The Color of Money: Himself, on Purpose

illustration by Gary Mills

I can’t play pool or any other game that hinges, as so many do, on the intentional traffic of balls toward goals: this is a profound source of shame. Since about middle school, an un-anxious mechanical facility has seemed to me the most elusive and versatile superpower, allowing a person to catch a toss of keys without shrinking in abject panic or breathe steadily under the arch of an errant frisbee. How many times have I altered course to avoid intercepting a foam football? Sat at a dark bar in July to disassociate from cornhole? Once, I managed to alienate a boyfriend’s entire friend group with my Bartleby-like refusal to throw knives at a wooden target, an abstinence that confirmed their not wholly inaccurate impression that I simply wasn’t fun. We rode home from the renaissance festival in silence that day, in different rows of the minivan.

In college, I read Iris Marion Young’s 1980 essay “Throwing Like a Girl” and realized that perhaps the reason I sucked so much at propelling and catching and telegraphing things was because I’d grown up fearfully unconvinced of my own potential, or sure of its limitations. In what amounts to a kind of preliminary feminist phenomenology of “bad at sports,” Young observes the self-conscious hesitations of feminine movement, where “femininity” is less a trait (who I am) than a situation (how I live), and “movement” refers to something instrumental rather than aimless: crossing a river versus dancing, or sex. When a girl throws with only her arm, as in the essay’s titular example, her comportment is constricted; she fails to “summon the full possibilities” of muscular coordination in lateral space. Physiologically and figuratively, she neglects to put her back into it. The style known as throwing like a girl is thus characterized by a lack of extension, from which ineffectiveness merely follows. If the girl tends not to grasp, it’s because she tends not to reach.

Of everything I read for that class (feminist topics in philosophy), including even the more titillating (French) stuff about labial coordination and perpetual self-touching, Young’s analysis struck the deepest chord; yet, as with other moments throughout my education, I would find that thinking more discerningly about a subject, and even gaining some rich theoretical insights about its complexity or quintessence, had no effect whatsoever on my lived disposition: in this case, my embodiment of confidence. I do not believe I can sink a ball anywhere I might like it to go, and the greater shame is that knowing this siphons the fun out of even trying. 


Acursory Google would have you assume The Color of Money (1986), Martin Scorsese’s 25-years-on follow-up to Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961), is a bad sports film. At best, there’s Roger Ebert’s contemporary lamentation that Scorsese’s explosive talent is wasted on resuming Walter Tevis’s original story. The result, too obedient to competing genre formulas, “is not an exciting film.” Less ruminative but similarly concluded is Kristen Lopez’s 2016 reappraisal, where insubstantially “a few cool camera moves” are powerless to save Color from a global dearth of heart, interest, or spirit.

Both are consistent with the critical assessment of Color as splashy but bloated, a one-for-them picture devoid of the adrenalized attitude for which ‘70s Scorsese, of Mean Streets and Raging Bull, was already known. But contrary to what Lopez contends, this isn’t, or isn’t only, a movie about pool. Nor is it strictly a postscript to Rossen’s film, any more than a man of 58 is the coda to himself at 33. Whereas The Hustler is titled “the Hustler” but is more a Days of Wine and Roses-style study of addiction, The Color of Money actually is about hustling, and aptly begins with a self-reflexive feint: the didactic opening voiceover of Scorsese himself glossing the rules of high stakes nine-ball. Only this monologue is less about the substance of said rules than establishing the primacy of rules themselves, then teasing the genius that exceeds them. “For some players,” he coyly concludes, “luck itself is an art.”

“I don’t know anything about pool,” Scorsese told the New York Times at the film’s release in 1986. “I don’t like what’s on the table, but what’s around the table, the intrigue, the manipulations.” Like so much of Scorsese’s better received work, Color is obsessed with convention: etiquette, stratagems, axioms that make every other line feel urgently memorizable. But thanks to the generational and temperamental friction between Paul Newman’s elegant “Fast” Eddie Felson and Tom Cruise’s precocious Vincent Lauria, what unfolds around the table resists codification. It’s sloppy and volatile, subject to the undulations of unearned intimacy and inflated betrayal. Irreducible to the rules of play.


When I started writing this essay, it was still “Paul Newman” month at the magazine. That ended, summer began, and I visited my mother in Virginia and rented start-over sci-fi Edge of Tomorrow for us to watch after dinner. Then, Top Gun: Maverick opened, evangelizing a surprising new crop of Cruise-pilled enthusiasts. What am I trying to say about this except that for months I’ve been thinking about sequels and second chances, about Paul Newman but also, increasingly, Tom Cruise; about aging and expiration, how one implies but has no strict need for the other; that ever since my father died, every movie I like even a little bit is fundamentally about obsolescence and death?

In The Color of Money, Tom Cruise’s Vincent Lauria is an unknown quantity. That’s his edge. Not the considerable raw talent that allows him to bankrupt Eddie’s colleague, Julian (John Turturro), but the obscurity that helps him get away with it. Eddie spends much of the film explaining how such green cockiness, however exasperating, can be weaponized, but not faked.

By 1986, there was nothing unknown about Cruise’s star quality. He’d been a blacklisted high school football phenom in All the Right Moves and an unlikely sex work entrepreneur in Risky Business, two coming-of-age films that depict a life nearly ending before it begins. In a way, Color is the original “sequel” (as in, direct follow-up) to Tony Scott’s original Top Gun, itself a film haunted by the death of the father that presages the latter’s fixation on training. Both conflate education with inheritance, a privilege indistinguishable from a burden. Both take pains to imagine a world where your trajectory may be shaped by a belief beyond your own. 


The etymology of “train”: from the Latin trahere, to pull or draw. “The early verb sense ‘cause a plant to grow in a desired shape’ was the basis of the sense ‘instruct.’”


All these movies are about time. Aren’t all movies about time? Right, but there’s a quality to Tom Cruise in the past 10 years that’s progressively shifted his star persona from the bucktoothed, bottled energy of Vincent throttling an arcade game—Vincent snaking his tongue out for a kiss from girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio)—Vincent jumping on the bed in Atlantic City—Vincent strutting the aisles of a toy store in a tee that reads “Vince”—to that of a man alternately sharpened and softened by fatigue. Cruise is funnier now than he was back then, like even he can see and summon the humor of becoming the vessel through which certain extrafilmic concerns (with aging, appreciation, finding one’s ideal audience, never finding them, losing them, losing everything) rise to a story’s surface.

I wrote a little about this regarding Mission: Impossible — Fallout, a film I was astonished to be so moved by and have watched through incredulous tears many times since. Though there’s a certain cheesiness to its tactics—the salmon sunsets and chronic apologies, Rebecca Ferguson vanishing between trees at the Palais-Royal—it’s the simpler force of Cruise’s reaction shots, which border on suggesting IMF agent Ethan Hunt is telepathic as well as indestructible, that charge McQuarrie’s film with pathos. That same force is amplified in Maverick, whose box office popularity owes in part to the poignancy it derives from offscreen. To watch Val Kilmer resume his role as TOPGUN’s Iceman, and for the film to relentlessly compare footage of him intubated in his home office to photographs demarking the past (grinning in black and white) from eternity (the eerily hi-res portrait that presides over his casket), is as vertiginous as anything Cruise does in the F-14.

What was it like for Kilmer to play the alternate ending of his own illness? How does it feel for Cruise, who will never win an Oscar, to hear Ed Harris’s steely Admiral detail the inadequacy of Pete’s accomplishments, the stagnancy of his career? You can’t get a promotion, you won’t retire, and despite your best efforts, you refuse to die. 


“Refuse to die” long enough and see yourself become the warhorse. That’s what happens to Eddie Felson, and what The Color of Money sees as its subject (All About Eve but men/sports). But if aging implies pulling ahead of one’s prime, Paul Newman’s beauty betrays the formula. Shot from a low angle, haloed by an over-table lamp, he’s unbearably, seat-shiftingly magnetic. His jawline hasn’t moved since Eisenhower was President. That constant bone structure, those cornflower eyes—the appeal of Newman’s trademark features is rightfully well-documented, but more irresistible at this later stage is his self-possession: he knows what he’s got, what he can do, what he’s worth, and the resulting sense of control announces his presence like a perfume. There’s an almost chilling ease to it, like when the three of them sit around a featureless diner table and shit stirrer Carmen deadpans, “If you’re too old to cut the mustard, you can still lick the jar, right?” “Nobody ever asked me for a refund, honey,” Eddie returns, arching an eyebrow.

This, we learn, is also pool: brokering one’s circumstances (“On the snap!”), calling the shot before following through, working the room like a table. Accordingly, the camera’s repertoire of “cool moves” is hardly limited to games, though that virtuosity is apparent and admirable, too. We see faces and even objects enjoy the same close, kinetic attention conferred on clapping billiard balls. It’s no wonder that Scorsese described drawing inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s atmospheric Black Narcissus, where Dreyer-like close-ups swoop in on the nuns’ expressions, finding their micromovements dramatic and revelatory. Helmed by longtime collaborator Michael Ballhaus, Color’s camera likewise finds deep testimony in Newman’s face: not only reactions to the present moment, but all the calcified hope and experience it takes time to accrue, and time to learn how to reveal.


There are four key players in The Color of Money: Eddie, Vincent, Carmen, and bar proprietor/erstwhile paramour Janelle (Desert Hearts’s Helen Shaver). If Carmen is Vincent’s cynical ringside handler, Janelle is Eddie’s asylum, the reservoir of soundness and stability he values but ultimately neglects. It’s because of her that we get to see Eddie want something other than the win; though the film boasts at least one big musical moment in Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”—with Eddie grimly watching an off-leash Vincent do his nunchaku shit with the pool cue—more stirring is a short scene of Eddie and Janelle slow dancing after dinner. “I wonder what’s upstairs,” Newman murmurs, gently steering as he elaborates. “There might be something soft for you to lean against.” It’s a moment our modern reaction vernacular could only describe as “eyes emoji.” But once Eddie persuades the younger couple to take their operation on the road—the idea being to perfect their hustle in the lead-up to Atlantic City’s tournament—Janelle is distilled to an aspiration, an implied and unheard addressee on the other end of the phone.

The phallic simplification of nine-ball to “two balls and a stick” confirms this is a man’s world, so, fittingly, pride is its defect. Cruise’s showboating comes to a head in the montage where Vincent ill-advisedly moves against (best money player in the world) Grady Seasons, a near win that signifies an agonizing setback for Eddie, watching his thoroughbred snort across the line only to eat dirt. Vincent can’t understand why he should throw games, or why Carmen has to pretend to be Eddie’s moll to stage the two-on-one gambit. His perplexity contaminates the film’s weird third act, which sees Eddie take just long enough a break from mentorship to succumb to his own demons (bourbon and failure) in a standout scene with fellow shark Amos, played with deadly poise by Forest Whitaker. Then, it’s us who get confused: when Eddie embarks on some kind of course-corrective personal training—getting his eyes checked, swimming laps, running drills at Orvis’s hall, and swilling only soda—what’s this for? Is it penance or ambition? Is he backing himself? The montages accumulate to kaleidoscopic effect, looking beautiful, going nowhere. In a shot that descends from the ceiling of the 9-Ball Classic arena, a matrix of empty tables glow like emeralds.


“I don’t know where I am on the learning curve,” starts Newman in the live remote acceptance of his 1986 Honorary Academy Award. He’s broadcast from the wood-paneled set of Color, wearing a mulberry sweater vest in lieu of a tux. “But I do know tonight has provided a lot of nourishment and…um, a kind of permission, I think, to risk and maybe surprise myself a little bit, in the hope that my best work is…[pauses]…down the pike in front of me, and not in back of me.” 

The following spring, Bette Davis presents him his first acting Oscar for Color, work that was neither behind nor quite ahead, that he likely didn’t recognize as “best” while he was standing in the midst of it. Davis, then 79, struggles with her timing, trailing one nominee’s credit into footage for the next and cutting off Academy President Robert Wise, who attempts to accept the award on Newman’s behalf.

Weeks before that ceremony, in a segment of Film 87, Russell Harty asks Newman about a possible Oscar. He initially demurs, but then, when pressed, says something I’ve seen quoted and paraphrased everywhere from LinkedIn profiles to commemorative compilations: “It’s been a long time. And it’s like chasing a beautiful woman for 80 years, and she finally says, ‘Well, here I am.’ And you say, ‘And so? Now what?’”

The precise nature of this soundbite’s quotability eludes me. It’s memorable—evocative—but deceptively enigmatic: what do citers see as its lesson? Is it a mundane caution to enjoy the journey, where the 80 years of chase are more meaningful than their disconcerting end? Is it a rueful take on outgrowing one’s potential? (It’s impossible to imagine Paul Newman at a loss as to what to do with a beautiful woman, 80 years notwithstanding.) Or: is this his oblique way of illustrating how getting what you think you want is never adequate to the magnitude of wanting itself?


Finally, inevitably, Eddie must play Vincent. The shots—athletic and cinematographic—are fleet, flowing assuredly from lowered faces to vectors of flight, and the latitudinal effect drags our gaze across the frame. In close-up, the balls are gargantuan, chaotic; it’s a game we’re asked to encounter, not “follow.” When Vincent misses, we hear the crowd rustle, but the camera rotates discreetly so we don’t see his reaction to floundering (a bad sign). What we do see is Eddie, without fanfare or hesitation, sink his shot. 

Color’s infamous jump shot, where Vincent arcs over two solids to pot a stripe in the back corner pocket—which Cruise probably could’ve learned but not at the expense of the schedule, and was instead performed by pro Mike “Captain Hook” Sigel—actually loses its sheen in being slowed down, like the film is afraid we won’t appreciate its brilliance. Maybe we don’t. We’re fed up with showy prowess, ready to exchange Vincent’s sledgehammer breaks for Eddie’s run-up of kisses. That way, we rejoice as Eddie wins—the precious little fist pump when he exits into the crowd!—and recoil when Vincent knocks on his hotel room door, crowing that he successfully “dumped” the game. He’s learned what Eddie’s tried to teach him from the beginning: how to be himself “on purpose,” only now the purpose necessarily outclasses the teacher, betrays the coach, kills the father.

My favorite shot of the film arranges all four players in a single baroque frame. Vincent and Eddie have reunited a third time, in the private green room, to settle their score. On the right, facing away from the others, Carmen holds Vincent’s cue case. Cruise stands in profile at one end of the table with Newman at the other; behind him, against the wall and facing camera, is revenant Janelle. It’s a wild west shootout. It’s a double wedding. Mirrors along the walls multiply the chandeliers. It’s a dream world, and it has to be, so Eddie can believe it when he says, “I’m back.”


About Newman’s taste for antiheroes and the movie’s ending (and: endings), screenwriter Richard Price said, “Marty and I like mean things—the meaner the better because the greater the shaft of light in the end.”

The shaft of light in The Color of Money isn’t found in what moves between Vincent and Eddie, not when the realized or revived potential of one must be bought at the expense of the other. It’s in the scene where Janelle materializes in Atlantic City on the eve of Eddie’s semifinal and presents his lucky chalk with fingers that come back empty. That’s nice, he whispers. 

And later, when Eddie forfeits his title and finds Janelle in the lobby, she tells him she’s broken her apartment’s lease: “All my stuff’s in boxes.” Again, he says, that’s nice, naming the thing that’s precious because it can’t be won let alone hustled, or bought or drilled or even earned. Just given. Maybe believed.