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Cinemalphabet: C is for The Color of Money (1986)

April 3, 2011

C was always going to be Scorsese; I just struggled between Casino and The Color of Money. Oddly enough, both films are interesting explorations of leading actors trafficking in familiar territory in ways that satisfy audiences more than it satisfied critics. Both films seem to frustrate critics in ways I find amusing, largely because critics let their expectations interfere with the tremendous enjoyment each film holds.

It probably marks me as a contrarian to designate The Color of Money as my favorite Scorsese film (followed closely by The Departed). This shouldn’t be taken as an indictment of his fabulous oeuvre. Look, I absolutely adore Uncle Marty, but you know what I adore more: not having to cover my eyes and ears through large swaths of a film. Yes, I’m a bit of a wuss when it comes to the delicious menace that is often wedded to Scorsese’s brand of violence! So being able to take in every gorgeously staged, pathos dipped shot is very meaningful to me.

The Color of Money, which is more a continuous of the Fast Eddie Felson saga than a sequel to The Hustler, concerns itself with two interesting conflicts: Eddie’s relationship with his past and Eddie’s relationship with his future. The past Eddie cannot outrun and the future he cannot escape bring into his life a puffy haired creature named Vince. We know his name is Vince because his black t-shirt tells us so! Vince is a pool player whose preternatural abilities are felled by his flaming lack of good judgement. Cruise, who infuses Vince with a buoyant goofiness, is a surprisingly nuanced character, whose motivations are clear, interesting and, at times a little counterproductive. What becomes more frustrating – while makes the film so entertaining – is watching Eddie and Vince navigating their conflicting on screen interests, while at the same time watching performers grow more and more fond of each other frame by frame.

Cruise and Newman have fantastic chemistry, and quickly develop a rhythm, which elevates the shopworn story – aging legend/sassy upstart – to an interesting character study. Despite not particularly liking pool, I was fascinated by the world inhabited by these characters. It’s always a testament to great characterization if afterwards I find myself wanting to know more about the world they inhabit. And credit goes to the screenwriter Richard Price (Clockers) who peppers the lively speech with judicious bits of pool playing jargon.

When writing about The Departed I asserted that Uncle Marty’s films lack nuanced female portrayals and I realized that was flawed critical assessment. Having revisited the statement I realize a more accurate assessment should have been, “Uncle Marty films lack nuanced female portrayals as I have tended to narrowly define them.” As is the case in The Color of Money, the two “girlfriend” parts brilliantly cast and portrayed by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Helen Shaver (who deserved a lot more attention for this role) are wonderful counterpoints to each other, providing a lens into the gender expectations/construction of this particular world. Women aren’t peripheral to the story, Carmen (Mastrantonio) proves to be a foil to Eddie, who is in turns dazzled by him and also working out some of the emotional needs lacking in her relationship with Vince. Carmen’s toughness is more of a protective shell rather than a trope. In contrast, Shaver’s world weary Janelle is a heartbreaking portrayal of a women in love with a charming emotionally distant man who loves her as hard as he can, but overcome his nature to work the angles. Newman and Shaver have powerful chemistry, which reminded me in some scenes of the chemistry Newman and Charlotte Rampling had in The Verdict, but decidedly less volatile.

I’ve gone as long as I could without mentioning the MUSIC. Robbie Robertson and Scorsese worked together on the delicious The Last Waltz and Robertson provides a capable score, which includes my second favorite Clapton song (“I’ve got a rock and roll heart” is number one!) – the buoyant track “It’s In the Way That You Use It” from August, which is oddly enough my favorite Clapton LP (well this week). The fabulous bassist Nathan East kills it. And Clapton is taking that guitar to school. That solo should be an air guitar classic!

While the critics were blah, audiences enjoyed the film. More importantly, Newman won a well deserved Oscar for his performance in the film. While I would rather have seen him collect the award for The Verdict, the fact the academy was able to recognize and reward the brilliance on display is rather remarkable.

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