Just as Hud two years later, The Hustler starred Paul Newman in a world of men, occupied by only one important female character that has to learn that to love a man like either Eddie or Hud will not lead to happiness ever after. While Patricia Neal took home the Oscar for portraying the hardened woman in a world of cowboys, Piper Laurie received her first of three unsuccessful Oscar nominations for her portrayal of a crippled, depressive and alcoholic short story writer in The Hustler, a gripping story set in the dark and dirty atmosphere of poolrooms and gambling.
Besides being the only important female character in movies that center around Paul Newman, Patricia Neal and Piper Laurie also share certain characteristics in their performances – both play women that seem to suffer from this world of men, that have learnt their lessons years ago and both of them also seem to be the conscience, the voice of reason in their surroundings even though they constantly reject this role. Both woman also deny the usual definition of womanhood as neither is really highlighting it but rather downplay their own sex. Ultimately, Patricia Neal’s Alma Brown possesses one characteristic that Piper Laurie’s Sarah misses – strength. Her ability to keep her dignity and escape a world which is slowly trying to destroy her will lead Alma Brown to an unknown but still probably better future while Sarah has given up her dreams, her hopes and ultimately herself years ago and her inability to face live will take her further and further down on her route of self-destruction.
Today, Piper Laurie is mostly remembered for her Oscar-nominated turn as Sissy Spacek’s fanatically religious mother in Carrie. Personally, my knowledge about her filmography is limited but I still remember her vividly as the passive mother in Children of a lesser God and the evil stepmother in Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death. All these mother-characters shared the distinction of being emotionally unavailable, sometimes by choice, sometimes because of their own feelings. Her Sarah in The Hustler isn’t a mother figure but she, too, seems to be unable to connect with other persons – only Sarah is actually desperate to find some human connection, a loving companion even if she appears to be a true lone wolf, living a mere existence of depression, pain and alcohol which slowly destroys her body and her spirits. Eddie first meets her in a café at a bus terminal and right from the first moment she seems already so lost in her own loneliness and addiction that her body seems like an empty shell without anything living inside. Only her deep, melancholic voice is a real sign of activity and as Eddie gets to know her better, it becomes apparent that Sarah is a woman who knows her way around, who experienced a great deal of suffering and pain and whose life has turned into a waiting for death. Still, she recognizes the charm in Eddie and senses the sexual attraction between them even though she refuses it at first. She tells him that her bus will leave at eight and that this doesn’t give them a lot of time. They have a coffee and it becomes obvious that Piper Laurie’s Sarah is the screenplay’s vessel to demonstrate a more intimate and theatrical form of living at the lower end of society compared to the stark realism that dominates the scenes in the poolrooms. Sarah becomes her own kind of philosopher who likes to find a bigger truth in Eddie’s behavior and who constantly answers his question with remarks that enshroud a deeper meaning or analyze his own intentions. This way, Piper Laurie suffers from the same fate that Patricia Neal faced in Hud – the fact that their female characters often are so neglected compared to the male characters that they almost seem unnecessary. But Piper Laurie was able to overcome these obstacles and made her Sarah a much bigger presence than usually given credit for. Her performance is often mentioned whenever there is talk about supporting performances nominated in the leading category but Piper Laurie is such an interesting and intriguing actress who always holds her own against the screen presence of Paul Newman that she, too, becomes a constantly noticeable presence. There may be something ghost-like about her performance but she also displays a more vivid, sharp and observing side in Sarah which helps her to create a character that is much more captivating than the written words of the screenplay would suggest.
During their first meeting, Eddie falls asleep after having been up all night and when he wakes up, Sarah is gone – and paid the bill. Piper Laurie and Paul Newman certainly showed the sexual attraction between these two lost souls but Piper Laurie also didn’t forget a certain roughness in Sarah, an unwillingness to become a toy for Eddie. It’s only when they meet again that Sarah begins to open up to him – and is more willing to accept his intentions. But even by opening Sarah up, Piper Laurie keeps a rather mysterious façade and shows that, in some ways, Sarah doesn’t make sense as a character, that everything in her is either a lie or a fantasy and that she wants to keep the little honesty for herself. She admits that she wasn’t waiting for a bus but spends her time in the bar – a sudden honesty but again combined with lies about her personal life. Piper Laurie demonstrates that Sarah may feel a little guilty for having left Eddie alone the last time they met – maybe that’s why she agrees to have another drink with him. She never brings Sarah into the light but always keeps her in the dark that isn’t the dark of the poolrooms but rather a darkness that she created herself and that will never again turn into light for her. Piper Laurie does some wonderful facial work when she meets Newman again and, only with her eyes, tells him that this time they can do what he wanted to do for so long. There’s no eroticism in Sarah, it’s a bitter decisiveness and desperation, the need for some physical connection with another being. In showing all the misery of Sarah’s life, Piper Laurie also chose a surprisingly carefree method – Sarah doesn’t care about her own sorrows but seems to have accepted them as part of her life. When she stands up and walks besides Eddie, Sarah tells him casually that she isn’t drunk, just lame. Piper Laurie shows that Sarah may need an emotional connection but that she doesn’t really expect it. She and Paul Newman create a couple that never belongs to each other but stays together for a while out of comfort and habit but Sarah isn’t the kind of woman that can hold a man like Eddie. Her loss of self-respect makes everyone else disrespect her, too, and she is a woman one might take to dinner, go to bed with and then leave her again without feeling bad about it.
In short, Piper Laurie created a character that is incredibly heartbreaking but whose misery is shockingly nonrelevant – by refusing to win the audience’s sympathy she actually went a bit too far and seemed just as indifferent about Sarah’s fate as everyone else. Besides this, Piper Laurie’s acting style also seems too theatrical sometimes which might work very well besides other theatrical performances, but in The Hustler she faces the strong realism of Paul Newman which unfortunately only makes her own histrionic moments more obvious. This also leads to the fact that, sometimes, she doesn’t really fit into the environment of The Hustler even though Sarah is a true product of this ambiance. In some cases, she also loses her characteristic deep voice and changes into much higher registers which tends more to distract from her performance than widen it.
Even though this performance is not perfect, Piper Laurie still created some very moving and haunting images as Sarah becomes exactly what she seemed to want to avoid at the beginning – a toy for Eddie which he uses as he pleases. Her neediness and longing for his love makes her accept his behavior but it only fastens her circle of self-destruction. During this whole process, Piper Laurie finds an interesting alternation between drunk despair and sober happiness and even though Sarah is too weak in the end to cope with Eddie’s behavior and her life as it is, she still displays a certain strength during all these moments as if she might be able to find her own way of living instead of accepting his. And while this also serves her characterization well, Piper Laurie showed some inconsistency between the glowing and the dark moments of Sarah’s life – her acting is sometimes too extreme in both directions and exaggerates the difference of emotions. But still, she brings Sarah to a heartbreaking finale with some haunting scenes that shockingly show how unstable her character really is behind her often emotionless façade, how her life as a short story writer and her own fantasies couldn’t make her forget reality. And not since Kim Hunter in A Streetcar named Desire has an actress been so dazzling by walking down a stair…
Piper Laurie created Sarah as a mysterious and pathetic presence that both doesn’t and does fit into the environment of The Hustler. She may not be the driving force of the story and is mostly reacting to Paul Newman’s Eddie but her moving performance which effectively shows her character’s fate and tragedy evokes some unforgettable images. For this she gets