The Entertainer

The Sting (1973)

illustration by Tom Ralston

It’s hard to say with any real certainty who I learned of first: Scott Joplin or Paul Newman. I’m almost positive it’s Joplin. I played piano as a kid, and any kid who plays piano knows Joplin. Amidst the scales and techniques, the theory and the études, the odd fun-loving piano teacher will undoubtedly assign an easier arrangement of Joplin’s most famous piece, “The Entertainer.” How old was I when I learned “The Entertainer”? Seven? Maybe nine? I started playing it, and from the other room, doing dishes, my mom went, “Oh, from The Sting!”

On the other hand, Newman is ubiquitous. I don’t remember learning of him so much as I feel that I always knew him. He was always there. This is the world’s most handsome man: you were born with a memory of him, and for 17 years, you’d shared the planet together. His was a face I knew, a face I recognized. It wasn’t a sexuality thing, and it wasn’t a crush. It was an admiration—or, more embarrassingly, maybe: a love. I didn’t even see one of his movies until I was barely 22. And then I thought: at last, here he is.


The Sting is the story of a con; “the sting” is part of a con. We love con artists, scammers. We think it’s new, but it’s old. A liar, especially a good one, charms us even in their grift. How does the phrase go—“We gotta get over on all these guys”? It’s hard not to root for a cheat when we, all of us, are getting cheated out of something or another, every single day.

Enter: Hooker. Sorry, I mean—enter: Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford). Blue eyes, tan skin, floppy blond hair. The man has always looked like the most beautiful LEGO in the collection, and The Sting is no exception. Hooker is a small-time crook in Joliet, Illinois (IYKYK), working under and alongside his friend and partner, Luther (Robert Earl Jones, the father of, yes, that’s right, James Earl Jones, proving that voice might be a genetic trait). They make a big score (it’s all happening in Joliet!), only the big score comes with unintended baggage: they ripped off Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw)—one dangerous man—and the cops—dozens of dangerous men. Hooker, though scrappy and resourceful, can’t take on an army. Luther takes a tumble out the window and our man goes on the run, up north to Chicago, the city that never sleeps, to find a man named Gondorff, who might be able to get him out of this mess.


It takes nearly half an hour of The Sting for Newman to pop up—or, dare I say, to be discovered—living behind a merry-go-round in beautiful Chicago, Illinois. Hooker finds Henry Gondorff (Newman) snoozing not in, but almost under, the bed, his face squished against the wall. It takes another minute or so until we see Newman’s face in full, not hidden or buried in sleep. This is our man—but what can he do? Gondorff is drunk, or was drunk. Hooker sets him up, fully clothed, in a tub where cold water pours onto him until he can think straight.

We meet Gondorff at a disadvantage, but because this is Paul Newman, and we know Paul Newman, and we see that he’s first-billed in this film, it’s more than evident that The Paul Newman Show is about to begin. Sure enough: once he’s got plenty of cold water on his face (the Wim Hof method does wonders), Gondorff heads out into the merry-go-round in overalls and an undershirt, and whoosh, like a curtain raising, there’s the Paul Newman we all know and love, eyes twinkling. With a hat on, his gray hair is all but obscured. He could be any age. 

Hooker wants help on the gig. He wants to take down Lonnegan. Lonnegan killed their friend, and besides, Hooker’s ready to make a big score, he’s always been ready to make a big score, bigger than they could ever dream up in Joliet. Hooker is—I’m sorry to say it—annoying. But that’s okay! He’s annoying on purpose. He’s a kitten, a puppy, an overactive child who’s just learned how to do make-believe. He’s the intern, Gondorff’s the boss. We don’t want to root for the boss, but if the boss looks like that? Talks like that? Listen, I’m not innocent here and neither are you. The fact of the matter is that Gondorff is afraid to bite, afraid to commit. Is it the age thing? A danger thing? A combination of the two, I’m sure, but either way Newman sells it, not in trembles, but in glances. In lines on his forehead and hems and haws. Gondorff, for all his assuredness, has been out of this game a minute or two. 

But a man who lives behind a carousel is not a man without a sense of fun. So they say fuck it. Let’s do a job.


Gondorff takes Hooker to get ready for their big con, getting his hair trimmed and finding him a proper-fitting suit. We’re not in on the gig so much as we’re watching the gig. I mean, obviously, this is a movie. But the sections of the film are divided into chapters, their titles given illustrated sequences like a children’s book or newspaper illustration. So we know this is a bit of a fairy tale. A fairy tale in Chicago about the magic of improv! Imagine that.

Anyway, Gondorff takes Hooker to get ready. Get ready for what? You’ll find out later, shush, it’s time for the men to be handsome. This sequence is set to Joplin’s “Pine Apple Rag”—the haircut, the suit-fitting, Hooker shamelessly flirting with the woman cutting his nails, Gondorff rolling his eyes. Hooker is the showman, the melody. Gondorff, the rhythm. 

I spent late 2019 and early 2020 (did something important happen after that? I literally can’t remember) learning to play “Pine Apple Rag” on the piano. I’d started relearning piano earlier in 2019. My neighbors had an upright, one of them a piano teacher, and I thought, why let all my brain go to waste? It took time to get back on my feet, so to speak—a splash of cold water on the face isn’t always the best remedy—but I relearned quickly enough to whip out the Joplin book six months in.

“Pine Apple Rag” is an easier Joplin rag than many but still difficult, the left hand making Olympic-leaps up and down the bass line with balletic deftness. There’s a sequence that requires an inhumane stretching of the right hand (if you, like me, have child-sized hands on an adult’s body). “Pine Apple Rag” gave me hell to learn. I mean, seriously, I was miserable. And you listen to a song like that, and you think, how can someone suffer listening to this? I’ll tell you: when I go through the archive of my life prior to the pandemic, I have a countless number of self-taped videos of me trying to play the piece, stopping midway through and muttering, “Fuck.”

(“It sounds good,” friends would tell me, and I’d snatch my phone out of their hands: “No, it doesn’t.”)

This is the magic trick of Joplin, in a way, just as it’s the magic trick of The Sting: this shit is hard. It’s not easy to do. Newman didn’t sign on to The Sting to reunite with his old pal from the wild, wild west. Newman signed on to The Sting to prove that he can be funny. Is Newman funny? I don’t know. Is Joplin easy? I suspect that the answers are similar: no, but it can look that way, seem that way, feel that way. Only the person pressing the buttons really knows. That’s part of what’s so wonderful about Gondorff: he knows that pulling a job is not easy. It’s a tedious, thankless, and maybe even dangerous thing to do. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the hours.


Our heroes meet Lonnegan on the train to Chicago: this is where “the hook” takes place. In order to ensnare him, lure him to ruin, they first need to pique his interest. Gondorff, a cheat, goes to play Lonnegan, a cheat, at a secret little poker game hidden in a railcar. This is the mini-job before the big job. And it’s the poker game, specifically, where we get the broadness of Newman.

What’s required for the poker game is for Gondorff (a master cards player) to cheat Lonnegan (a big scary guy) in the most unassuming way possible. Gondorff, a real drunk, must pretend to be a fake drunk, boorish and loud-mouthed and disrespectful. He must belch and sneer. He must doze and drool. He has to appear sloppy and ill-mannered enough to let Lonnegan think he can win, and then Gondorff will take him for all he’s got on him (a cool $15,000—I’m not complaining and you shouldn’t either). 

There’s a bit of a strain to the Newman performance here. I say this with love and I say it with respect. Gondorff doesn’t exactly nail the pig, and neither does Newman. But what a complaint that is, all things considered! “Paul Newman can’t look sloppy enough,” well, fine, good for him! Is it that he can’t sell it or we don’t want to see him sell it? Or maybe that’s the joke of it all: watching a gentleman we know to be gentlemanly debase himself for the good of art and entertainment. We laugh because we know it’s not true. Like I said, the lies do sometimes work!

In my knowing of Newman before I knew Newman—not that way, obviously, but in a purely cinematic sense—I knew him as an object, as handsome and beautiful. I said before that it was non-sexual. I stand by this, though obviously I can acknowledge that he is sexy—that movies, GIFs, stills…it’s all sexualizing him. The appeal, to me, however, is not a sexual one. It’s gracefulness, deftness. It’s like watching a dancer. Even with his face smushed into a wall, I know that this is an act. I know the marbled man will rise and regain his exuberance. I know he’ll win. This is the act, the confidence act.


Perhaps I’ve assumed you know more than you do, which I’ve done out of respect, not out of ignorance, and perhaps you don’t know much about Joplin outside of “The Entertainer.” Perhaps you know it as ice cream truck music and little else. Joplin was one of the pioneers of ragtime music, called as such for its “raggedy time.” Ragtime has the natural effect of tripping over the lip of a sidewalk or catching a sleeve on a door handle. You’re never too comfortable, not for too long. It’s cheerful, light music, of course—this is for the bars and the clubs—but these early earworms are flush with pitfalls and jumps. 

There’s value to Joplin as a young pianist. For one, his music is fun. It’s catchy in a way that Chopin wishes he was. (Sorry to Chopin.) The educational draw of Joplin is that learning his music requires learning trust. The right hand plays the melody; the left hand plays the beat. This is relatively common in most piano music—and music, in general—but the nature of ragtime involves a leaping left hand, bouncing back and forth between a low note and a higher chord. These jumps, sometimes spanning an octave or more, are tough for a kid. They’re tough now! You have to pick up a hand and know where it’s going to fall. You have to do something else with the other hand. This sounds rote, perhaps, or overly elementary. Maybe you took piano lessons and already know this. I say this because The Sting is doing what Joplin’s music does. It’s a two-hander. The left hand and the right hand; Hooker and Gondorff. When you think you need to be looking at one of them, it’s the other one who’s getting out from under you. A ragtime can’t exist one-handed. Nor can a con.

The Sting, too, has a syncopated rhythm to it; whenever I watch, I’m reminded that the film is simultaneously laggier and sharper than I remember it. I’d seen The Sting in fits and spurts my whole life, the last 45 minutes on television here and there, but never really sat down to watch it in full until a few years ago. That viewing was emotional, almost spiritual in nature. I can’t for the life of me figure out why, especially because every time I’ve sat down to watch it since, I find myself picking at my cuticles or checking my phone. 

Maybe it’s like learning how a magician does their tricks. It doesn’t all hold together once you know how it’s done, once you know there’s no risk of fate. Maybe it’s the clumsiness, too. There’s a moment on the train when Gondorff is shuffling cards and lets them all fall out of his hands. Hooker frowns, concerned. What if the old man is losing his touch? I feel this when the movie begins, when Luther—Hooker’s teacher and friend, an old Black man eager to cash out of the game—goes out the window. I feel it towards the end of the movie, too, when Loretta Salino (Dimitra Arliss), one of Lonnegan’s associates sent to keep tabs on Hooker, is shot point-blank in the head. These bits of violence never sit well with me, if only and perhaps especially because our two blue-eyed protagonists walk away unscathed.

I think about this, too, when I consider the film’s success at the Oscars that year. Oh, the Oscars, we shouldn’t care about the Oscars, but alas, we do, and here we are. That year, Marvin Hamlisch took home the award for Best Original Score for The Sting. Best original score? Yeah—I think that belongs to a certain Mr. Scott Joplin. It’s an arrangement, of course, that Hamlisch has done, and a really fine arrangement at that. But this music is Joplin’s. “The Entertainer” shoots up to the top 10 in the Billboard charts more than 50 years after Scott Joplin dies young and poor and thinking himself a failure.


But enough griping! There’s money to steal. There’s work to be done. The job at the heart of the matter, once Gondorff and Hooker have lured Lonnegan in, is to steal even more of his money at a fake betting club that they set up with a group of their pals. If a bunch of boys doing dress-up improv isn’t the most Chicago thing you’ve ever heard, well, I don’t know what is. And Lonnegan—big and tall, vengeful and proud—falls for it every step of the way.

There was a moment, on my first full viewing of The Sting, where I thought for a second they might not pull it off. Now, I say this having seen the ending before, knowing it all goes according to plan, blood packs exploding and all. Something about having the context of it all, maybe, or really, it’s the Newman of it all. The fear in his eyes, the steady way his hands rise over his head when the FBI (the not-FBI, another improviser doing his job) burst in with their guns up. For a second, I tend to believe that Gondorff shoots Hooker in earnest. (I would sort of like to shoot Hooker in earnest, the little punk.) But this is the finale and this is the acting. This is where Newman, and yes, of course, also Redford, really get to be actors—and I buy it, hook, line, and sinker. 

Once Lonnegan is out of the way, the boys rise and smile. Friends again! Or friends the whole time! Either works. It’s all fluff, really, and if you pointed a (prop) gun at my head and asked me what The Sting meant, what it’s really about, I’m not sure I could tell you with any kind of confidence. But I’d think on a quiet moment before the end of the film, just a quiet moment between Hooker and Gondorff, when the latter tells the former that revenge is for suckers.

“Then why are you doing it?” Hooker asks.

“It seems worthwhile, doesn’t it?” Gondorff replies, a smile melting across his face. And that, more than anything, I buy.