August 30, 2014
The Color of Money (1986)
Grade: 50/100

Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Paul Newman, Tom Cruise, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio

What it's about. Fast Eddie, the lead in The Hustler (1961), returns after a quarter-century absence, again played by Paul Newman. This time, he serves as mentor and high-commission agent to Tom Cruise, a highly skilled pool player who remains unknown to the pool shark community even though his memorable red-hot brunette girlfriend Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio accompanies him at all times.

Newman takes his young charge on the road, where the flamboyant Cruise frustrates Newman by showing off and playing to win, when Newman is after larger and less immediate payoffs. Eventually, Newman breaks from Cruise, and returns to competitive pool playing.

Helen Shaver plays Newman's quarter-century younger girlfriend, who is frequently put off by his pool ambitions. John Turturro plays a pool shark, as does Forest Whitaker, Bruce A. Young, and various others.

How others will see it. The Color of Money is best known as the sole Best Actor Oscar win for Paul Newman. It was considered a "career" Oscar, reminiscent of John Wayne's True Grit trophy. As such, it was undeserved. Newman probably knew that as well, since he didn't bother to show up at the ceremony.

The movie also picked up three other Oscar nominations, including Richard Price's screenplay, the art direction, and Mastrantonio as Best Supporting Actress. Today at, it has a high 48K user votes, likely due to Scorsese's rep and Cruise's perennial A-list status. But the user ratings are only 6.8 among viewers over 45, the natural demographic given Newman's silver-haired presence.

How I felt about it. The Color of Money was crafted to appeal to as much of the potential American movie audience as possible. Newman was intended to bring in the over-40 crowd, Cruise the youth market, Mastrantonio the Italian demographic, Forest Whitaker and Bruce A. Young the black audience, et cetera. Scorsese was to lure in cinephiles, even though his last film (After Hours) was a disappointment.

It more or less worked, since the box office was multiples of its 14M budget. Newman's Oscar win undoubtedly helped boost rentals and sales, although it came too late for the theatrical run. Overall, Scorsese succeeded from a business perspective. But he failed to make a good movie.

What is the problem with The Color of Money? The problem is that Newman, while a nice, decent man, is boring. He wasn't that way while making his 1950s to 1970s classics. But by 1986, he was more like your respectable uncle. And his oversized role nearly marginalizes a talented supporting cast. This comes at the expense of Tom Cruise, the much bigger star in 1986 (Top Gun was the #1 hit that year), and his bad boy act gets to shine less often than expected.

For the film to merit only a 50, though, there must be something else wrong with it aside from Newman's professional but uninspired performance. The music is too loud relative to the dialogue, but that isn't really the problem either.

The story could be part of the problem. Newman, who makes his living as a liquor salesman and purportedly hasn't played in years, is presented as a master pool hustler and con artist. But he can't recognize Forest Whitaker as a shark? Even after several hours of playing him? Meanwhile, Tom Cruise is the greatest young talent in the country and he has yet to leave his home town?

The script has plenty of junior high-style trash talking, and several silly incidents of Newman and Cruise trying to give each other wads of cash as some sort of honor debt. If it is all about the money, and it appears to be, no one would be offering, and both sides would be taking.