Winning and losing in sport and life: The Hustler and This Sporting Life

Blair Mahoney
Dec 5, 2018 · 11 min read
Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) and Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) squaring off

I like films about losers more than winners. The winners get enough time as it is. In J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Mr Spencer tells Holden Caulfield, “Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.” Holden replies, “Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it.” But what he really thinks is:

Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right — I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game.

The hot-shots are the success stories that we see on our television screens all the time: LeBron James, Dustin Martin, Virat Kohli (yes, they are all men). Some of them might not have had it easy, but they’ve all succeeded in their game of choice and they are admired as winners. That’s fine and I don’t mind watching them do their thing, but I wouldn’t want to watch a film based on their lives.

What about the people who might have great skill but can’t get their lives in order to take advantage of their natural ability? What about the Fast Eddie Felsons and Frank Machins of the world who end up sabotaging their own achievements? Now that is definitely worth watching. I think we learn more from failure than from success and Eddie and Frank are magnificent failures.

Frank Machin (Richard Harris): an angry young man

The films that tell their stories are cinematic classics from the early sixties from opposite sides of the Atlantic: The Hustler (1961), directed by Robert Rossen, and This Sporting Life (1963), directed by Lindsay Anderson. They focus on sports that don’t get a lot of worldwide attention and that are associated more with the working classes: pool and rugby league.

There are a lot of similarities between the films. Each is based on a novel (The Hustler, by Walter Tevis and This Sporting Life, by David Storey); both films focus on a brash and angry young man who believes in his own talent but self-sabotages, primarily through excessive consumption of alcohol; both Eddie and Frank embark on doomed relationships with equally troubled women who end up dead; both protagonists have an older father figure who tries to guide their talent and curb their self-destructive impulses — Frank even calls his mentor figure ‘Dad’ — but they dismiss their advice; both films feature stunning black and white cinematography (by Eugen Schüfftan — who won the Oscar for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White — and Denys N. Coop, respectively); and both feature remarkable performances in the lead roles (Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts were all nominated for Best Actor/Actress Oscars, but failed to win, and Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott were also nominated for supporting actor Oscars for The Hustler).

Hustling your way through life

In order to be a hustler you have to appear to be a loser (in order to lure people into thinking they can beat you) when in reality you’re a winner. That’s the nature of the hustle. When we’re introduced to Eddie and Charlie at the beginning of The Hustler this appears to be the case. We see Eddie successfully pull off a hustle by appearing to be drunk and over-confident when he’s really maintained his pool-playing ability.

However, when he has his first match-up with Minnesota Fats he’s known as a hustler and deception can play no part: it’s a match-up based purely on skill. Eddie plays himself into a winning position but then it turns out that he really is over-confident and he really does get drunk and ends up losing the match and all of his money. This appears to be showing us Eddie’s reality and the assessment of gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) is not a flattering one:

BERT―Eddie, you’re a born loser.
EDDIE―What’s that supposed to mean?
BERT―First time in ten years I ever saw Minnesota Fats hooked, really hooked. But you let him off.
EDDIE―I told you. I got drunk.
BERT―Sure, you got drunk. That’s the best excuse in the world for losing. No trouble losing when you got a good excuse. And winning! That can be heavy on your back too. Like a monkey. You drop that load too when you got an excuse. All you gotta do is learn to feel sorry for yourself. It’s one of the best indoor sports: feeling sorry for yourself — a sport enjoyed by all, especially the born losers.

Not only does Bert condemn Eddie for losing this particular match, but he identifies it as an inherent character flaw: he’s a “born loser,” who has set up a convenient excuse for himself in getting drunk because he doesn’t know how to deal with the pressure of winning. Bert serves as an analogue for the kind of people who think that the poor (“losers” in society) find themselves where they are because of their own deficiencies, not because of problems with society, like American Housing and Urban Development Secretary (and failed presidential candidate) Ben Carson stating that “poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind.”

Eddie’s lover Sarah (Piper Laurie), who has her own problems with alcohol, condemns this worldview, however, in a pivotal scene in the film after Eddie has had his thumbs broken in a failed hustling attempt that seems to further condemn him as a loser:

EDDIE–Sarah, do you think I’m a loser?
SARAH–A loser?
EDDIE–Yeah. I met this guy — Gordon, Bert Gordon. He said I was. Born loser.
SARAH–Would he know?
EDDIE–He knows. A lot.
SARAH–Why did he tell you?
EDDIE–I don’t know. I’m not sure. He said there are people who want to lose, who are always looking for an excuse to lose.
SARAH–What does he do, this Bert Gordon?
EDDIE–He’s a gambler.
SARAH–Is he a winner?
EDDIE–Well, he owns things.
SARAH–Is that what makes a winner?
EDDIE–Well, what else does?
SARAH–Does it bother you? What he said?
EDDIE–Yeah. (after a pause) Yeah. It bothers me a lot. (pause) ’Cause, you see, twice, Sarah — once at Ames with Minnesota Fats and then again at Arthur’s … (sits up)… in that cheap, crummy poolroom … Now, why’d I do it, Sarah? Why’d I do it? I coulda beat that guy, I coulda beat him cold. He never woulda known. But I just had to show ’em, I just had to show those creeps and those punks what the game is like when it’s great, when it’s really great. You know, like anything can be great — anything can be great … I don’t care, bricklaying can be great. If a guy knows. If he knows what he’s doing and why, and if he can make it come off. I mean, when I’m goin’ — when I’m really goin’ — I feel like…(beat) … like a jockey must feel. He’s sittin’ on his horse, he’s got all that speed and that power underneath him, he’s comin’ into the stretch, the pressure’s on him — and he knows — just feels — when to let it go, and how much. ’Cause he’s got everything workin’ for him — timing, touch. It’s a great feeling, boy, it’s a real great feeling when you’re right, and you know you’re right. It’s like all of a sudden I got oil in my arm. Pool cue’s part of me. You know, it’s a — pool cue’s got nerves in it. It’s a piece of wood — it’s got nerves in it. You feel the roll of those balls. You don’t have to look. You just know. Ya make shots that nobody’s ever made before. And you play that game the way nobody’s ever played it before.
SARAH–You’re not a loser, Eddie. You’re a winner. Some men never get to feel that way about anything. I love you, Eddie.

Sarah gets Eddie to question his own concepts of winning and losing. Like most people, he was prepared to accept things on a superficial level: what makes Bert a winner? “Well, he owns things.” This is the conception of winning that is promoted under capitalism: the winners are the ones with the most money. And that seems to apply clearly in the world of professional sport: the best players who win the most tournaments or championships get paid the most money. But Sarah gets Eddie to reflect on what he really values about playing pool and it turns out that it’s not the actual winning of the games in itself, it’s the feeling that he gets when it’s going well, a feeling that you can “play that game the way nobody’s ever played it before.” This conception of “winning” is also a fundamentally democratic one, that anyone can feel in any kind of activity (“bricklaying can be great”); it’s not restricted to those lucky enough to be born into the kind of wealth that can set them up for life despite their incompetence.

What Eddie describes in his halting yet really quite eloquent way sounds remarkably like the state of ‘flow’ as described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. When Eddie says, “It’s a great feeling, boy, it’s a real great feeling when you’re right, and you know you’re right,” it’s very close to what Csikszentmihalyi describes: “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” And as Sarah says in response to him, “Some men never get to feel that way about anything.” In her eyes, experiencing that flow is precisely what it means to be a winner and it’s something that merely accumulating money and possessions can’t match.

Of course, things don’t turn out well for Sarah herself and her untimely end sends Eddie back into another match against Minnesota Fats and a final confrontation with Bert. This time Eddie wins the match, but he feels like he’s lost something more important in Sarah. He realises now that Bert’s conception of winning is a mistaken one and that his kind of winning leaves him “dead inside,” a price that Eddie now realises he isn’t willing to pay.

I loved her, Bert. I traded her in on a pool game. But that wouldn’t mean anything to you. Because who did you ever care about? Just win, win, you said, win, that’s the important thing. You don’t know what winnin’ is, Bert. You’re a loser. ’Cause you’re dead inside, and you can’t live unless you make everything else dead around ya.Too high, Bert. Price is too high. Because if I take it, she never lived, she never died. And we both know that’s not true, Bert, don’t we, huh? She lived, she died.

An Unsporting Life

Released just two years later, This Sporting Life wasn’t nearly as successful as The Hustler when it came to the box office, but, as we’ve seen, making money doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as winning. The film has gone on to be acclaimed as a classic and is a great example of the “kitchen sink realism” of the era.

This Sporting Life is structurally more innovative than The Hustler, playing with chronology as Frank gets a tooth punched out in a game of rugby league and then has a number of recollections as he waits to get fixed up at the dentist. We’re in the working class north of England for this film and we learn that Frank sees rugby league as a way out of the harsh life working in the mines that would otherwise be his fate. He boards with a widow with two young children who is struggling financially as well as emotionally after the death of her husband. The relationship, such as it is, between Frank and Margaret (Rachel Roberts) is characterised by tension and violence, both physical and verbal.

Frank is an inarticulate and angry man who has gained his opportunity in his sporting endeavours through acts of violence (starting a fight with the captain of the local team at a nightclub and then surreptitiously punching his own teammate who won’t pass him the ball during his first game). Harris’s performance has been compared to Marlon Brando’s in A Streetcar Named Desire and Frank Machin and Stanley Kowalski are both compelling anti-heroes that we somehow feel some sympathy for despite their aggressive and abusive behaviour.

Sport functions differently in This Sporting Life than it does in The Hustler. Frank never enters into a state of flow like Eddie does. He never compliments or respects his opponents like Eddie does with Minnesota Fats. Frank sees rugby league as a way to earn money and admits that he wouldn’t play if he didn’t get paid for it:

Now, Dad, listen. I don’t enjoy getting kicked about for other people’s enjoyment. Only if I’ve been paid a lot for it.

He does come to realise, however, that he needs something else in his life other than money. But he treats Margaret as another possession that he can obtain by force and sees her as something to fill an absence that he feels within himself without ever really thinking about what he can offer her.

FRANK — Maurice, I’m not gonna be a footballer for ever. I need something for good, something permanent.
MAURICE — You reckon it’s her?
FRANK — Grab my hand. I can love someone, can’t I? I can, can’t I? I can.
MAURICE — Perhaps she’s the wrong one.
FRANK — I need her. She’s the one thing that makes me feel wanted. I can’t lose her.

Margaret is often scornful towards Frank and isn’t afraid to tell him what she thinks:

“A great ape on a football field” she called me… She makes me feel like that. She makes me feel clumsy, awkward and big, and stupid. She makes me feel like… she makes me feel like I crush… I crush everything.

As great as The Hustler is it does present the viewer with a straightforward moral to be learned from the events that we’ve witnessed and it has the conventional climactic triumph that are the staple of sporting films. It’s subversive, though, in that it asks us to question the meaning of that triumph and the importance of winning in that superficial sense. This Sporting Life doesn’t present us with the expected sporting triumph let alone a happy ending. Life is messy and ambiguous and the film is trying to replicate that kitchen sink existence. There’s no reflection on the nature of winning because Frank is fundamentally an unreflective man.

When I showed these two films to my students they were able to appreciate both of them (fifteen-year-olds watching black and white films from the 60s!), but they greatly preferred The Hustler. Both films are confronting in their own way and both protagonists are greatly flawed, but Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie Felson is able to gain some degree of redemption that is not allowed for Richard Harris’s Frank Machin. Some students thought that Frank was an unrealistic character, which I think is sweet but a reflection of their own happier existences rather than an accurate assessment. I think the world is full of angry young men like Frank who talk with their fists because they’ve never learnt how to deal with the frustrations of their lives in any other way. The Hustler is more hopeful than This Sporting Life, which may be the American optimism coming through against British pessimism. Ultimately, I think these are two of the greatest films of the 1960s and they both deserve another viewing.

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