The Color of Money

Long ago, in the mists of time, Some Guy came up with a thing called the “Auteur Theory” of film. The “author” of a film, he said, is the director, that the director cannot help but put a personal stamp on every film he or she makes, regardless of his or her personal connection to the material. This theory insists that, regardless of film being an incredibly collaborrative medium, the director is the sole author of the finished artifact.

This was a radical theory for its time, at least in America. According to Hollywood, the author of a film is whoever found the money to finance the production. That’s why the Oscar for Best Picture usually goes to someone you’ve never heard of.

The Oscar goes to the producer because Hollywood was not built by Auteur Theorists, or even Auteurs. It was built by Show People out to make a buck. The Studio made a movie, not Some Director. The Studio created a brand, beat filmable scripts out of ink-stained wretches, assigned stars to be in them and directors to shoot them. The director is the “author” of a film? That would have certainly been news to Irving Thalberg, to Louis B. Mayer, to freaking David O. Selznik.

Now then:

The Auteur Theory is very useful if your job is film analysis. But the marketplace has its own demands.

Why do people, let’s say Americans, go to see a movie? This is a question that is becoming more and more pertinent in today’s market, where tickets cost $11, popcorn and soda cost $10, gas costs $3, parking costs another $3, and who knows what else your date will ask for. What will induce Americans to leave their homes and go to a movie theater, when excellent entertainment awaits them in every corner of their homes on their computer screens, sattellite TVs, DVD players and X-Boxes?

One answer to that is Spectacle. Give an audience something in the movie theater that they cannot see at home. Give them More. Big pictures, broad themes, lots of Stuff, sophisticated special effects, grandiose and complex action sequences, famous faces, big drama, emotional punch.

By this reasoning, Peter Jackson’s King Kong should have been the biggest hit in the history of time. But it wasn’t. Why not?

Well, I think the Auteur Theory has finally caught up with mainstream American audiences. I think that what people want, increasingly, from a film is a personal vision, an authorial voice, if you will. I think that as films become less and less about “going out to the movies” and more like Something You Own, like a book, people will gravitate more towards filmmakers of strong personal vision and will become less interested in Studio Programmers, movies that are made to fill a production pipeline, not because anybody actually feels passion about any of them. I go into people’s houses (I’m not a burglar, they invite me) and what I see are things like an entire shelf of films by Tim Burton or David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick.

There was a great story in The Onion a few years ago, the thrust of which was that a potential girlfriend turned into a one-night stand after she woke up in a guy’s house in the morning and saw his DVD collection. The joke was not that his collection consisted of animal torture videos or anything; the joke was that his collection consisted solely of movies like Joe Somebody and Hart’s War and The 6th Day, corporate place-fillers with no theme or personal point of view. The girl in question says “I mean, I can’t believe I actually went to bed with someone who one day walked into a video store and said “Hello, I’d like to purchase a copy of The Legend of Bagger Vance.”

Point is, the Movie Business is rapidly becoming the DVD Business. And if you Buy a movie the way an earlier generation Bought books, movies by voices you love, trust and admire, voices that intrigue, seduce and enthrall you will be the movies you buy.

Anyway, enough of that.

The Color of Money is one of Martin Scorsese’s least personal, least discussed and most underrated movies. At the time it came out, I didn’t even see it in the theater because it had the whiff of “a job” about it. When I first saw it on video, probably in 1991, it still didn’t do that much for me because it wasn’t very clearly “about” Scorsese, who very much interests me as an Auteur. It seemed very much a Star Vehicle for Paul Newman. You can tell when a movie is a Star Vehicle when a supporting role is played by the hottest movie star in the world, in this case the young Tom Cruise, who had just come off Top Gun.

One of the pleasures of the movie is watching Cruise, easily the most intensely focused, controlled actor alive, play someone who is out of control, unfocused and green. Usually in the Tom Cruise Movie, Tom plays the Cocky Young _____ Who Takes A Fall and Becomes a Better _____. In this movie, he’s a pool hustler, so he plays a Cocky Young Pool Hustler, but because he’s in a supporting role, we miss the scene where he Takes A Fall and move on to the part where he Becomes A Better Pool Hustler, but it turns out, in the end, that That Isn’t Good Enough. Because, well, because it’s Not His Movie.

The DVD of The Color of Money, I’d like to note, has a substantially better transfer than my old DVD of Goodfellas. I know Goodfellas has been remastered recently, but I cannot otherwise account for this discrepancy.

The Color of Money deals with Pool Sharks, which are a type of con man, which automatically puts this movie into Mamet-land, bars and pool halls and hotel rooms, where men “play” each other and everyone has a hidden agenda. And there are a number of reveals and reversals in the movie that are certainly worthy of Mamet. But the script, by Richard Price, has a depth and subtlety of character that Mamet’s screenplays don’t really seem interested in, along with a corresponding charity toward both his characters and his audience. Mamet often seems mainly interested in tricking the audience; he’s more witholding, colder, more cynical. (The comparison isn’t that unfair. Both Mamet and Price wrote excellent comeback vehicles for Paul Newman [Mamet was nominated for an Oscar for The Verdict.] For some reason, I believe Richard Price’s climactic scene of redemption and Mamet’s seems forced to me.)

The power struggle between Newman and Cruise (and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is palpable and engaging without ever being underlined and overstated. The thrust of Newman’s character arc is that he goes from saying that excellence is good for taking people’s money from them to saying that excellence has a value in and of itself. In Mamet’s version, it would turn out that Newman, we learn, was playing Cruise all along, or vice versa, whichever would make us feel more cynical. Well, that’s life.

On a technical end, I don’t know if anyone has counted, but a good alternate title for the picture could be 101 Exciting Ways to Shoot a Billiard Ball.

A young man named Forrest Whittaker shows up as a rival hustler, and Bill Cobbs will meet up with Newman in a few years, playing the Magical Negro in The Hudsucker Proxy.

SPOILER ALERT: The Color of Money, we finally learn in a surprise twist, is “green.”
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23 Responses to “The Color of Money”
  1. eronanke says:

    Just as a quick note: I remember that Onion article. Pretty funny stuff.
    Also: New icon! See, you’re getting the hang of this!

  2. greyaenigma says:

    I learned yesterday that the color of money is now “peach”.

    in the Tom Cruise Movie, Tom plays the Cocky Young _____ Who Takes A Fall and Becomes a Better _____.

    What about the bit where he has Issues With His Father? When friends took me to Mission Impossible they told me about this, but I clocked it anyway, and sure enough, about twelve minutes in, Daddy Issues.

    Finally, I heard interview with Natasha Henstridge where she revealed that she didn’t know who Forrest Whittaker was when she did Species, and since she then went on to explain she’d never seen Gandhi, which led me to wonder if she knew who Ben Kingsley was at the time.

    • Todd says:

      1. Well, obviously they ran into trouble in foreign markets, where money can be any old color from white to indigo.

      2. I suppose you could say that in The Color of Money he has issues with his adoptive father, in the form of Paul Newman. Of course, now that Cruise is middle-aged, he tends to have Issues With His Children.

      3. If you’re a svelte, young, gorgeous blond who’s perfectly comfortable being naked on film, people tend to forgive you for not having a deep knowledge of film history. And to be fair, I’ll bet neither Forrest or Ben knew would have known anybody on Natasha’s job site, either.

      My favorite story along these lines is from Paul McCartney, who was in a store once with his second wife, Heather Mills, and the song “Get Back” came on the sound system. And she turned to McCartney and said “This sounds like you. Is this you?” And McCartney said “Yes, this is group I used to be in called The Beatles. We were quite famous, you know.”

      • greyaenigma says:

        If Only You Had Seen What Xenu’s Seen With Your Eyes

        In a few years we’ll have a Very Special Cruise: the Scientolotot, suffering from aches and pains, takes a children’s Tylenol. Cue heart-rending scenes of Cruise suffering the crushing sense of betrayal and the loss of his child. Miraculously, the child survives, and they all hug in an unblemished street.

        There is a parting shot of an escaping psychiatrist, just to set up the sequel.

        It’s true, I probably wouldn’t kick Natasha Henstridge out of bed for eating alien crackers.

        I can’t help but feel that McCartney story is apocryphal. But it does bring to mind another story that Neil Young’s father, on hearing “A Horse With No Name”, called him up and said something like, “this is my favorite of your songs”.

        • Todd says:

          Re: If Only You Had Seen What Xenu’s Seen With Your Eyes

          I can’t help but feel that McCartney story is apocryphal.

          Is a McCartney story apocryphal if McCartney tells it himself?

  3. craigjclark says:

    I’m sure you know that “Some Guy” was Andrew Sarris. And if you don’t, now you do.

    And The Color of Money has never been a movie that screamed out, “Hey, you have to watch me!” Same thing with Scorsese’s After Hours. Some day when I have all the time and the money in the world (or even just a larger portion of both than I have now), I’ll catch up with them, though.

    (Heck, I went to the mat for De Palma, seeking out Wise Guys and The Bonfire of the Vanities when I knew they were going to be medoicre at best and misguided at worst. Still can’t stomach the prospect of Mission to Mars, though. Even I have my limits.)

    • Todd says:

      1. I was pretty sure it was Andrew Sarris, but I knew that Some Other Guy would correct me if I were wrong.

      2. I know what you mean. That’s why it took me 20 years to seriously sit down and watch it. It still doesn’t seem terribly personal to me, but it is still a pretty good movie.

      After Hours story: I was managing in a movie house in NYC back in those days, and one day I was told that Martin Scorsese wanted to screen a work print of his new movie at my theater. I have no idea why he chose my theater. It had the kind of projection setup and screen placement that I would think would have driven someone like Scorsese crazy (hey that rhymes!)(Come to think of it, Scorsese Crazy would make a good title for a movie about a homicidal film buff). They brought in special equipment to show the movie, because the soundtrack was still on a separate audio track and had to be synced up to our projectors. The audience consisted entirely of staff, friends and invited movie folk, and by the time the movie started there wasn’t a chair for Mr. Scorsese. So I went down to my office and got him my own personal office chair. One day I’ll meet Scorsese again as a screenwriter and I’ll see if he remembers me as the guy who got him a chair at a screening of After Hours in 1985. Anyway, the movie has always held a special place in my heart for that, and also is notable for one of Scorsese’s few attempts at comedy. Because the movie is quite funny.

      3. As long as we’re on the subject, another NY movie house story:

      I’m sitting in the ticket booth one evening. The picture we’re showing is Clint Eastwood’s 1985 masterpiece Pale Rider. I’m looking down at the crossword puzzle. A middle-aged guy walks in with two blondes. Puts money down on the counter and says “Pale Rider, three.” And I grin and say “Sorry, they haven’t even made Pale Rider Two yet,” look up, and find myself speaking to Brian DePalma, who’s looking at me like he’s just eaten a piece of bad cheese.

      Many years later, DePalma and I briefly lived in the same building together and I took the stairs for months for fear I would run into him in the elevator and he would recognize me.

      • craigjclark says:

        So I guess what you’re asking yourself now is, “Would David Koepp say something like that to Brian De Palma?”

        • Todd says:


          Hey, regarding your avatar, I finally caught up to Schizopolis a couple months ago. What a picture! I had worried for years that it was going to be some weird, juvenile, embarrassing, boring experiment, but it’s none of those things. Well okay, it is weird.

          • craigjclark says:

            But weird is good

            I first caught it on video in the late ’90s, then had to wait oh, so impatiently for it to come out on DVD. (I’m so happy with the job Criterion did on it.) It is, to my mind, the essential counterpart to Soderbergh’s book Getting Away With It. If you’ve not encountered it, it is split between diary entries from the period between The Underneath and Out of Sight, when Soderbergh exiled himself from Hollywood to clear his head, and extended interviews with Richard Lester about his career in film. One of the best damned film books out there — and it has a lot of the stylistic experimentation that made Schizopolis such a hoot.

            • Todd says:

              Re: But weird is good

              I bought Getting Away With It at a flea market in upstate NY when I was bumming around up there one lazy summer weekend. I had waited a long time to get it because I thought “If there’s one thing I don’t need, it’s the companion volume to a film I don’t want to see.” But indeed, the book is terrific and made me very much want to see the movie, which does not disappoint.

              • craigjclark says:

                Re: But weird is good

                And, of course, the best thing about the book for me is it made me go on a Richard Lester kick, seeing as many of his lesser-known films from the ’70s as I could. Sadly, Royal Flash still eludes me. That and It’s Trad, Dad.

  4. urbaniak says:

    I thought Scorsese rhymed with messy.

  5. toliverchap says:


    I recently saw The Hustler. It also has Paul Newman as a pool hustler and I thought aside from a middle section that seemed kind of slow it was a pretty good movie. Looks like according to imdb Newman is reprising his role as “Fast” Eddie Felson in The Color of Money. I haven’t seen this sequel how does it compare to The Hustler? Is the movie made to stand alone or does it build off The Hustler?

    • Todd says:

      Re: Sequel?

      I haven’t seen The Hustler in many years, but it seemed to me that Color of Money stands alone just fine. They make occasional references to Eddie’s past, but all you really need to know is that Eddie used to play pool and doesn’t any more.

      • toliverchap says:

        Re: Sequel?

        Thanks for the info. I think I’ll check out Color of Money. I don’t like Cruise most of the time but Newman can be pretty cool and I like movies about pool something about the smoke and general dank, people negotiating the geometry of life or something.