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The Hustler’s Piper Laurie: We Won’t See Her Like Again

Actress Piper Laurie cast off this mortal coil at age 91 on October 13 of this year, and while she may not have been a household name, she leaves behind a legacy of phenomenal Oscar-worthy performances that lovers of film will always remember. Nominated for playing the stern mother of deaf daughter Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God (1986), Laurie gave a chilling Oscar-nominated performance ten years earlier as Sissy Spacek’s deranged mother in Carrie. As Roger Ebert said of her performance, she “translated her own psychotic fear of sexuality into a twisted personal religion.” 

However, Laurie’s greatest endeavor as an actress — perhaps among the greatest by any actress or actor in movie history–was appropriately delivered in one of the best works of American neo-realism audiences have ever seen. In The Hustler (1961), cowritten, directed, and produced by the under-appreciated Robert Rossen, she hauntingly played Sarah Packard, the crippled, pretty, alcoholic girlfriend of Paul Newman’s Eddie Felson to earn her first Oscar nomination.  As we mourn Laurie’s passing, it seems appropriate to take a look back at her masterful performance, examining how she came to it, and what she brought to the role.

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Born Rosetta Jacobs in 1932 in Detroit, Laurie suffered from terrible shyness as a child. Moving to Los Angeles in 1938, her family enrolled her in elocution classes and had her older sister Sherrye confined to a sanitarium for her asthma. Young Rosetta was often sent there to keep her sister company. Her shyness and sense of abandonment from her parents was a constant battle for the pretty young natural redhead with the luminescent skin until she was spotted and signed to a contract at Universal Studios in 1949. The studio immediately changed her name — although most friends and family still called her “Rosie” — and then proceeded to glam her up pin-up style, which she despised.  Throughout most of the 1950s, she was an arm candy starlet cast in period costume films opposite the likes of Rock Hudson, Tyrone Power, and mostly Tony  Curtis.

Her confidence growing even as she came to hate the films and personal appearances required of her, Laurie took the audacious step of throwing her latest script offering into her fireplace, along with her studio contract. After much wrangling, she left  LA for NYC and took the bold step of re-imagining herself and her career.  A riveting performance in the live 1958 TV drama “The Days of Wine and Roses” opposite Cliff Robertson was followed by several stage performances that were largely mostly experimental in nature. After one such performance at the legendary Actor’s Studio, she was visited backstage by Robert Rossen.  

Rossen, who had seen her performance several times, explained that he had a script he’d like her to consider. As she recalled, “It was called The Hustler. My character, Sarah, didn’t enter until page forty, but around page five I knew I wanted to be in this movie. I didn’t care what the part was … I had never before read a script where I could so vividly hear and see and even smell the characters and rooms. That was for me. I could pour myself into  it and disappear.” And so she did, poignantly absorbing the character traits of a woman who rightly declares the corruption in pool hustler Eddie Felson’s world as “Perverted, twisted, crippled.”  

Casting Sarah Packard had proved equally difficult before Rossen approached Laurie, although the rumor that his daughter Carol was offered the role would prove completely false. But it is true that Kim Novak had declined. As Carol Rossen states, “No female star wanted to play a cripple who commits suicide.”

The role of Bert Gordon went to George C. Scott, who bore no physical resemblance to the character in the original Walter Tevis novel. However, his performance was brilliantly rendered with slowly growing menace. The remainder of the cast, Jackie Gleason, Myron McCormick, and the supporting players were all locked in by January 1961, and they would prepare for three weeks of rehearsal before filming began in NYC two months later.  

Laurie practiced having a believable limp for her character, stating, “I tried many things, from a pebble in my shoe to having a lift put in. I  walked around the park hurting so much that I knew my brain would never be able  to concentrate on acting. In the end, I used nothing except an awareness of shifting my weight a bit when I wanted the limp to be visible.”

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She also did the  unimaginable thing of going to the bus station alone at 3 a.m. to get a sense of what  her character would do. “I suppose I was fortunate that nothing out of the ordinary happened,” she recalled. “Only once a man caught me by surprise after I had crossed the street and stepped up onto the curb. He leaned close to my ear and suggested what he would do for me if I liked that. I think I said, ‘No, thank you’… ” 

For ten weeks starting in February 1961, at a budget of $1.5 million, shooting on The Hustler commenced with all the attendant problems the sickly Rossen dealt with from the studio — as well as his actors. Laurie was frightened of George C. Scott and intimated by Paul Newman. But it did not stop the inherently shy actress from bravely suggesting that she be nude in the scene when she Newman’s Fast Eddie first wake up in bed. “Paul, of course, would not be  wearing much so why should I?” she said.

Rossen told the actress that Newman probably wouldn’t go for it so a compromise was reached. “{He} shot two versions,”  Laurie recalled, “One for the foreign market with Paul and me undressed under the sheets, and one for the United States, with me wearing a robe lying on top of the sheets and Paul wearing a T-shirt. Interestingly. the acting in the clothed scene was  far better, so that’s the one that we used.”  

Whether unsuccessfully resisting Newman’s seduction, patiently nursing him back to health when thugs break his thumbs, crying silent tears when she learns how Eddie betrayed his partner, or succumbing to the lies told by George C.  Scott to the point of her suicide, Piper Laurie’s Sarah Packard remains a towering heartbreaking lesson in acting without ever descending into maudlin or obvious histrionics. It took her years to accept the greatness of her performance despite the kudos she received from critics and audiences alike. Ultimately, she learned to appreciate the work she did in the film and now that she’s gone, the cliche borne of the truth still rings true: We shall not see her like again but her legacy on film will live forever.


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