Character Study
Andrew Tracy on The Color of Money

“Nine-ball is rotation pool. The balls are pocketed in numbered order. The only ball that means anything, that wins it, is the 9. The player can shoot eight trick shots in a row, blow the 9 and lose. On the other hand, the player can get the 9 in on the break, if the balls spread right, and win. Which is to say that luck plays a part in 9-ball. But for some players, luck itself is an art.”
opening narration, The Color of Money

We are now so used to Martin Scorsese as public figure—the lovably diminutive saint of the cinema, a kind of Father Brown of cinephilia—that it is easy to forget how atypical it was when he himself provided the opening narration for The Color of Money in 1986. While the director had already made appearances in several of his films—most notably as the gunman at the conclusion of Mean Streets and Travis Bickle’s psychotic fare in Taxi Driver—these were not, like Hitchcock’s famous cameos, public declarations of propriety over the film to follow but private little signatures, superseded not only by Scorsese’s then-lack of celebrity but by the immersive, ferociously stylized naturalism of his filmic worlds.

In Color, by contrast, Scorsese’s opening voiceover immediately places a frame around the film. Unlike the protagonists’ narration in Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Casino (which serve to draw us deeper into the films’ respective fictions) or Joanne Woodward’s in The Age of Innocence (which provides an almost anthropological gloss on the rituals and routines of the Gilded Age), Money’s disembodied voiceover signals that we are to view the film’s narrative as precisely what it is, a constructed fiction. And as it is Scorsese himself speaking these lines—not as an inhabitant of the film’s world but as some kind of unspecified but omniscient presence—this voiceover is his most forthright assertion of his own presence as author in any of his films up to that point.

That this overt placing of an authorial imprimatur upon the film should at the same time function as a declaration of distance from it speaks to Color’s intrinsic in-betweenness. Scorsese’s ambivalence toward the film is well known: he made no bones of the fact that he accepted Paul Newman’s offer to direct this belated sequel to Robert Rossen’s 1961 The Hustler as a means of proving his commercial bona fides to the studios after the successive box-office disappointments of Raging Bull and The King of Comedy. Yet the director’s investment in this seeming job of work is evident: in the film’s carefully curated soundtrack (in Scorsese on Scorsese, the director talks at length about the process of song selection and his collaboration with Robbie Robertson on the film’s score); in Michael Ballhaus’s rich, smoky-dark cinematography, which makes clear that Scorsese, after initially flirting with the idea of shooting the film in black and white, was determined that the film should have a look and texture of its own rather than being a mere Hustler manqué (though doubtless the widespread studio antipathy to black and white helped in this decision as well); and, three decades down the line, in the director’s defensiveness about the film in Steve James’s Roger Ebert tribute Life Itself, wherein Scorsese takes energetic exception to Ebert’s disappointed review of the film.

“[Scorsese] has the stubborn soul of an artist, and cannot put his heart where his heart will not go,” wrote Ebert in that 1986 review, “And his heart, I believe, inclines toward creating new and completely personal stories about characters who have come to life in his imagination—not in finishing someone else’s story.” In those two sentences, Ebert expresses some of the prime tenets of the Scorsese myth that he himself did much to create: the instinctive rebelliousness against convention, the creation of unprecedented, wholly original works from the “completely personal” depths of the self. The traction of this idea has been considerable, being that today Scorsese is a more palpable and powerful presence in his films than any director working in the American cinema since Hitchcock, not merely due to the stylistic and thematic signatures we find therein nor his cameos in his own films, but because his person and persona—both his self-representations and our projections of him, as both artist and man—constitute an inescapable, and arguably primary, prism through which to view his work.

It’s thus that, today, The Color of Money is perhaps most interesting for how its entire narrative thrust and scale of values (from the title on down) mirror the creative conflict which Ebert ascribes to it. The Color of Money is not just a sequel to The Hustler, nor is it a “true” Scorsese film. Rather, it can perhaps most productively be viewed as a series of collisions—between original and sequel, between the 1960s and the 1980s, between Hollywood old and new, between Scorsese as originating artist and the film as commissioned work—all taking place within a text that has as its subject the dynamic between the authentic and the ersatz: between “character” as essence and as pretense.

On that latter point, one can at least say that Scorsese’s persona was considerably closer to biographical truth (and considerably less of his own conscious devising) than the Master who preceded him. Where the lower-middle-class Cockney Alfred Hitchcock made himself over as the droll, cultivated English gentleman incongruously set down in sunny California, the Catholic, Italian-American New Yorker Martin Scorsese was the eternal/internal immigrant of the “New Hollywood,” emanating an evocative aura of otherness from the other side of the class divide. Scorsese gained entrée to the industry thanks to both journeyman toiling in the Roger Corman handicraft shop and the big studios’ post-Graduate/Easy Rider calculus that the promotion of a domestic “art” cinema could yield viable dividends. He was thus able to distinguish himself, in his first efforts Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Mean Streets, by the seeming closeness of his art to his life.

This was not just a matter of personal identity, but artistic identity as well. As critical accolades and intermittent financial rewards came their way during the halcyon days of the New Hollywood, many of Scorsese’s contemporaries began to strain for an inchoate, reactionary ideal of Art that stood in stark contrast to the supposed freshness and vivacity of their truly American American art, to describe it in Pauline Kael’s terms. Whether or not one accepts the reductive nativism of Kael’s conception, the high-culture-grubbing of the Penns, Rafelsons, Altmans, Friedkins, and Coppolas (even the cinemaniac Bogdanovich tried to tackle Henry James) following their initial successes proved pretty thin gruel. In Scorsese’s case, however, ambition remained rooted in the idiom he had made his own: his underclass otherness imparted a sense of emotional authenticity to the intentional artifice of New York, New York and served as a force of cohesion for the thematic overreaching of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, while the vigor and vulgarity of his street talk and his Top 40 melomania fused uncommonly well with his magpie cinephilic borrowings.

Even as Scorsese’s personal particularity distinguishes his art against the undeveloped idea of Art pursued by his New Hollywood contemporaries, so Scorsese himself has latterly become an idea of the American cinema for so many. No matter their later successes (if they had them at all), almost all the other members of the New Hollywood cohort remain bound to certain landmark films in the popular and critical imagination. Scorsese transcends his landmark films because Film itself (or rather an idea thereof) is bound within him: an art propulsive and instinctual yet polished, grittily realistic yet ecstatically transporting, cosmopolitan and eclectic but (still) 100% American.

One might think then that The Color of Money should sit quite comfortably within the director’s oeuvre, not only as his most direct engagement with American cinema history—albeit in more prosaic form than his personal, poetic reinterpretation of same in New York, New York—but because its backdrops of pool halls and booze cans rhymed quite well with the scuzzy, borderline-illicit milieux of Scorsese’s previous pictures. Despite this, Money continues to dwell in something of an auteurist limbo, which is surely not only due to its status as sequel. As with Kubrick, almost all of Scorsese’s films have been adapted from pre-existing material, but the idée Scorsese holds that the transformative power of his filmmaking, his singularity as an artist, makes them his films; Cape Fear and, especially, The Departed have never lacked for auteurist accolades despite the fact that both were straight-up remakes.

It may simply be that, as Ebert charged, Money’s creative provenance issues too much from without. The Hustler and (more importantly) Newman himself are, inarguably, the film’s true generative sources, rather than the director. Furthermore, the pairing of Newman as Fast Eddie Felson with Tom Cruise as Felson’s hotshot protégé/competitor Vince Lauria—the legendary veteran with waning box-office draw pitted against a fresh-faced star in the making—reinforced on the level of iconography the classically agonistic core of the film, an element that is quite foreign to the “canonical” Scorsese. Scorsese’s neo-naturalist sensibility is more powerfully drawn to the gradual unfolding of personal pathologies than the classical pattern of problem, resolution, and change. From Who’s That Knocking at My Door to The King of Comedy, Scorsese’s is a cinema of losers—of stunted men whose sad fates, though they might elicit our sympathy, do not qualify as tragedy because they had nothing of greatness in them to begin with.

The Color of Money, conversely, is about winners: about men who are not only comfortable in their own skins but, most crucially, have the “character”—The Hustler’s Holy Grail, the elusive and sanctified measure of a man—to fill them out. While Newman’s flawed heroes and antiheroes in the fifties and sixties represented a contextual step forward in Hollywood “realism,” they carried with them a core of mastery that remained intact even when the films’ stories dictated defeat or death, and one of the actor’s particular skills was to arouse pathos by the spectacle of sureness shaken, of his masterful men beaten, degraded, and at the end of their ropes, until they magnificently haul themselves up again. (Felson’s drunken humiliation at the hands of Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats in their first encounter in The Hustler is echoed in Money when he gets taken by Forest Whitaker’s young hustler, lamenting to Vince that “I showed you my ass in here”—an affectingly played rock-bottom moment that serves as a prelude to Eddie’s inevitable climb back up the ladder.)

In this, Newman in many ways served as the forerunner of the triumphalist Hollywood hero that Cruise would exemplify in the 1980s, and The Color of Money itself heralds the Cruise formula from this era ofthe kid-with-raw-talent taken in hand by seen-it-all mentor (with the obvious difference that the focus here is on the fogey). “I didn’t say you have character, I said you are a character. You’re a natural-born flake,” Eddie tells Vince—a line that not only presciently pinpoints the intrinsic lameness of the Cruise persona then in pupation but also defines the world of Money as one governed by rules distinctly different from the feral fatalism of Scorsese’s tooth-and-claw universe. Trapped by their own limited, violent, deluded, or deranged natures, Scorsese’s men are ultimately their own opponents, lashing out at others as projections of their own self-loathing until—like Jake La Motta in his solitary cell in Raging Bull or J.R. retreating to the empty comforts of the Church in Who’s That Knocking at My Door—they find themselves alone with their own limitations, their own weakness. In Money, natural-born weakness, when properly harnessed, is strategically deployed strength (“He has to learn to be himself, but on purpose”); defeat is deployed as the means to greater victory.

If The Color of Money has any pronounced continuity with Scorsese’s preceding work, it’s in this theme of self-mastery, but a self-mastery absent the self-flagellation and self-destruction of Scorsese’s previous “heroes.” Charlie holding his hand over the votive candles in Mean Streets, Bickle drilling himself for his suicide/murder mission in Taxi Driver, La Motta in Raging Bull welcoming the pugilistic punishment of his nemesis Sugar Ray Robinson as divine retribution—self-mastery here is penance without cleansing, sin without salvation, a cycle that can only repeat itself until it finally, terminally winds down. (It’s a narrative pattern which accounts both for that intensity synonymous with Scorsese and the less remarked upon enervation that sets in as his films lurch towards their respective ends.)

Money, like The Hustler before it, posits instead a dance with deception not as a flirtation with sin, but as a test of fidelity to one’s better self. In The Hustler, the young Felson submits to his own flakiness when he loses his temper whilst hustling some penny-ante players and proceeds to blow them away with his vastly superior skill, earning a pair of broken thumbs for his fit of pique; near the end of Money, Vince paradoxically proves Felson’s initial assessment of him when he finally heeds Eddie’s advice and throws a crucial semi-final showdown to Felson, with an eye to the bigger money to be made in the backroom matches that will materialize in the wake of his “loss.” (“He’s a little prick,” offers Eddie’s lady friend after Vince blithely crows about his hustle to his ex-mentor.) “Character,” then, is contextual, but always premised on the truth of the self: the self-control to conceal one’s skill against lesser opponents, the selfless pride to reveal it against worthy opponents, and the gradual evaporation of the mercenary impulse in the exercise of excellence tested.

It’s almost amusing to think now that the professional skill in evidence throughout The Color of Money could once have been viewed as Scorsese’s capitulation to the green at the expense of the true-blue (or blood-red) authenticity of his “real” films, the ones that “came to life in his imagination.” Generationally and temperamentally situated midway between Newman/Felson’s seasoned veteran and Cruise/Lauria’s brash young upstart, evoking a Hollywood past while anticipating one about to arrive, venturing beyond his narrow thematic spectrum without taking the artistic leaps of The Last Temptation of Christ or The Age of Innocence, Scorsese here obeyed the dictates of his stubborn artist’s heart by diligently, purposefully putting all these linked but autonomous elements into motion. At a time when even Scorsese’s recent, maladroit excursions into puerile pulp can be hailed as proof of the purity of his artistry, it’s satisfying to look back at the impossible-to-be-fully-satisfying Money for its inability to be reconciled to its director’s mythos, for its distance from imagined artistic essence in favor of purposeful, art-making existence.