and Bud’s neighbor, played by Jack Kruschen, is convinced, based on the thinness of the apartment walls, that Bud must be a great lover.)

When Bud finally does get his promotion, it’s only because the personnel director, Jeff D. Sheldrake (an amazingly sleazy Fred MacMurray), wants to use Bud’s apartment.  Bud celebrates his promotion by finally working up the courage to ask out Fran (Shirley MacClaine), an elevator operator who works in the office.  What Bud doesn’t realize is that Fran is also the woman who Sheldrake wants to bring to the apartment….

Fran is convinced that Sheldrake is going to leave his wife for her.  What she doesn’t realize — and what Fred MacMurray’s performance makes disturbingly clear — is that Jeff Sheldrake is basically just a guy having a midlife crisis.  He’s the type of middle-aged guy that every woman has had to deal with at some point, the guy who pulls up next to you in a red convertible and stares at you from behind his sunglasses, attempting his best to entice you into helping him relive the youth that he never had.  When Fran eventually learns the truth about Sheldrake, it leads both to near tragedy and to Bud having to decide whether he wants to be a decent human being or if he wants to keep climbing the corporate ladder.

When one looks over a chronological list of all of the best picture winners, it’s a bit strange to see The Apartment listed in between Ben-Hur and West Side Story.  As opposed to those two grandly produced and vibrantly colorful films, The Apartment is a rather low-key film, one that devotes far more time to characterization than to spectacle.  And while both Ben-Hur and West Side Story are ultimately very idealistic films, The Apartment is about as cynical as a film can get.  The Apartment may be a comedy but the laughs come from a place of profound sadness.

Because it’s more interested in people than in spectacle, The Apartment holds up better than many past best picture winners.  We’ve all known someone like Bud.  We’ve all had to deal with men like Sheldrake.  And, in one way or another, we all know what it’s like to be someone like Fran.  The Apartment remains a truly poignant and relevant film.

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: The Nun’s Story (dir by Fred Zinnemann)


Happy Ash Wednesday!

So, earlier today, I got off work early so I could go to Noon Mass with my sister and we both got our ashes.  And I’m sure that will take some people by surprise because I’m not exactly the most faithful or devout of Catholics.  But what can I say?  I love the ornate ritual of it all.

And, as a part of my own personal ritual, I washed my forehead before I left the church.  Erin and I had a great vegetarian lunch at Cafe Brazil and then we came home and I turned on the TV and what should be finishing up on TCM but the 1959 best picture nominee, The Nun’s Story.  Fortunately, I had already set the DVR to record The Nun’s Story and so, on this most Catholic of days, I was able to watch this most Catholic of best picture nominees.

The Nun’s Story tells the story of Gaby (Audrey Hepburn), the daughter of a famous Belgian doctor (Dean Jagger).  At the start of the film, Gaby has entered a convent because she wants to become a missionary nursing sister in the Belgian Congo.  However, before Gaby can go to the Congo, she has to learn to give up her own rebellious streak and individual independence.  Taking the name Sister Luke, she excels at her medical training but, because it is felt that she is still too independently minded, she is not sent to the Congo but instead assigned to work in a mental hospital.  It’s there that her independent streak nearly gets her killed when she is fooled by a dangerous patient who claims to be the Archangel Gabriel.  It is only after she takes her final vows that Sister Luke is finally sent to the Congo and it is there that she’s forced to work with the abrasive agnostic Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch).  Of course, as Sister Luke goes through her own spiritual struggles, the world inches closer and closer to the start of a second world war.  When war does break out, Sister Luke finds herself torn between her vow of obedience (which includes remaining political neutral) and the realities of living in a country that’s been occupied by the Nazis.

1959 was apparently a good year for religious films.  Not only did Ben-Hur win best picture, but The Nun’s Story also received 8 nominations.  Reportedly, The Nun’s Story was the most financially successful film to be released by Warner Bros, up to that point.  If Wikipedia is to be believed, it was also Audrey Hepburn’s personal favorite of the many movies that she made.

When seen today, probably the first thing that people notice about The Nun’s Story is that it’s extremely long and occasionally rather slow.  The film follows Gaby from the minute she enters the convent to the moment that she makes her final choice about whether to be obedient to herself or to her vows and, during that time, it examines every single detail of her life in glorious Technicolor.  A lot of emphasis is put on the rituals that Sister Luke goes through on her way to taking her final vows.  Now, if you’re like me, all of the rituals are fascinating to watch and produce a whole host of conflicting emotions.  Even as I found myself admiring Sister Luke’s dedication and her sacrifice, I still kept wondering — much as she did —  if it was all really worth giving up her independence.  But, I also have to admit that I found myself wondering if someone from a Protestant background would feel the same way.

To a certain extent, I really hate to say that you probably have to come from a Catholic background to truly enjoy any film.  But I certainly think that’s the case with The Nun’s Story.  But, even Protestants and skeptics will appreciate Audrey Hepburn’s wonderful lead performance.  She keeps this film grounded and makes her mostly internal conflict of faith compelling.  In a career that was full of great performance, this is one of Audrey’s best.