To Like or Not to Like, That Is (Not) the Question . . .

Without a doubt, Paul Newman was a superstar, one of the great Hollywood actors.  His success dates back to the 1950s, starring in such films as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Long, Hot Summer.  But it was his performance playing pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson in the 1961 movie The Hustler that cemented his status as one of the all-time best.

hustlerdvd

 

The question immediately arises:  What is it about Fast Eddie Felson that gripped and moved audiences, that allowed Newman to catapult to the very top of his profession?  No question, Newman was a gifted actor, and a lesser talent may not have played the part so well.  Nevertheless, there is something memorable about Fast Eddie, the fictional character.  There is something about him that stuck with people, and wouldn’t let go.

Is Fast Eddie just so likeable?  Is that it?  Surely, he is charming.  With his boyish grin, good looks, and natural flair and charisma, Eddie Felson is easy to notice.

fasteddycocky

 

A great guy, right?  Not really.  All too often, he’s a boorish jerk who mistreats the people closest to him.

A small-time hustler, Eddie thinks of himself as the best pool player in the country, and he wants to prove it by squaring off against the legendary “Minnesota Fats.”  He gets the match, and, despite jumping ahead early, ultimately loses the contest–a grueling 36-hour pool marathon.  After losing to “Fats,” Eddie is down to his last $200.

He then runs out on his longtime friend and business partner, Charlie, scrapes just to get by, and meets Sarah, a troubled alcoholic who falls in love with him.  Throughout all this, we see Fast Eddie at his worst.  When Charlie finds him, and asks him to come back on tour with him, hustling pool on the road, Eddie dismisses him, calling him a “small-time Charlie.”  He wants a rematch with “Fats,” nothing less.  He wants to be the best.  He tells Charlie to “lay down and die by yourself.  Don’t take me with you.”

fasteddiesmoking

 

He is often insensitive to Sarah, treating her with very little respect, yet he maintains his cocky attitude.  Eddie Felson doesn’t walk.  He struts.  He doesn’t smile.  He smirks.  He’s a jerk.  And yet . . . there is something about him.  Something endearing, nuanced, vulnerable.

Beneath his bravado, Eddie is like a little boy desperately trying to prove himself.  He feels the need to be the best because, deep down, he doesn’t believe he is.  By movie’s end, he does get that rematch with Minnesota Fats, and he does in fact beat him.  At a terrible cost.  Sarah has taken her own life, largely as a result of Eddie’s choices and misplaced priorities.  Beating “Fats” is hollow.  The goal he had wanted all along means nothing.  Eddie finally understands this, too late.

You might think, as an audience, we would say, “He had it coming, he should be miserable,” and leave it at that.  After all, if he had chosen a different path earlier in the movie, the tragic outcome could have been avoided.  But then we pull back.  Don’t we all have a little Fast Eddie in us?  Don’t we all make mistakes?  Don’t we all, at times, overemphasize trivialities at the expense of life’s essentials?  Eddie Felson is not less of a character because of his flaws.  He is more of one.

felsonsymp

 

When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I hoped to create characters with layers, depth, dimensions.  It would be easy to label Marc Kuslanski, for example, as the “science geek know-it-all,” and Joe Marma as the “tough kid with the big mouth.”  And it’s true.  Both boys fit those descriptions.  But, it is certainly my hope, that’s not where the descriptions end.

If Joe is rash, violent, angry, and has a chip on his shoulder, why is this so?  When we meet him, we see that he feels he needs to prove himself because he’s the shortest boy in his class.  We also discover that he has an older brother, Bob, who seemingly has it all–grades, girls, sports trophies.  “It wasn’t fair,” the text reads in chapter two.  “No matter what [Joe] did, no matter how hard he tried, he always came in second place. . . . It was hard on Christmas, too, and on Bob’s birthday.  What were you supposed to get the brother who had everything?”

Likewise with Marc, it’s easy to dismiss him as a creep.  Even Mitchell Brant, who becomes his friend later in the story, tells him at one point, “Your horse gets pretty high sometimes, you know that?”  But beneath the know-it-all exterior is a person who, even though he doesn’t like to admit it, hungers for a sibling (he is an only child), and a friend.  Early in the book, the narrative reads, “Sometimes, when [Marc] sat in his room, with only his science books and favorite Web pages for companions, he would feel a loneliness that threatened to reach down and crush him in its fist. . . .  He would see kids his own age playing ball, laughing hysterically, joking around, and it was hard not to wonder . . . if perhaps childhood had passed him by altogether—assuming it had ever visited him in the first place.”

I’m not sure if readers will like Joe Marma and Marc Kuslanski.  But I hope they’ll understand them, and look at them as flawed people with real feelings and real emotions.

And maybe that’s what it’s all about.  Maybe that’s what characters need to do.  They feel.  They hurt.  They strive, and they fail.  They make progress, and lose ground.  They cry and scream and claw.  They are us.

They don’t need to be perfect.  They don’t need to have all the answers.  They don’t need to be an archetype or an ideal.  They don’t even need to be liked.

They just need to be human.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

%d bloggers like this: