What’s in a Movie Quote?

June 24, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

You shouldn’t use a quote out of context, especially when that context gives the quote a meaning very different from what you intended. And especially if it’s one of my favorite movies.

Novelist Sally Rooney’s literary career began with a non-fiction piece, her 2015 autobiographical essay (here) about becoming a champion debater. The title of the essay is “Even If You Beat Me.” It’s a line from the 1961 movie The Hustler. It’s spoken by Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), a brash young pool hustler from middle America who has come to New York to shoot high-stakes pool against the great Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). They play through the night, and Felson is winning by a considerable amount.

“I’m the best you ever seen, Fats. I'm the best there is. Even if you beat me, I’m still the best.”

Earlier in her essay, Rooney uses another line from the film. Being on stage in a debate tournament she could slip into what athlete’s call “the zone.”

There are a lot of different names for this state of immersion. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call it ‘flow’: that form of focus so clear that all distractions, even the ego itself, fall away. Fast Eddie Felson, the pool-playing protagonist of The Hustler, talks about it too. ‘You don’t have to look, you just know,’ he says. ‘You make shots that nobody’s ever made before. And you play the game the way nobody’s ever played it.’ Hitting that perfect rhythm while speaking, connecting concept to response, drawing examples out of thin air, you feel just like I imagine a pool shark must. Complex things become simple.

Rooney was a winner. “When I was twenty-two, I was the number one competitive debater on the continent of Europe.”

But that’s not quite what happened to Fast Eddie. And the line Rooney uses as the essay title was eclipsed by the line that follows it, the line spoken by Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), the manager and money man for Minnesota Fats.

The question for Bert Gordon and for Fats is whether to keep playing. They are down by more than $10,000, and it certainly looks as though Fast Eddie is right when he says he’s the best there is. Fast Eddie’s manager (Myron McCormack) wants to end the match and leave with their winnings.

Here is the scene.

“Stay with this kid. He’s a loser.” That’s the line everyone remembers.

And he is a loser. In the hours of pool that follow, Fast Eddie loses his edge, his coolness, his composure, and his money. For Bert, “Even if you beat me,” is the tip-off that Fast Eddie, at some level he himself is unaware of, wants to lose.

Bert’s point, and perhaps the point of the movie, is that “talent” is not enough. To win also requires “character,” an unbending focus on winning. As Bert tells Eddie later in the film, “Minnesota Fats’s got more character in one finger  than you got in your whole skinny body.” 

“Character” — at the highest levels of competition, it means a willingness and desire to crush your opponent. I don’t think that this is the point Rooney wants to make about becoming a champion debater.  In fact, just after she says that debating requires “a taste for ritualized, abstract interpersonal aggression,” she adds, “And you have to learn how to lose.”

As for her career, she stopped debating at age twenty-two and wrote that essay. Soon after The Dublin Review published it, she was sought out by a literary agent, wrote a novel (Conversations With Friends) that became the prize in a seven-way bidding war among publishers, and barely a year later published a second novel (Normal People). I don’t know if she has character, but she certainly has characters.

The Hustler is a great movie with great performances from Newman, Gleason, and Scott. (And that saxophone you hear in the last minute of this clip is the great Phil Woods.). It’s one of those films that works only in black and white. Years later, Scorsese made a sequel, The Color of Money, in color, and it retains nothing of the feeling of the original.

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