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Piper Laurie's Sarah Was Ahead of Her Time

Paul_Newman Last week at a Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Paul Newman retrospective, I saw The Hustler for the first time. The 1961 movie is very much of its time and place in its storytelling style, cinematic techniques, dialogue, and the kind of characters depicted.

Even its acting, rooted in realism, has its own set of conventions that have become clichés. Nonetheless, it continues to be a wonderful movie about, well, hustlers -- some of whom are victims, the others predators. They're all losers in a world best described as seedy.

Fast Eddie, coolly played by a cool Paul Newman, is a pool shark determined to beat the great Minnesota Fats, a large graceful man given to sporting spiffy suits and a flower in his lapel. Jackie Gleason brings just the right edginess combined with a hint of vulnerability to his performance.

But most striking, at least from a contemporary perspective, is Fast Eddie's girlfriend Sarah, understatedly played by Piper Laurie. The character is ahead of her time. In fact, she is far more complex than most of the female characters on screen today.

Piper_Laurie Like all the other figures in this flick, Sarah is rootless. She spends her days at a bus terminal coffee shop and when she is not watching the passengers coming and going she can be found in a local "gin mill." Alcohol is her demon.

Still, she attends college two days a week and her impoverished apartment is book-lined and even has a Matisse poster on the wall. Sarah is a single woman living with Fast Eddie outside of marriage and that fact alone might have defined her as a siren or victim in a 1961 movie. But this film is not quite that simple.

Even after she is sexually abused by the creepy and vulture-like Bert Gordon (exquisitely brought to life by George C. Scott), it's not entirely clear that he raped her. His actions are reprehensible, but Sarah has allowed him to get her even drunker than she already is as a prelude to their sexual involvement.

She knows exactly what she is doing. It's a combination of rage against Fast Eddie and self-hate. Sarah ultimately commits suicide, but even her self-annihilation shows a keen self-awareness. On the mirror, she scrawls, "twisted, perverse." Sarah is not only talking about herself, but all the characters in her bleak universe who are aimless and devoid of futures.

Newman_Laurie In a lesser script, she might not die by her own hand but be hit by a car or at least thrown over by Fast Eddie. That doesn't happen here. In fact, he is heart-broken by her death, not only because he feels partially responsible, but because he loved her.

-- Simi Horwitz

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