When I was a kid, I loved watching my dad play pool. When I was big enough, I loved playing myself. My dad always preferred snooker, I could never really get my head around the proper order to sink the colours in, eight ball was more my style. I don’t remember how old I was when I heard one of his friends (potentially my godfather, they had a pool table in their house!!!!) call him a hustler, a shark. I decided I wanted to be a hustler, like my dad.
My dad was never really aces at talking directly to me about stuff. I think he liked that I was a tomboy, that I could take a hit without too many tears or hysterics, but there were some subjects he just didn’t know how to approach. So he often used movies I think, in the hope that I was smart enough to get it.
Cue The Hustler, a 1961 movie starring Paul Newman, George C. Scott, Piper Laurie and Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats. I already had a modicum of respect for Paul Newman and George C Scott. Jackie Gleason I only really knew from the Honeymooners. It was difficult to reconcile the cool character in the Hustler with the loudmouth, wife threatening bus driver that inspired Fred Flintsone I was accustomed to. Plus, Jackie Gleason made all his own shots.
My initial incredulity gave way to a begrudging respect and eventually, a dazzled awe for the ability to be someone completely different. I was young enough to be enthralled by this.
There are actors who are great but are almost always themselves. A moustache in the Sting, 50 hard boiled eggs in Cool Hand Luke, a hockey jersey in Slap Shot, but you always know you’re looking at Paul Newman. He is awesome! But he’s always Paul Newman. Then there are actors who are chameleons (Tilda Swinton, Gary Oldman, Geoffrey Rush, Peter Sellers, Tom Hardy, Cate Blanchett) and they’re amongst my favourites because of their ability to be whoever I’m supposed to think they are. But like I said, it was a new thing. It took no time at all for me to forget all about Ralph Kramden and be caught up in the rivalry between the two players.
If you haven’t seen the Hustler, not only do I recommend it, but I’m going to give a couple of things away. There’s your caveat.
When I told my dad I wanted to be a hustler, he made certain that I was paying close attention during the scene where some guys realized they were being taken and they very unceremoniously broke both of this thumbs. I cried. Which was kind of unusual for me. I remember crying because my dad asked if he needed to stop the movie. I said no.
Another key plot point is the romance between Paul Newman and Piper Laurie. He’s hungry, she’s broken, they both drink a lot. She ignores her instincts and ends up falling for him, knowing that it’s likely he’ll choose his hunger over her. I’m not going to say any more about what happens than that, but I’m pretty sure there was a lesson in there my dad was hoping I’d pick up on too.
It took a while, but I got it.
But all of that aside, the greatest lesson I took from this was something that I still call Minnesota Fats-ing myself.
The initial go-round that they have, at $1000 a game, Paul Newman is all youth and sass, so convinced that he is going to take out the master. (A good companion movie to this is The Cincinnati Kid starring Steve McQueen and Edward G. Robinson in a similar scenario, but with poker.) They go all night and into the morning. At some point, Fats halts the game, he rolls up his sleeves, washes his face and combs his hair. He puts himself back together, comes back and just lays waste. Meanwhile Eddie is a mess, half drunk, exhausted, shirt unbuttoned, tie long gone. It’s pointed out that Fats didn’t have to beat him, he beat himself.
Sometimes it’s difficult to see that there is even a flail happening. Being in the thick of it doesn’t allow for much perspective. And insistence that it’s FINE! I’M FUCKING FINE! just reiterates that you need a damn break.
Take a minute. Take a breath. Wash your face. Brush your hair. Pick up the clothes on the floor. Do the dishes. Sweep the floor.
Let yourself reset, even just a little bit.
Then come back, and kick some ass.